Monday, July 12, 2004

All in the same EU-Boat, Part 4 

It's that time again when we take a closer look at what's been going up and going down amongst our more cultured and sophisticated, not to mention morally and intellectually superior, Old World cousins. It's that time again when, at the end of it all, we are forced to say:

Dear Europe, you're just like the rest of us, only older.

(For the previous installments, click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and for something more serious, here's the latest good news from Iraq, and good news from Afghanistan).

In an encouraging diplomatic news of the last fortnight, Germany and France are starting to notice that they share the continent with others: "French-German ties 'are not sufficient' within the enlarged 25-member European Union (EU) and should be 'open', French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier declared." And "French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy declared... that the French-German dialogue 'should not be exclusive'. 'To be 25 (members) is very different from the European community of 6 or 9. In reality, there are today in Europe six countries - France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy and Poland - which have and will have the same problems to settle'." Actually, there are more countries in Europe with problems to settle, and some of those problems are called "France" and "Germany", but it's a good start.

In other European Union news, the Dutch provide another example of the triumph of hope over experience:

"On the eve of the Netherlands taking over the European Union presidency, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende urged on Wednesday for a crackdown on drug trafficking and called for harsher domestic and European-wide sentences."
A noble sentiment, but as the article helpfully reminds the readers

"The Netherlands is unpopular with its European neighbours for its toleration of soft drugs. The Dutch are also renowned as the world's largest producers of ecstasy and vast quantities of cocaine are smuggled through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam."
Psychologists call this sort of behaviour denial and projection.

Even without drugs, integration continues to bring people together across the continent. A few weeks ago I wrote about the growth of "war tourism" in Bosnia; today it's time for "fertility tourism" as Western Europeans travel to Eastern Europe for cheap IVF: "Treatment in countries such as Hungary and Slovenia costs around 2,400 euros (£1,608), compared to between £2,000 and 4,000 in the UK. IVF success rates are as good in Eastern Europe as elsewhere, but clinics are often unregulated." First, low corporate taxes, now more unfair fertility competition from the Eastern upstarts. When will they learn.

For some, World War Two had finished in 1945; for Eastern European countries, it is said that the war hasn't truly ended until 1989. But poor Belgium had to wait until 2004:

"Bread may become more expensive in some parts of Belgium starting this Thursday, when the Belgian state will relinquish its practice of regulating prices that dates back to the World War II era... The Belgian state began setting prices on bread in 1940 in order to ensure it was widely available and affordable to as many people as possible."
Bread queues and mass starvation are sure to follow. That's not the end of bad economic news from Belgium, however: "Seven months after the Belgian government unveiled a new tax amnesty law designed to encourage people to repatriate millions of euros stashed illegally in foreign bank accounts just 500 people have declared their clandestine overseas nest eggs, it has emerged." Who would trust the people who want to make your bread more expensive?

And speaking of legacy of World War Two, "Germany's Federal Administrative Court ruled Thursday that the German army can fire a conscript if he is a member of the far-right German National Party (NPD). According to the ruling, a soldier can be sacked if the military organization is seriously threatened by his presence among the troops. The court was reacting to a conscript, who had appealed against his expulsion from the army by pointing out that the NPD was still not outlawed." If only they'd tried it in 1933.

In another German "better late than never" moment, "Interior ministers of Germany's 16 states have largely endorsed a proposal to set up a central database for suspected Islamic extremists in Germany. At a meeting in Kiel, German Federal Interior Minister Otto Schily stressed that in light of the growing danger posed by Islamic terrorism, 'all information had to be saved and analyzed centrally in future'." It would have been better if all the information has been saved and analyzed centrally in the past instead, but we shouldn't be too harsh on the Germans; the Islamist terrorist threat, after all, has only emerged over the past few weeks.

Amongst general economic stagnation, Germany proves that it still has got what it takes to provide innovative, cutting-edge, international business services:

"A German company that offers alibis for love rats who want a fling on the side has proved so successful that it is now expanding abroad. The Perfect Alibi agency has been such a success in providing straying Germans with plausible excuses for a weekend away that it is to open an office in Austria next month.

"Perfect Alibi head Jens Schlingensief says he gets around 350 customers a month coming to him for the perfect excuse to give their wives, husbands or partners. The lies can cost as little as £5 for a reassuring SMS to be sent to a distrustful spouse, or as much as £40 for an invitation to a weekend seminar."
Now, if only they used their powers for good...

Germany is also in the middle of another epidemic, aside from adultery: "Growing numbers of people are becoming addicted to text-messaging, a German doctor warned on Friday, estimating there were some 380,000 sufferers nationwide... Amongst the most extreme cases were a teenage boy who spent 8,900 euros ($11,010) compulsively texting people he didn't even know and a married couple who could only communicate by text message, even when they were sitting side by side." Knowing German predisposition for words like Machtvollkommenheit (sovereignty), Geisteswissenschaften (Humanities), and Wiederbelebungsversuch (resuscitation), texting in German must take ages. Trust the Germans to come up with such a painful addiction.

Meanwhile, to the east, in neigbouring Austria, it's better if you don't rely too much on charity of others, particularly if you're in a hurry:

"Austrian bureaucrats who held a collection for a family who lost everything in a fire have admitted they put the money in the safe - and forgot about it for more than a decade. Instead of helping the unnamed family get back on their feet, the savings book, containing almost £10,000, was sitting in the safe in the mayor's office in Nussdorf in the province of Tyrol. The cash was discovered when the old mayor stepped down and handed the combination to the safe over to successor Andreas Pfurner, who wanted to know what the savings book was for."
The authorities tend to collect a lot of money while forgetting what it's for; the Austrians can choose to call it charity, others call it taxation.

And in Switzerland, an education controversy: "Teachers in Switzerland have dismissed calls for extra staff to be brought in from Germany to boost pupils' German language skills. Their comments follow claims by a senior education official that children taught in the Swiss-German dialect end up with poor grammar." And if you teach the Swiss kids to text in German they will have very large phone bills.

Leaving the Germanic world for a moment, France continues to strut the world stage, offering wit and wisdom to less sophisticated countries elsewhere (i.e. everyone else). One day Mesopotamia is on the receiving end:

"France... reiterated its opposition to the death penalty 'under any circumstances' after the new Iraqi government took legal custody of former president Saddam Hussein and said it would reinstate capital punishment."
(still trying to locate what I suspect are numerous expressions of French concern at death penalty in Iraq under Saddam.) Next day it's Israel:

"French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier called for an end to Israel's confinement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his West Bank headquarters...

" 'Considering what he represents, (his situation) is not dignifying for him and is not dignifying for the Palestinian people he represents. We consider that this situation cannot last as he is the elected and legitimate president."
Or, as Mark Steyn wrote about Palestinian politicians, he's in the ninth year of his five year term.

Yet France retains the uncanny ability to be quickly forgiven and forgotten: Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has just told the French that his country is ready to resume diplomatic relations; and elsewhere, Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner recently announced that "When the French foreign minister goes to Israel, he will be received as foreign minister of a friendly country, with which we have our discussions and sometime our differences, but we consider France as a friendly country."

Israel might indeed consider France to be "friendly" but the feelings are not reciprocated: "The number of racist and anti-Jewish acts in France is rising sharply, with more recorded so far this year than for all of 2003, the government announced Friday." In a totally unrelated development, "[t]he study by the French domestic intelligence services found many areas were populated by poor, young French of north African immigrant backgrounds. The report, leaked to Le Monde newspaper, found at least half of the 630 suburbs it looked at had already become separate ethnic communities. The report warned the ghettoes, cut off from mainstream French society, could encourage radical Islam to take root."

Not all is well, however, with the French charm offensive:

"An ambitious French plan to launch an international all-news television network to rival CNN and the BBC has hit a brick wall because there are no funds available, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Thursday...

"Officials last year put forward the idea for the International News Network (CII under its French initials) after feeling that the French global viewpoint was being ignored by the two main channels that span the globe, especially in light of the US-British invasion and occupation of Iraq opposed by Paris."
There's always al Jazeera.

As the brutal northern hemisphere summer approaches, Spain proves that you don't have to be occupied by the United States or overrun by terrorists blowing up electricity pylons to suffer unreliable power supply:

"Spain has suffered its first power cuts of the summer, with a heatwave stretching what critics say is an already over-strained electricity network to breaking point. Power cuts affected the southern city of Seville, with failed traffic lights bringing chaos to the roads yesterday and Monday as temperatures climbed above 40C (104F) across the south and west. Sudden surges of demand from Spaniards and the growing number of tourists have provoked fears of a return of the power cuts that have blighted recent summers."
Yes, you can always blame the foreigners. In other Iberian news, Spain considers engaging in neo-colonialism in its old patch - all for a good cause, though: "A group of Latin American environmental experts have suggested forests in South America could act as 'carbon sinks' to absorb carbon dioxide emissions produced by Spanish industries."

Just to demonstrate the variety in Europe, in Spain they die of heat, in Iceland they freeze to death: "Idan Keinan a 25-year-old resident of Netanya, [Israel], froze to death during a trip to Iceland on Monday. Keinan, an El-Al employee in London, called his sister and told her that he was freezing to death."

Belgium, this week, provides a sad example of the dangers of American cultural imperialism as a "couple whose 15 children's names are linked to Elvis Presley say they cannot think of a name for their 16th child." The couple, whose previous children sport names like Elvis, Priscilla, Dakota and Tennessee, are stumped by the fact that their latest addition to the family is a boy: "If it had been a girl we would have called her Linda. Elvis once had a lover with that name. But we have run out of ideas for a boy." Instead, the boy is likely to be named Ohio: "There's no connection with Elvis, but it's in America."

Elvis? Ohio? Good God, the native European culture is so much more sophisticated than that. Take for instance Keith Flint of the hard core dance group Prodigy and his latest foray in the world of high fashion:

"Flint shocked Milan's fashion elite by simulating oral sex with a male spectator and licking a woman's face during a Versace fashion show. Flint livened up his performance in Milan by jumping off the catwalk and moving his pelvis close to a man's face before 'terrorising' other spectators with sexual innuendoes.

"Host Donatella Versace had tried to avoid a different kind of scandal by forbidding Flint from wearing a T-shirt with references to Satan on the catwalk."
Flint, apparently, had a new album to promote; others just do it for good causes:

"A Norwegian couple face court action after they stripped off and had sex on stage during a rock concert. Tommy Hol Ellingsen, 28, and his girlfriend Leona Johansson, 21, say they did it to help save the rain forest... Ellingsen and Johansson are members of an organisation called Fuck for Forest which is dedicated to having sex in public to save the environment.

"Their latest stunt came in the middle of a concert by Kristopher Schau and his band Cumshots at the Quart music festival in Norway. After the couple walked on stage, Ellingsen asked the audience: 'How far are you willing to go to save the world?' He and Johansson then took off their clothes and began their enthusiastic performance as the band carried on playing around them."
The report adds that the "[t]he couple previously raised about £10,000 by having sponsored sex in public but couldn't find an organisation prepared to take the money." Maybe if they Screw for Seals, Wank for Whales or Onanize for the Ozone Layer, the respective charities will be more welcoming of, ahem, donations.

In only slightly related news:

"Two Estonian students clinched the country's seventh straight wife-carrying world championship on Saturday, winning the 'wife's' weight in beer and a sauna.

"Using the 'Estonian Carry,' where the woman clamps her thighs to the sides of the man's face while hanging upside down on his back, Madis Uusorg carried Inga Klauso 830 feet through a pool and over hurdles in just over a minute."
The report doesn't say whose wives these were, what they were carried for, or if the carriers would have preferred the wives to hang upside down on their front instead.

In European automotive and transport news, "[f]emale traffic wardens in Berlin have won the right not to wear their distinctive caps after complaining that their hairstyles were suffering... The city authorities said they had bowed to complaints that the caps flattened women's hair. Female traffic police also said the caps tended to blow off on windy days." In Italy, meanwhile, trains definitely don't run on time anymore like they used to:

"A demonstration that has blocked rail travel between northern and southern Italy dragged on for a fourth day Monday as protesters near Naples kept up their occupation of train tracks to push for the closure of a local garbage dump."
And back in Germany, attempts to put speed limits on the country's famous autobahns - something like 130 km/h (ca. 80 mph). "It just makes sense," say Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker, chairman of the environmental committee of the German parliament, "We do a lot of things to force industry and households to get their carbon dioxide emissions down, why shouldn't we do the same for cars?" In case you were wondering, human safety is also a consideration.

In sports news, the Dutch proved once again the importance of having the priorities right:

"Dutch politicians were allowed to watch the national team play in the semi-finals of Euro 2004 on Wednesday evening. According to the AFP news agency, the speaker of the Dutch parliament announced he would close Wednesday's evening session at 1800 GMT so that members of parliament and their staff can get home to see the match against Portugal, slated to start 45 minutes later."
A few more football matches, a few less pieces of legislation, and European economy might actually start to recover. Still in Holland, self-esteem rules, even if the ultimate results only reinforce sexist stereotypes:

"Emmen Zoo recently bought Kenwood the moose from a zoo in Toronto... [b]ut when he was put in the mooses' enclosure he was immediately bullied by a female called Winya. 'She's a real bitch,' said biologist Agaath Kooi. 'She ran after Kenwood and kicked and bit him wherever she could. And although Kenwood is much bigger than her, he let it all happen.'

"Kooi decided to take Kenwood out of the enclosure and put him in a barn with a big, friendly moose called Icmu to give him more self-confidence. And, by the time Kenwood was ready to take his place again with the herd in the enclosure, he was a different moose. Kooi added: 'When Winya ran to him to give him a kick, he immediately kicked her back. Ever since Kenwood has gained respect from her.'

"Kenwood now runs around his field with his own harem of female mooses and zoo staff are waiting to see which he decides to mate with."
Gender roles re-established and patriarchal oppression continues - how can the Dutch zoo-keepers be proud of that? But self-esteem in essential not just for animals:

"A driver who told a parking attendant "You are nobody!" has felt the weight of Italy's legal system, which ruled the seemingly innocuous words constituted slander -- and fined him heavily. The tiff over a parking space led to Giulio C. being fined 300 euros ($370) plus 500 euros legal costs when a court in the northeast city of Trieste turned down his appeal. The court ruled the phrase 'you are nobody' 'means precisely 'you are a nonentity' and to state that a person is a nonentity is certainly offensive because it is damaging to the dignity of a person'."
That's not to say that only humans, and not animals, are important in Italy: under the new law, owners who abandon their pets in cages will now face up to 18 months imprisonment. "The law was well timed, with heat burning across this nation and many Italians beginning the annual exodus from the humid cities to beaches or the mountains. All too often, a cat or dog or goldfish gets left behind." What about elderly grand-parents?

In war-ravaged Bosnia, one man gets his dream: "A beer-mad Bosnian who has drunk more than 15 pints a day for almost 50 years has been offered a lucrative contract promoting his favourite drink. Marijan Camber, 61, from Sutina, was made an offer he couldn't refuse after a local paper pictured him drinking his 400,000th bottle."

In other beer news, Sweden gets genetically modified beer, as a "consortium of the world's largest biotech companies led by Monsanto Co. helped finance a Swedish brewer's new light lager that is produced with the usual hops and barley - and a touch of genetically engineered corn." Beware of beer with two heads. Not everyone in Europe, however, is as sanguine about GM alcohol: "A lobby group of France's most powerful wine-makers have announced they will fight new government attempts to develop genetically modified vines, warning that they could have a 'catastrophic' impact on the industry." The National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) wants to study vines "designed to be resistant to one of the most devastating diseases to affect grape harvests." Sour grapes are a French national treasure that has to be preserved at all costs.

Still in France, a horrible example of prisoner abuse: "A French prisoner serving 30 years for murder and cannibalism was under psychiatric evaluation Friday after killing another detainee and trying to eat his brain, officials and a prison guards' union said." Must have watched too many those damned Yankee Hannibal Lecter movies. It's not just the human life that's cheap:

"France is to defy the wishes of environmentalists and animal-lovers and allow a limited cull of the wolves which have colonised the French Alps in recent years. The Environment Minister, Serge Lepeltier, will announce next week that he will permit the shooting of about half a dozen of the 55 wolves now ranging in 10 packs from the Italian border to the edges of the Rhone valley."
Despite the fact that the Environment Minister's plan includes - surprise - subsidies for the employment of extra shepherds and guard-dogs - the farmers aren't happy: they are demanding "shoot-on-sight", "zero wolf" policy. If only the French were as hard on terrorists.

That's all for today, folks. I hope you can join me next time.


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