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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 14:54 GMT
Europe diary: UK party pooping
10 November 2005

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell discusses the dwindling prospects of the British EU presidency, and a startling statement by George W Bush on how he chooses what clothes to wear.

The diary is published every Thursday.


Even before the British presidency began, a good contact in Downing Street told me that despite the politicians' and media's attempt to make it a glamorous affair of opportunities, the reality was more prosaic: "It's a bit like driving your mates to the pub. When it's your turn, you do it." Britain now stands accused of party pooping, glumly nursing an orange juice in the corner.

Jack Straw
Jack Straw: Simply not serious?
One of the stated aims of the presidency, getting the Services Directive through, won't happen. As I write, it looks as though another stated aim, the introduction of new rules on chemicals, is to be kicked into the long grass - which leaves the grandiose promise of reforming the CAP and the budget.

Jack Straw's insistence on "substantial change" to the very nature of the budget, at the recent foreign ministers' meeting, convinces many that Britain is simply not serious. It was the first time Britain had allowed discussion of the budget and many think that with five weeks to run to the climax of the British presidency, there isn't enough time to do more than tinker with the proposal put forward by Luxembourg in the summer.

One good source tells me "substantial" change to an old fashioned budget would need at least months and months, if not years and years. He says that with weeks to go, the British ambition for a more beautiful budget is suspect. "You can put lip stick on an old lady but she's still an old lady," says the source.


Jose Manuel Barroso and George W Bush
Grey suits in the White House

European suspicions about George W were briefly confirmed then pleasantly confounded when the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, visited Washington.

When president met president the discussion somehow turned to suits, and how nice George's W's attire was. Po-faced, he said, "God told me to wear it". Adding after a couple of beats: "That's a joke."


Watching the events in France, a pertinent quotation is hovering at the edge of my brain. It's something like, "French government is a system of bureaucracy moderated by occasional riots." But I can't manage to find the exact words or author. Can any one help?


Thanks for all your messages on the tram inspectors...

John, why is travelling by metro, not tram, "fat cat" behaviour? Loved P Nuttall saying I should have asked for a ticket in FRENCH. Yes, of course I can do that, but why the assumption that the driver spoke French rather than Nederlands (as Flemish is now called)? Anglophones and Francophones share the arrogant assumption that someone damn well ought to use their language.

The reality is that I, like most Brits here, can get by in French but can hardly manage a polite phrase in Nederlands (yet... give me time). In bilingual Brussels, at any rate, the long suffering Flemish can be made to feel like foreigners in their own country. But they make it pretty clear which they would choose given a choice between English and French.

Please use the form below to send in your comments on issues raised in the diary:

Bush looks good in his suits because he exercises. He does cardio workouts every day.
Xixi, Alexandria, Virginia, USA

I wonder what God thinks of Bush making jokes using His name?
Jackie Rawlings, Riverside Ca. USA

With regard to the language used by STIB (Société des Transports Intercommunales Bruxellois), many tram drivers are from families of North African origin, so there is a much greater chance that they will be at home in French than in Dutch. It is incorrect to say that the current name for Flemish is Dutch - it is like saying that the current name for Geordie or Cockney is English. Dutch (Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands) has for many years been one of the three official languages of Belgium. Most Belgians with a Flemish cultural background learn Dutch although they, like Walloons, may speak one of the many local dialects.
Geoffrey King, Brussels, Belgium

Surely the original quote comes from Carlyle's "History of the French Revolution" pt.1, bk.1, ch.1: "France was long a despotism tempered by epigrams"; which has since been reworked and amended by other hands.
Paul Daoust, Bucks.

You still haven't explained why you failed to attempt to buy a ticket in any language, but it would have been easy as the word "ticket" is understood in French and Dutch. Some categories of people like young children and pensioners travel free officially. Other categories have unofficial privileges. You should have shown the inspectors your press pass, I understand that can help in many situations here.
Rhodri, Brussels

Switzerland has the added complication of four official languages. English is also increasing used as a lingua franca and French is definitely in decline in the German speaking regions. However, there is nothing like the tension there appears to be in Belgium, and here shopkeepers etc will always try to speak whatever language the customer is speaking even if this results in some very disjointed conversations.
Simon, Zurich, Switzerland

The reason English has become the Belgian lingua franca is threefold: advertisers using one of the native languages upset the other half of the population, TV shows are often imported (the BBC's Rome series is actually a week ahead of the UK) and last, but not least, nobody can bear their own language being assaulted by the Brits. The Low German derivatives known as Netherlands are not dissimilar in drift from Scots and Irish gaelic: the Dutch language group drifts from near the Polish border down to Rotterdam, with a slight variant occuring every twenty miles, then an enormous jump back in time occurs (Flemish is very close to the kind of Dutch spoken at the time of WW1) This continues to drift as far south as Lille, and across into Brussels, which has its own cockney dialect which is a really rough mix of French on top of three-hundred-year-old Flemish: we believe it has scarecly changed since the time of Breughel. However, the linguistic differentiation of Belgium politically has about as much to do with the language as the differentiation of Northern Ireland has to do with religion. It's a question of fabricated dogma (and I speak as someone whose family is very close to the Belgian Royal family) designed to perpetuate power bases. The resulting friction simply keeps peoples' minds off actually achieving anything independantly of the policitcal machine...
Jel, Brussels

Your quotation is surely a variant on Balzac's "Russia is an autocracy moderated by alcohol".
Giles MacDonogh, London

Mark, one origin of that quotation about the French system is "despotism tempered by revolution". There seems to be some interplay with the idea of "despotism tempered by epigram" (the system before the French revolution) so it's open season on variations of the two things being tempered or doing the tempering.

It's the word "temper" that is so great, when applied to the French willingness to put up with many trappings of an autocracy, as long as there's freedom to throw a few paves, burn a few cars, or blockade a few ports from time to time.
Gareth Steel, Brussels, Belgium

Perhaps hovering close to Voltaire in your brain are Thomas Jefferson's statements that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing" and "what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance".

I seem to recall something about the Habsburgs' Austria-Hungary rule having been a tyranny tempered by incompetence. Googling "tempered by incompetence" yields more diverse results, of course, and no sure source, either.
George J. Georganas, Athens, Greece

The best government is a benevolent tyranny tempered by an occasional assassination -Voltaire
Bill, Henham England

English does seem to plug the gap between French and Flemish here - it seems that it is simply cheaper for companies, restaurants etc to print everything once in English than repeating everything twice. In any case, people working in most shops, on the trams etc speak at least both French and Flemish (I'm tall and blond and often get mistaken for Dutch, so I know just how widely it is spoken!) and will often speak English, German and at least one more language as well. But the point is that Brussels is really a fantastic place to hear tons of different languages - not just French, Flemish and English. Walking down the street is sometimes like taking a whistle-stop tour of the EU, and I personally love it! It also seems to me (having lived 3 years in France before moving here) that the French-speakers here are far more open to using English than they are in France - but that is because they have Flemish to battle against instead of the dreaded Anglo-Saxon, perhaps?
Chris Jones, Brussels, Belgium

As a flemish Belgian who emigrated to the UK and later to Catalonia, Spain I find it quite amusing how we seem able to confuse foreigners so much. But please don't blame us Belgians for it. After all Belgium was a British invention to keep two fighting dogs -France and Germany- apart. Let me set some things straight. Nederlands also called Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands (Generic Civilized Dutch) although nowadays they prefer to drop the civilized part. Sign of the times, I guess. Brussels lies as an island where 75 % of inhabitants are native french speakers in the flemish speaking part of Belgium. But this figure doesn't take into account the large influx of flemish people that live outside but work in Brussels Speaking French has been for a long time, and for some still is, been considered to be chic. Through the ages it has been the language of royalty, nobility, the military and bourgeoisie. This has caused a lot of adversity in Flanders up to now. Although the times have changed this unease is still present. My advise to foreigners of all nationalities is not to be afraid to comunicate but not to assume automatically that your conversation partner speaks French. We, Flemish, would prefer that foreigners learned Dutch rather than French when they come to Belgium for a long period of time. But I believe this is more wishful thinking than anything else. My last thought is that people seem to forget that language is a tool to communciate and not a fence to keep out strangers.
Philippe, Barcelona, Spain

You don't know that 85 % of Brussels inhabitants speak French (no political decision has changed that...yet)
sardaukar bienaime, brussels

Mr Mardell, the quotation hovering at the edge of my brain. Is this not derived from (something like): "Russian (Tsarist) government is an autocracy moderated by assassination." ?

Whether an official or business contact in Belgium uses French or Dutch as his language seems to be depending on his/her mood as well as the given situation. If there is a problem to be solved, than it usually depends on whether their counterpart speeks French or Dutch. I always try to solve problems in Dutch - the minute they recognize it, they don't speak Dutch anymore. But, as soon as I put a French-speaking colleague on the line, they stop speaking French and continue in Dutch - because my colleague doesn't speak that language...
Axel, Krefeld, Germany

English is very much the 'lingua franca' of Brussels. The first TV programme I ever watched in Brussels in 2001 - having persuaded the local cable company to eventually hook me up - was Miss Belgian Beauty. Not my usual "cup of tea" but I switched on at the point in the show where the contestants were being asked to show their brain power with some interesting questions. The contestants were roughly equally split between Flemish and French speakers and each was asked question alternatively in French and then flemish. I was not at the time (like most Brits) quite aware of the "tension" between the main linguistic communities in Belgium (and don't forget the German speakers in the east of the country as well), but became fascinated as most of the "French" contestants answered their French question in French but their Flemish questions in English. In constrast the Flemish contestants answered their Flemish question in Flemish whlie pretty much all of them answered the French questions in english! When shopping, the first rule - as Mark points out - is to determine the primary language of the person serving you. Persisting in speaking French to some Flemish speakers can result in a less than perfect customer experience. Also bear in mind that to a native French-speaking belgian most English attempts at French sound distinctly Flemish!
Tim Reynolds, Brussels, Belgium

Nederlands is the official name of the Dutch language both in Belgium and the Netherlands. Colloquially, almost everyone in Belgium will call it 'Vlaams' and many in the Netherlands call it 'Hollands'.
Chris Sadowski, Brighton, UK

The linguistic reality of Brussels is that it is 84% French speaking (that is 84% have French as a mother tongue).
David, Brussels, Belgium

Never mind the 'budget' (Wasn't that the Sex Pistols?), an even bigger crisis may be developing at the very heart of European Government. At the end of a term, it has become a bit of a tradition for the outgoing Presidency to throw a bit of an informal party on a kind of 'National' theme to promote their Countries culture, foods, tradition or whatever. In the past this has gone on with a certain degree of success. However, there seems to be a problem afoot with the forthcoming UK party. Not only is there some uncertainty over what should or shouldn't be included, there is a rumour circulating that due to restrictions on space etc, it may be by 'invitation only', which has a serious danger of excluding some of our European colleagues, something others have been diplomatically careful to avoid. Of course, there's still a few weeks to rectify things and I'm sure everything will be alright on the night, but it beats me how anyone could be interested in the budget, rebate, CAP, or Constitution when there's some juicy gossip going on behind the scenes. Come on UK, show them how it's done.
ANON, Brussels (UK ex pat)

Having worked in Brussels, there is a solution to the question of buying metro tickets in French or Flemish - use the (multi-lingual) ticket machines, which cater for even the most monoglot Brit! Being bright yellow, they're difficult to miss...
Richard, Wales

No, Flemish is not called "Nederlands". Nederlands is what they speak in the Netherlands. In Belgium, they speak Flemish (or "Vlaams"). Of course, the Flemish are far too polite to point this out. And ABN (Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands) becomes politely AN (Algemeen Nederlands) in Flanders too. Brussels is basically a francophone island in Flanders. Thus, Flemish is only spoken somewhat, even by the Flemish themselves. In the suburbs of Brussels, however, Flemish is very much spoken.
tim, amsterdam

Concerning your comment on bilingual Brussels, I just want to point out that Flemish is a dialect of "Nederlands", so Flemish has never been called "Nederlands". It would be like saying that Cockney is now called "English".
Markus Visser, Brussels Belgium

To Marcus Visser, I feel that you overreact to the remarks that people use the term "Nederlands" to describe the Vlaams dialect of this language, spoken widely in Belgium (Flanders) and often heard in Brussel. I don't believe that many Londoners would take offense if you told them that their beloved "Cockney" was in fact English.
Stuart NIELD, paris, france

Flemish is not a language, it's not even a dialect of Dutch. The dialects spoken in Flanders over a distance of 200km vary more than the English dialects spoken from Brighton to Inverness. Flemish people speak Dutch, in a wide variation of dialects, none of which can claim the title 'Flemish'.
Joris, Belgium

As regards Anglo-American holidays and linguistic effects of the expanding EC and internationalism in Brussels - I have really noticed big changes in Brussels and the surrounding "international" suburbs in the past 27 years. I grew up in the outskirts of Waterloo. When we moved there, perhaps 5% of the Waterloo population were considered Anglophone (English / Irish, American, Scandinavian) in an overall count of 35-40,000. By the last time I checked, I saw a statistic of >50% Anglophone and a population nearing 100,000 in the same community owing to construction and expansion. Nowadays in Waterloo, you go to the supermarket, and people speak English to you if they detect the hint of an inability to speak French. Formerly, towards Christmas, the supermarkets and local communities would hold "St. Nicholas" events, and local markets would sell freshly-made gingerbread "Speculoos" slabs in the shape of St. Nicholas. You would also get visits around the local schools from St. Nicholas with his politically-incorrectly-bootblacked-up sidekick "Swarte Piet" handing out biscuits to the kids.

But it was still very European. Christmas didn't really exist as a commercial entity - Christmas eve (St. Silvestre) was much more significant as a religious festival. Halloween was a complete non-entity in its Americanised-industrial nature. Now I've been away for 14 years, although my family remain. I return annually. I've seen the statistics concerning demographic changes in Waterloo. More concerning is the palpable evidence of the gross-Americanisation of commuter-belt towns such as Waterloo with English-language Halloween decorations in the autumn, and the subsuming of half-week-long St. Nicholas celebrations of early December in favour of commercialised Christmas commencing at the end of October. You don't even HAVE to use French any more to get around - in fact, I've experienced bemusement at the hands of secretarial staff who cannot speak French when I enter a reception, which I find frankly shocking.
Robin, Vancouver, Canada

No one in Brussels doesn't speak French. No one will take offense if you address them in French in Brussels (and most will understand English). As for the long suffering Flemish of Brussels, I suggest you come back to that subject after you've been here for a few years (if you're still interested). Linguistic politics in Belgium are extremely sensitive and complicated and cannot be grasped by a newcomer, I'm afraid.
Nick, Belgium

The Flemish in Brussels are 'long-suffering' since the Francophones there show nothing but disdain for Flemish and the people who speak it.
Bernard, Belgium

Having lived in Brussels 20 years ago in a Flemish area called Grimbergen my Flemish neighbour told me that the worst bores in Belgium are the Flemish who choose to speak French as their first language. It's very snobby, a parrallel with Mrs Bucket in the British TV Series.
Peter, Portsmouth UK

Welcome your refreshing approach to EU and European matters. Europe matters.
Dr Ian H. Magedera, Liverpool UK

Interesting comments. The one I found most interesting was Robin's. "Gross Americanisation"? You must be kidding. I completely understand how unconfortable "new traditions" can first. What I would like to point out is that these changes cannot happen without consent. The consent is found in the money spent. If the good citizens of Waterloo, and other commuter towns, didn't spend their hard earned money on American Halloween tradition there wouldn't be the decorations. To be honest, when I was a kid going door to door for candy, and dressing in costume, was a total blast. Too bad you missed out. I agree with you about the commercialization of Christmas. I think I saw some twisted retailers with Santa decorations on display in late September. But again, this wouldn't happen without our consent. So to all that may be upset that America is destroying your cultures, I say you are allowing this to happen through your spending habits. Stop buying and we are gone.
Jeff Aula, Dearborn Hts, Michigan, USA

And i thought that language and nationality problems existed only in balkans, how wrong i was
Altin, chelmsford uk

Your "frightening" experience on Brussels public transport happened to me several years ago when I was in Amsterdam with my ageing parents. Despite the fact that I sat down clutching money to pay someone, a vindictive inspector who jumped on the tram as it was pulling out, wanted to fine us! The Dutch locals came to our rescue and almost assaulted the nasty man, so we only had to pay the fare and not the fine! Love those Dutch people!
Janice GEORGE, Brussels, Belgium

I came across the same quote as others before me here. I found it repeated in a review of Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad... in pre-revolutionary Russia, Peter's legacy is autocracy tempered by assassination...
Ed Hausman, Pompton Plains, New Jersey, USA

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