Tuesday, June 08, 2004

All in the same EU-Boat 

Disclaimer: Some call her Zeropa, other Eurabia, others still EUtopia. I like Europe, and things I like usually also make me laugh. Besides, aren't we supposed to hate the sin, and not the sinner? So let's check out what's been happening lately in the Old World.

The number one political news on the continent is the coming European Parliament election. Number one news to those who care, that is, which seems to exclude the majority of the population. Unlike those uncivically-minded Americans who hardly bother to vote, eh? Not too worry, the European political parties are bringing out all sorts of funky props to chase people into the polling stations: beer mats, appeals from soccer stars, hot air balloons, comic strips and websites. "In Estonia, one party, Pro Patria (Isamaaliit), is serving coffee in the larger bus stops and in front of shopping centres early in the morning and after work to encourage voters to discuss the issues affecting the country's first elections to the European Parliament." Hopefully, soup kitchens will be left out of the campaign.

And remember how the sophisticated world media went bananas over the Californian gubernatorial election circus? (you know, a muscleman action star, a porn star, a child midget star, an ageing socialite populist, and so on?) Well, are not the Euro Parliament elections just a sream with their list of candidates that includes a top Estonian model (and that country's richest woman), a Czech porn star (running against Ostrava-Is-Having-a-Good-Time Party), a Czech astronaut, a Polish astronaut, Polish footballer, sprinter, Lech Walesa's son, and two contestants from the local version of "Big Brother", as well as a Finnish car racing legend (he's actually running in Lyon, France, instead of his native land). Isn't it a good sign that average people from all walks of life are taking interest in representative politics, instead of faceless party men and women? Probably not for the Eurocrats.

From the Union's future back to its roots, the 60th anniversary of the D-Day has been generating a lot of international good will. Not necessarily for the American though, as one poll had found that 50% of French people feel their country no longer has any moral debt to the United States (this percentage jumps to 63% among those aged 18 to 24 years, and 58% of those aged 25 to 34). In another poll, 82% of French feel that Germany is now France's strongest and trustworthy ally, and only 55% see America in that role. This probably explains why "French press sees Schroeder presence in Normandy as ultimate D-Day triumph." What a difference 60 years make; the 1944 success - getting Germans out of Normandy, the 2004 success - getting them back in.

Meanwhile, the Old Europe's struggle against the dastardly New European regimes and their "unfair" low corporate tax rates continues unabated (for some background, see my previous post). The bad news is that Gerrit Zalm, the Dutch finance minister who will take over the EU's finance policy for the next six months, agrees with Germany's and France's push to set a minimum (higher) corporate tax base across the Union. The good news is, he is not in favour of sanctions against countries that break the proposed minimum tax base. That's a relief. But still, we couldn't have some competition and pro-business policies in the EU, could we?

This matter has been brought up again by the German Chancellor Schroeder at a meeting with the Polish Prime Minister Belka. In response to Schroeder not-so-subtle hints, Belka "congratulated the German Chancellor on the development level of his country and promised that it would be easier to discuss tax harmonization once [Poland] reached a similar level." I saw Belka on TV when he delivered this line - he was looking straight at Schroeder and grinning broadly; it's as close as you can get in diplomatic-speak to saying "Fuck off and don't try to ruin our economic growth." Germany, of course, could harmonise its taxed downwards, which could possibly help to reduce its 4.3 million-long unemployment queue. Here's hoping.

In other economic news, the Belgians are considering the introduction of a four-day working week. "In an interview with Flemish newspaper Het Niewsblad, [Prime Minister] Verhofstadt said he thought the move could help Belgian firms become more competitive." More competitive against what, North Korean firms? But I guess the concept had worked so well in France, why not adopt it elsewhere? Staying for a moment in Belgium, one of the country's top tax officials is under the investigation for, you guessed it, tax evasion. "It is alleged that [the official in question] Van Den Abeele, among other things, claimed for EUR 115,000 in bogus expenses on his 2002 tax return, that he has a non-declared bank account in Luxembourg and that he passed confidential tax information to friends and acquaintances."

Germany, meanwhile, is slowly finding out how it feels when the shoe's on the other foot (or the fake electrode attached to the other testicle, so to speak):

"Germany's Defense Minister Peter Struck dismissed a newspaper report... that alleged German troops serving as peacekeepers in Kosovo had been involved in torture, saying an investigation had turned up no evidence supporting the article. The article in the tabloid newspaper 'Bild' reported that photos are circulating among soldier that show some of them in torture scenes... Struck said although he thought the report baseless, he had instigated an investigation since he 'could not let such an accusation against our soldiers stand' and said that after considerable research, no torture photos could be found. He accused the newspaper of careless reporting, which he said was unfair to the soldiers on the ground in Kosovo."
On behalf of American friends and allies: our hearts bleed. The German Army might still be safe for prisoners, but German schools are definitely becoming as dangerous as Abu Ghraib:

"Teenagers on trial in Germany for abusing and humiliating a fellow student and videotaping the acts on Wednesday admitted to having committed the crimes. Ten of the 11 students on trial at a youth offender court in the northern city of Hildesheim confessed to having tormented the student for months at a time... An entire class of the Werner von Siemens Vocational School is being tried for bullying the male student in 26 different instances between November 2003 and January 2004. In the attacks, they beat and kicked the student and forced him to eat chalk, chew on cigarette butts and show his genitals, prosecutors said. Some of the attacks were videotaped and later distributed on the Internet, drawing outrage across Germany and fueling a debate over abuse in classrooms."
Must be the nefarious influence of the American culture. Don't let the kids watch too much TV and don't let them enlist in the army.

It's not all gloom and doom in Germany, however: "Trade between Germany and the Arab world continues to rise despite Middle East tensions, said officials attending a major German-Arab trade conference in Berlin." Shouldn't it be "because", rather than "despite"? Who says that appeasement doesn't pay, at least economically?

Speaking of appeasement, you might have missed my earlier story about the Spanish Prime Minister awarding his Defence Minister and three generals medals for their role in withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. It seems that this is becoming a bit of a touchy subject in Iberia:

"A row broke out between Spain and the United States Friday over remarks by US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld who claimed Spain was one of the leading terrorist targets this summer.

"Spain's vice-president Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega immediately condemned the comments as 'irresponsible' and 'imprudent'."
C'mon Rummy, the Spanish Government obviously believes that appeasement works - don't try to shatter their illusions; let al Quaeda do it at some stage in the future. Then again, maybe the Spaniards can rest easy after all, with the news that scientists have discovered the remains of Atlantis is southern Spain. That should conclusively prove to the irredentist al Quaeda types that somebody else had lived there before the Moors.

Speaking of the European contribution to the war against terror and tyranny, a bank in Munich, Germany, has frozen accounts belonging to Slobodan Milosevic - that's Slobodan Milosevic, the local bus driver, not the ex-Serbian dictator. Mr Milosevic, who migrated to Germany some 32 years ago, has been given a week by the bank to prove he's not the former dictator, otherwise his savings will be seized for future war reparations.

From the war on terror, to a war on AIDS (and who said that you can't fight a war against a noun?), a Swedish aid organisation is starting up a brave new concept - a condom ambulance. Couples in need will be able to dial a hotline and have emergency supply delivered, all at a reasonable price. The amorous recipients of the aid should however beware; if they're too noisy during the act they run a risk of their "distressed, angry and tense all over" neighbour suing them in the official environment health committee. Who said that the culture of litigation affects only America? But getting sued is not the only risk that our amorous couples are running, as this new research suggest:

"A German scientific research institute has warned that most condoms on the market contain a cancer-causing chemical and has urged that their manufacture be subjected to stringent quality control.

"The Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Institute in Stuttgart said on Friday it had found the carcinogen N-Nitrosamine in 29 of 32 types of condoms it tested in simulated conditions."
The Chemical and Veterinary Institute? Gosh, I hope they didn't test it on animals. And what's this about "tested in simulated conditions"? Worry not, all that apparently means is the condoms were kept in a chemical solution with artificial sweat.

Still in Germany, the local officials in town named Kotzen (Puke) have voted 5 to 3 against changing the town's name. And in the "big smoke", "[s]ome 250,000 cyclists rode through the streets of the German capital yesterday in a big demonstration for more respect from car drivers, organisers said. Under the motto 'Respect for bicycle riders,' the cyclists rode 16 different routes, covering more than 300 miles of Berlin streets in total." Which will obviously endear cyclists to Berlin car drivers to no end.

And speaking of cyclists, "[a] planned nudist bicycle tour in the Netherlands' so-called 'Bible Belt' has upset local church officials who are holding their own youth charity bike ride the same day."

"They have tried in vain to get local authorities to ban the nudists to stop them clashing with the youth chapter of the Reformed Church when they both take to the road in the eastern town of Apeldoorn on June 12.

"The nudist tour is part of the World Naked Bike Ride that also takes place in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto and Pforzheim, Germany."
The roads just aren't safe in Holland, anymore. If nude cyclists are not enough, there's also this official attempt to kill them not so softly:

"Motorists in the Netherlands will in future be allowed to drive at 90kmh, where possible, next to road works starting from this summer. The maximum speed limit on roads with road works is currently 70kmh.

"The Ministry of Waterways and Public Works said research had shown some unnecessary speed restrictions caused significant annoyance for road users and led to aggression, which was bad for road safety."
But obviously not as bad as running over road-workers. By comparison, the relevant speed limit in Australia is 40kmh.

Speaking of Holland, "[a] Dutch weekend magazine has called on its readers to take drastic measures to ensure Holland beat Germany in their Euro 2004 Group D [soccer] match in Porto on June 15." The drastic measures consist of an attached voodoo doll dressed in a white shirt and black pants (Germany's soccer colours), and three pins. I'm afraid that in the interests of building comity and friendship between its member nations, the EU will have to ban soccer. In other news, Belgian authorities have discovered that a local company has been using dog food meat in 20,000kg of "chicken" burgers and hot dog mince exported to Holland. Dog food, the other white meat.

The Dutch, however, might have slightly more important issues to think about than soccer prowess or food quality:

"The percentage of migrant residents in the four largest Dutch cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague, increased sharply from 36 to 43 percent between 1995 and 2003, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) said on Monday. The CBS also said the percentage of native Dutch residents has thus fallen from 64 to 57 percent, news agency nu.nl reported. The population of non-western immigrants makes up 31 percent of the four largest cities and western immigrants account for 12 percent."
And you thought that Mark Steyn was joking when he said that the Netherlands will be the first European country to adopt sharia law.

And lastly, from the outskirts of Europa, we're hearing that Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't like Hollywood movies, as he "finds them too market-oriented." "What annoys me is that they are frequently very commercial. It takes away the magic," said the Great Spotted One. Unlike the good ol' communism, which was so full of magic.

Over and out for now. I hope you'll join me for future Grand Tours of Europe.


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