The EU’s “roaming” saga just refuses to end.
To recap: the union passed a law in June that forces mobile phone companies to slash highly-lucrative roaming fees. These are the rates customers pay to use their phones while visiting another EU country.
By yesterday, operators should have informed customers about the new, capped prices. (If you live in the UK, follow this link to see the deals on offer)
So, is this the final curtain for this lengthy drama, in which Viviane Reding, the pugnacious, headline-grabbing EU telecoms commissioner, has taken on companies such as France Telecom and Vodafone?
Scotland ‘s new first minister is in town on his first overseas visit since taking up the role.
Alex Salmond said he wanted Scotland to rediscover its sense of internationalism, adding that the country understood the need to raise its game on the world stage.
He also wants more of a voice for Scotland in the EU. He highlighted small members such as Slovenia (which has a population less than half that of Scotland’s) which assumes the union’s rotating presidency next year. “We recognise the success of so many small countries in Europe, and we aspire to the independent membership of the EU that they enjoy.”
Just reading about the efforts to form a Belgian federal government, which rumble on a mere 22 days after the general election.
Odd? Not really. Apparently it once took 150 days to thrash out a deal for a coalition government in linguistically-divided Belgium, which has zealously carved up the national state and developed a fiendishly complicated political system.
The last time I looked there were, I think, either eight or nine parliaments (in a country the size of Maryland) but who knows – someone might since have slipped in another chamber for good measure.
Euroland is obsessed with voting formulae – ”square root”, ”double majority” and other such trip-off-the-tounge expressions – but let’s not forget the other side of tonight’s summit: the glamour content.
Hard to believe – gasp - but Brussels’ tatty, low-key EU quarter lacks a certain glamour. The 27 commissioners might be the rock stars of the European Commission but they just can’t compete when the big names come to town.
Bizarre details come to light today in an EU report on laws to fight corruption in the private sector.
It turns out that “many” EU members have yet to make it a criminal offence to give or receive a bribe through an intermediary.
So, in theory, the cash-stuffed brown envelope deal-making school is alive, well and legal – so long as the gift is given indirectly. But is this really what it seems?
Just back from Luxembourg where I went to the EU interior ministers’ meeting.
On the train home I tried to spot the exact border between Belgium and Luxembourg. But it was only through car number plates and a change in mobile phone operator that I could first tell we’d entered another country.
People love to talk up Europe’s open internal frontiers and the right to slip across national borders. But recognising that criminals don’t respect frontiers, the EU is starting to hoard and share a massive amount of information on those inside.
The Nicolas Sarkozy show rolled into Brussels last week and the hyperactive new French president gave a tantalising glimpse of his European agenda.
He wants a tough European position on international trade talks, and for the EU to shield its citizens as they adapt to the rigours of globalisation. So what does he make of the EU’s rules on maximum working hours - health and safety laws designed to protect employees?
Gordon Brown, incoming UK prime minister, will want an answer tout de suite.
US homeland security chief Michael Chertoff swept into Brussels to soothe European concerns about an anti-terror agreement that gives Washington information on airline travellers. To recap: some Europeans are fuming about an American requirement for airlines to supply the US with data (passport, credit card, seating information and more) on passengers flying to the country. The debate – often portrayed here as the US trampling on fundamental rights – rumbles on. Negotiators are trying to update the data-sharing deal and Chertoff gave well-oiled answers about why it was crucial to fight terrorism. But it was his comments on the roots of terrorism that caught my attention. First, he was asked about the differences in radicalisation in the EU and the US, then he moved onto some more general observations. Read more
Intriguing to see how the mobile phone “roaming” law is playing out.
Viviane Reding, EU telecoms commissioner, has made a point of saying that Europeans will pay less for holiday phone calls this summer.
Will the European Commission end up with egg on its face?
If there’s one thing that Brussels can teach the world, it’s how to move VIPs around fast.
Most days you’ll hear sirens as elite police outriders clear the roads so that motorcades of black Mercedes and Audis can whisk visiting presidents and prime ministers to meetings.
The police teams are certainly effective at sweeping through the city’s clogged streets. One diplomat told me of a hair-raising seven-minute journey in a convoy from the airport to the EU district during rush hour. Ordinarily, that car ride would take 25 minutes in light traffic.
Ask British expats about Brussels life and some will admit that they don’t feel as if they live in Belgium.
British newspapers are printed here and can be delivered to your door. English is the language of business, while private British and European schools are on hand to educate your kids.
Even BBC television is beamed across Belgium: those really in need of a reminder of home can watch images of London’s standstill traffic on the news and smirk as they hear about Tube delays on the Northern Line.
Then there’s the EU bubble life in Brussels. Frequently, journalists, eurocrats, lobbyists and lawyers socialise in national or pan-national circles without mixing with many Belgians. All in all, it’s easy for the 60,000 Brits here to overlook their host.
As commutes go, it’s not exactly bad. My tram ride to central Brussels takes me past Cartier, Longchamp and other designer stores that line Avenue Louise, one of the city’s longest and poshest thoroughfares.
The swanky shops and chic art nouveau apartment buildings dotting the avenue and surrounding suburbs are just one sign of the entrenched wealth in parts of Brussels.
Figures published this week show the city has the third highest GDP per inhabitant in the European Union. Boosted in part by the presence of the EU institutions, and service and manufacturing sectors, it trails only second-placed Luxembourg and central London.
When I started work in Brussels in 2004, fellow journalists warned of the frustrations of covering EU justice ministers’ meetings. They were spot on, because the gatherings often promise much and deliver little. The EU has grandiose plans for an "area of freedom, security and justice." But sensitive initiatives to co-ordinate police and anti-terror work (e.g. cross-border sharing of criminal records) have either taken years to agree or foundered, amid concerns over eroding national powers. Now I wonder whether we are about to see a turning point in EU police co-operation.
On Thursday in Brussels, ministers discuss plans for "hot pursuit" across most of the EU’s internal borders.
So, instead of screeching to a halt at the border, an Austrian police car could chase suspects into Italy. The move would also allow national police direct access to other member states’ fingerprint, DNA and vehicle registration databases.
If the plan wins political backing (it’s a big "if" with some countries hoping for certain exemptions) it would mark a large advance in cross-border co-operation. Some people see "hot pursuit" and database access as the missing link after member states thrashed out hard-fought deals to share evidence and allow swift extradition of suspects.
But what about civil liberties?
Weird to see Gerhard Schroeder in Brussels in his job as a businessman/lobbyist for the Russian/German gas industry, especially when you’re more accustomed to watching him throwing his weight around here as Germany’s chancellor.
On Wednesday he was in town representing Nord Stream, the Baltic Sea pipeline project which will run between Russia and Germany, cunningly bypassing Poland. The infrastructure is a joint venture led by Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled gas giant, with two German companies.
As one scornful EU official said: "How nice of him to come to Brussels. Isn’t he an employee of Mr Putin these days?"