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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 April 2007, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
The peculiar world of the European Union
By Joe Lynam
Europe Business Reporter, BBC News

The EU and other flags
Journalists covering the EU can ask some weird questions

"Does Sir Bobby Charlton think that this football match could lead to Britain joining the euro?"

At noon every weekday, journalists from all over the world are allowed to ask European Commission officials absolutely anything they want.

And no matter what the subject, they legitimately expect to get an "on the record" answer on live TV.

There is no equivalent anywhere else in the world and as you can see from above question, it often throws up some eclectic discussions.

Now that I have attended my last "Midday Presser", as the daily news conference is known, I think I may miss these idiosyncrasies.

Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding
Media Commissioner Viviane Reding at a press conference

The meetings can last as long as two hours or as short as 45 seconds - all depending on what is going on that day, news wise.

If Russia has just switched off another gas pipeline or there is a further outbreak of bird flu somewhere in Europe, then expect a long press conference.

If it is a Friday in the middle of August, do not unpack your dictating machine just yet.

But it is only after the endless streams of "what does this mean for Slovakia, Poland, Italy or France...", and the cameras have been switched off, that the real work begins.

That is when the doughnuts come out.

'Off the record'

A doughnut is formed in the press room after the midday presser, when the official Commission spokesman or woman is surrounded in a disorderly circle by journalists baying for juicy "off the record" information about a big news story that has just dropped.

journalists talking to EU spokesman
The EU doughnut in action

At the centre of the circle - the jam - you will find a (mostly) calm press officer batting away questions in two or three languages, warning hacks that the imparted info is "for background only" or "not to be attributed" to anyone in particular.

Most journalists are usually only interested in what it might mean for their country.

And it is not just the media that is concerned with protecting its own patch.

Commission officials often find themselves briefing against each other to get competing messages out.

A perfect example of this happened in the run up to the EU's announcement on the level of carbon dioxide that new cars would be allowed to emit.

There was the unusual sight of the environment commissioner's spokesperson giving one side of the debate, whilst the industry spokesman - who was against lower targets - providing the diametrically opposite view in his own doughnut a mere five yards away.

As for the business community, it has its own way of bending commissioners' and journalists' ears.

Some people call it lobbying - others schmoozing.

Breakfast meetings

When Vodafone realised last year that it was losing the publicity battle against Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding over mobile phone roaming charges, it hired a public relations (PR) company to get people like me "on message".

Markos Kyprianou
Commissioner Markos Kyprianou got criticised last year

So I was invited to a breakfast meeting in a plush hotel beside the Berlaymont building, which houses the Commission.

And for those who accuse companies of largesse when it comes to journalists, I realised that I had unwisely starved myself ahead of the meeting when I was brought into the adjacent cafe and offered no more than a latte or espresso.

Other companies adopt a policy of "if you can't beat them, join them".

Last November, health commissioner Markos Kyprianou got himself into very hot water when he launched an anti-obesity drive alongside the bosses of McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Standing belt-buckle to belt-buckle with some of the companies blamed for the dramatic rise in weight problems was frowned upon.

The fact that the event was stage managed by a large American PR firm was the coup de grace for many journalists, not used to signing in to attend daily press conferences.

Still, the message that business was doing something was at least conveyed.

Fat cat

Microsoft is another company which uses its considerable weight to curry favour here in Brussels.

The Seattle software giant sponsors dozens of Europe-wide educational programmes and Bill Gates is a regular visitor to the Berlaymont.

But those visits may soon start to dry up as the Commission grows increasingly impatient with Microsoft for flouting competition rules and abusing its dominant position within the market here.

The European Court of Justice may ultimately decide the outcome of that one soon.

As for the fabled gravy train here in Brussels, I have to admit that added a kilo or two in my time here but that was mostly to do with the pace of life being a lot slower and the quality of food a lot better than in London.

The amount of Belgian beer consumed had nothing to do with it, I assure you.

Though I will certainly miss the doughnuts!


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