Monthly Archives: June 2008

Hanging around in limbo

I was in Brussels this weekend, to work on getting the house organised and see my friends of course. It was Rachel’s birthday and so we had a lovely brunch outside the Orangerie in Parc d’Egmont on Sunday. Most of my closest friends were there, which was lovely, but it was really strange to have to leave them all to go and catch the train “home”.  I got an e-mail from Rachel apologising for not talking to me much, as she still doesn’t think of me as not living there! But funnily enough, I feel based in London, I just don’t have the community of friends here yet that I do in Brussels. I’m sure I will though! It’ll also help when the move is completed and I have my own things around me – I was crazy happy yesterday at having a few more of my own clothes hanging up in the wardrobe!

The office is pretty quiet today and the phones are up the creek, which helps! I found out I have to go to Liverpool later this week with the President. My first official engagement, if you like! It’s a whirlwind visit and we’re trying to set up a press point – if you’re interested, let me know!

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Filed under Living in London, Personal

First the cucumbers, now the kiwis

[Sigh] One step forward, two steps back…

The redtops are full of a story today about a market trader who is being fined for his kiwis being 1mm smaller than the rules for grade 2 kiwis allow. Of course “Brussels bureaucrats” are getting the blame. Now, there are a number of things here:

1) We do not ensure implementation of the rules, the countries do. So the bureaucrat in this case is British, not Brussels

2) We are trying to get the rules changed so that even if there are standards for how things can be marketed, produce that falls below those standards can be sold.

3) The standards are set at UN, not EU level: http://www.unece.org/trade/agr/standard/fresh/fresh_e/46kiwifruit_2008.pdf

3) In this particular case the fruit were on average 4g below the minimum weight for a kiwi fruit to be sold for food. Now I’m no mathematician, but I reckon that’s more than 1mm smaller than regs – in fact the regs don’t have any size requirement in them at all.

I was thinking about this case in the shower this morning (rehearsing how I would make these points to anyone that calls us…) and it occurred to me that the humble kiwifruit is a result of one of the best ever marketing campaigns – remember when they weren’t called kiwi fruit, rather cape gooseberries? That was dreamt up by the New Zealand fruit marketing people, to encourage people to buy theirs. It’s all spun back on them though, because now they’re called kiwi fruit, wherever they are from!

Quite a busy day today, not helped by my being out of the office yesterday afternoon with the hayfever. Sounds stupid, but I was having such a bad attack I couldn’t do anything except blow my nose and feel sorry for myself! Today we’re trying to place an article on Zimbabwe, have another on patient rights that needs serious rewriting, I’ve got to get in touch with the Arsenal Double Club people as it looks we’ll be able to arrange a visit to Anderlecht with the kids, been talking to the National Theatre about how we can market the European aspect of the Watch This Space festival. And then I head off to Brussels this afternoon! Looking forward to seeing everyone there again.

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Filed under Culture, Euromyths, Media, Personal, Sports

Headless chicken

It’s been a bit of a bonko day today, with me running around like the proverbial headless chicken. Tuesday is planning day, when we have our regular team meeting, so I spent the morning trying to work out what would be happening in the next week or so, which Commissioners are coming to town and what the good stories are, or the ones we need to be ready for if people are negative. I had lunch with a BBC journalist that I had met on Saturday night at the French reception at the V&A. I actually first met her years ago when she did a piece on the Commissioner I was working for at the time, so it was nice to reconnect with her. We just talked about some of the big topics in the European sphere at the moment – the treaty of course, but others like energy, biofuels, GM. Nothing concrete is going to come out of it at this stage, but it’s all part of the job – keeping the fires smouldering so that when something becomes a hot topic, the knowledge is there (if that’s not too mixed a metaphor!). We also had a meeting with the Foreign Office communication team and the British Council about an idea for the future – a mock EU Council. It has been done for a few years in Northern Ireland and we’re looking at doing it more widely. I think it should be fun – takes me back to the horsemeat quota exercise during my civil service induction training, when we all had to take the role of certain Member States trying to finalise the allocation of horsemeat quotas for a particular year! Add to all of this trying to write an article on tomorrow’s proposal for a “Small Business Act” and fierce hayfever, and you can see a) why I have been decapitated poultry and b) quite how varied this job is!

Yesterday was differently fun – during the afternoon we got a request for Commissioner Wallstrom, who was here to attend a Committee at the House, to do the lead interview on Channel 4 news. She had been at a demonstration about the terrible situation in Zimbabwe that morning and so C4 wanted to have her on. Great stuff! It meant liaising with Channel 4 about times, getting the low-down on the latest situation from Brussels, briefing her, taking her to the interview, which had to be done by the tube because of difficulties getting a signal round the office and then getting her back more or less in time for the interview she had agreed to do earlier. Anyway, it all worked out in the end, and it was quite fun. I’ve had quite a bit to do with Mrs Wallstrom over the years – she covered for Anna Diamantopoulou as Employment Commissioner when I was Spoke while Anna was doing the Greek elections – and it’s always a pleasure. And the interview came out pretty well when it was shown later that evening.

Anyway, tonight will be nice, because I’m heading down to South Croydon to have dinner with Alexia and Alan, friends from Brussels from way back. It’s their daughter’s second birthday, so I hope I will get away in time to see the kids before they go to bed. Better try to get a wee pressie as well.

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Filed under Media, Personal, Youth

London is a village

I’ve already discovered how small London can be due to various overlaps with people – Hannah and the architecture festival, for example. But it was literally a village on saturday when I met my friend Kathryn and we took her some to the Holy Trinity Fete on Clapham Common. It was all a traditional English village fete should be – tents selling fairy cakes (and not an over-zealous EU food inspector in sight…!), dogs wearing rosettes from the dog show, a series of vegetable monsters that had been judged and prizes won, plus tombolas, raffles, games and even a brass band. And best of all, a Pimms stall! It was great, just like the fetes you remember when you were a kid.

In the evening I headed up to town, where Exhibition Road had been closed for music day and the beginning of the London Festival of Architecture. it was also the celebration (10 days early…) of the beginning of the French Presidency. I walked up exhibition road where there were bands on the street corners and loads of cool architectural exhibits. Then I headed to the Albert Memorial, where there was a stage set up in conjunction with the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. As my luck would have it, I got there as some Germans who had listened to too much Kraftwerk were twiddling knobs, but it was good to be on the stall for half an hour and interact with people. It’s funny – far from what I would have expected – but I really get the feeling that the British public aren’t as EU-sceptic as they’re painted. Various things over the last few days are highlighting this – comments left on the BBC website, letters to some regional press, conversations with people who are from outside the “establishment”, EU or UK, who are fed up of only ever being given one side of the story. Maybe my work here will not be as hopeless as many are leading me to believe!!

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Filed under Culture, Personal, The General Public

Getting a message across

One of the problems I face here in London is a very sophisticated media structure and a very sophisticated audience. You see this immediately if you compare your average UK ad and your average Belgian ad. We in the UK focus much more on humour, or design or innovation. That’s a programme that we have to get with, and why I talk alot internally about the need to differentiate our messages (and that’s something I’ve been aware of for a while, not just since I “went native” in London.

Anyway, all that, because I wanted to post this great clip that has gone up on EUtube, the Commission’s channel on YouTube. I knew about it a while ago, as it’s a science clip and I had seen the storyboard, but I think it came out brilliantly. Let me know what you think.

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Filed under Media

Doing something for consumers

We’ve created a bit of a buzz today with the visit of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Magdalena Kuneva – the FT picked up some of a speech that she’s giving today, where she says she wants to stop on-line retailers being able to limit sales to one country. So if I want to buy an computer on-line, I should be able to buy it from the German site of the maker if that’s cheaper, rather than being automatically directed to the UK site and only allowed to buy from there. There was just a question in the press-room about it, we have a good load of consumer journalists coming to talk about it over lunch and BBC Five Live have just asked for an interview. There are a few really good lessons to draw. Firstly, an interesting speech will have more impact if you let the press have at least some of it before it’s given. Secondly, the EU is doing a lot for consumer rights and has done a lot in the past, such as legislating against unfair commercial practices. Thirdly, the UK press is interested in European stories where they see the impact it will have on people’s lives. My job is to make the most of those opportunities when they come up, and maybe it will help to balance some of the very negative messages that are out there.

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Having to be all grown up…

One of the “head” reasons I had for taking this job in London (rather than the “heart” ones that went: want to live in London! Want to show the UK why the EU is a pretty good thing on the whole!) was that it would give me management experience. The Commission as an institution isn’t very good at that – you get no chance to manage staff (except perhaps an intern) until you become a head of unit and then – bang!- you have responsibility for loads of them. In the smallest units maybe 10-12, some have fifty or even one hundred. So the chance to run a team, get involved in recruitment, allocation of tasks, day-to-day running, reports etc was too good to turn down. I might suck at it, but if I do, at least I’ll have found out before I can do too much damage!!

Anyway, all of that because today was a “management” day. We had the heads of our “satellite” offices here, from Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, and I was asked to present to them an idea I have for a team-building with the press team here and those in the satellites. If anyone has any good ideas about how to do a team-building event on a budget, with people of all ages and physical abilities, then please leave them for me to crib! I also interviewed two people to fill some of the current or possible future vacancies in the press team. I had sent them a mock week of press releases and events and asked them to identify how they would use that to plan our week’s activities. Quite a useful exercise, certainly for me, but I think also for them, as it gave them a glimpse of what working here would really be about.

But in among all that “management” stuff, I got to do my first TV interview as UK Head of Media, for Meridian (South of England ITV) on the fruit and veg marketing standards story. Hopefully someone will see it somewhere!

On the personal front, a possible flatshare for the house in Balham came by last night. Seemed a really nice guy and quite compatible on the “sharing living space” front. Just waiting to hear whether he’s prepared to take it or not. If not, then it’s back to square one, as the houseboat is great, but needs some work doing and I’m not going to say either way until I’ve seen how it has been done. Don’t want to get stuck with some shonky patch-up job.

Had a lovely time in Brussels, though it does feel weird being there in this kind of limbo between living there and having left. With the cats there, and most of my clothes and all of my furniture, I haven’t left in my head, but I definitely felt I was visiting. I suppose it’s that issue of routine again – home is where the routine is…that’s a sad indictment of our existence.

Home-owning creeps ever closer, with the mortgage offer date of 23 June (the date I can signal my acceptance) approaching. Have hopefully got the power of attorney for my father to sign the papers all sorted out, so fingers crossed by early July, I should own a lovely little French house. I spoke to my parents today and they were up in that valley, checking out a rafting trip (…!). They commented again what a pleasant place it is, much nicer than the St Lary valley, which is the next one over, which is much narrower and more claustrophobic.

Off to the launch of the London Architecture festival now where hopefully I’ll see Hannah Cox from Brussels. It’s really a small world!

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Filed under Management, Media, Personal