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Europe diary: Christmas under threat
17 November 2005

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell discusses a threat to EU's traditional Christmas break, the difficulty of laying down the law on chemicals and some bons mots on the nature of government.

The diary is published every Thursday.


Galeries Lafayette in Paris
As other cities prepare calmly for Xmas, Brussels tradition is menaced
Groans of disbelief at a European Union ambassadors meeting to discuss the complex proposed regulation of chemicals, known as Reach. Industry is claiming it damages competitiveness, but more than that, it threatens to drive a coach and horses through the Christmas break of EU politicians, bureaucrats and even journalists. The social model itself is at risk.

The European Parliament votes today, and Britain - desperate for a deal on Reach during its presidency - wanted ministers from national governments to give it the thumbs up at the end of the month. Then came a request from the new German government to put off the ministerial vote, to which Britain reluctantly agreed. The price? There may be a special employment ministers meeting between Christmas and New Year, when Brussels expects to close down. Hence the groans. I'll cover it in my Santa outfit, bedecked with tinsel, and bring the relatives along.


The proposed regulation is an interesting test case. Tony Blair is always going on about facing up to the threat from globalisation. But a German paint manufacturer I interview tells me that if this goes ahead he will seriously consider setting up a factory painting aircraft in Russia, where there are no such regulations.

Equally a Belgium family I talk to, who are taking part in tests to detect industrial chemicals in their blood, are horrified at what they find. The grandmother blames a metal factory she lived next to as a child for her cancer and for the death of her sister and father from cancer. How do you get the balance right?


There is history in the making this week. For the first time Spanish regional languages, such as Catalan and Galician are to be used in European Union institutions. The EU is quick to stress it's up to the national government to pay for any translation costs, and then claims there aren't any anyway. Could Welsh, Gaelic and Cornish follow? Only if the British government wants it. In any case, Plaid Cymru are pressing for Welsh to be used as a NATIONAL language, as Irish will be from 2007. And that does have cost implications.


Thanks to everyone who helped ease the quotation tickling at my brain, and to Gareth in particular for his acute observations.

"Bureaucracy tempered by revolution" is, after all, not an entirely unfair characterisation of the country's politics down the ages.
Martin Wolf, Financial Times
As Bill writes, the original appears to be Voltaire's "an ideal form of government is benevolent dictatorship tempered with assassination". Once I have the vital word "tempered", it becomes clear that what had recently entered my brain was the Financial Times' Martin Wolf writing prophetically in June that "bureaucracy tempered by revolution" was a fair characterisation of the French system.

Voltaire's pithy phrase is obviously one of those brilliant formulations that have given rise to endless variations. It was Carlyle who came up with "despotism moderated by epigram". As a hack I'm bound to like Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of democracy as "a government of bullies tempered by editors". Also appealing is Ambrose Bierce's fairly meaningless but snappy definition of oratory as "a conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding. A tyranny tempered by stenography".

But was Voltaire himself using an already familiar form of words? His contemporary Chamfort wrote: "La France est une monarchie absolue, temperee par des chansons". So who can adapt the formula to suit the European Union?

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

Europe: The ideology of politicians tempered by the will of the people that their problems need to be solved.
David, Rijen, The Netherlands

EU : towards a true common protection against an unfair - because uncontroled - economical liberalisation and for cultural diversity. Because there is not only business and english in life but also solidarity and other languages.
Lebreton, Paris

"Socialist idealism tempered by corporate conservatism."

As a former corporate chemist, I agree with the proposals - you should see what you can buy over the counter here in Spain! The effect of the legislation will be in its implementation and enforcement. There was a similar furore in industry over the "marine and environmental" pollutants labelling some years ago. This does not seem to have adversely affected the chemical industry's freedom of action.
Nigel Myall, Casares, Spain

Collective global ambition tempered by national self-interest?
Kevin Pearson, USA (ex-pat)

"Atlantic jealousy", tempered by domestic bickering?"

Federalism tempered by referenda?
Steven J Phipps, Hobart, Australia

How about "The EU is a road to fairness and free trade tempered by France"?
Steve Whittaker, Liege, Belgium (ex-UK)

Socialism tempered by self-interest?
M, Norway

How about: Idealism tempered by reality?
Andrew, Torquay, United Kingdom

The EU has the potential to be useful if it would stop getting sidetracked by the machinations [and] national interests of prominent member states. The EU is the only way we can hope to present a strong enough economic front against the USA. "Potential greatness tempered by conservatism"
Ezra, Milan, Italy

The EU is a corrupt corporatist bureaucracy tempered by the reality of a far more powerful global capitalism.
Marcus J. Tyson, London

How about just "temper, temper!"
mark taylor, brussels, belgium

Desire of the French to control everything tempered by entropy.
Bob Delaney, East Harptree, UK

How about the "EU is government of the many by the few for the few !"
Dr David Holland, London, UK

The EU is an organisation founded on ideas and floundering in practice, thought up by dreamers who created a nightmare.
Matthew Knowles, South Ockendon, Essex

Right now? Belligerent French tempered by British apologists.
James Fulker, Solihull, UK

How about the EU (and REACH) as "democracy tempered by capitalism"?
Steve Emmott, Brussels

I would suggest "The EU is a socialist idiocy tempered by nationalist idiocy."
viggo jonsson, Reykjavik, Iceland

The EU is a quest for prosperity tempered by obstinacy?
Stuart, Turku, Finland

The EU is a very positive alternative to war... (Which was the European tradition for many centuries before...)
Davie, Edinburgh, Scotland

Mindless bureacracy tempered by utter apathy?
Jon, Stoke, UK

As always, it's all about money, money , money. Real shame they might have to work over Christmas, like the rest of us! But I am sure they will all be very well paid with plenty of the finest food & wine on tap!
sunn, Liverpool UK

Utopian Dreams tempered by Tyranical Reality. Oh yes, I do agree with the chemical thing. The problem is not just Tony Blair: it's all politicians. Even the greens are nut cases who have no understanding of engineering or science. Sure, they chuck it around happily, but you corner them in a room and drill them for sevearl hours about dynamic equilibriums or ozone water treatment or pebble bed nuclear reactors, and you are more than likely going to get a blank stare and probably "No comment." Typical buisness/lib art majors.
James, Mobile, United States

I would suggest: 'Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into, Tony.'
Peter Thomson, Kircudbright, Scotland

The EU is a collective bureaucracy tempered by local politics
Leonard Lovallo, New York City, USA

Economic optimism tempered by cheap Chinese labour. REACH: Rescued Environment Afforded by Chinese Hustle.
Jeremy, Atlanta, USA

"The EU is a heaving, bloated, unrepresentative, expensive, incompetant, amorphous bureacracy, tempered only by the laziness and lack of imagination of its faceless minions.
Tony Nicholls, Swindon UK

How about a morass of lethergy restrained by a bureaucratic oligarchy
R Mann, Portsmouth UK

Government is Machiavellian deceit, tempered by Clouseau-esque ineptitude.
Julian Buckley, Maidstone, Kent

Perhaps the EU is a desire by a minority to rule more, tempered by a majority who desire to be ruled less?
Stuart Wright, Fleetwood, UK

A mess tempered by optimism
James, London, UK

Mr. Mardell should be circumspect about quoting Voltaire, given that he wrote the following misanthropic pearl of wisdom in 1766: "It is apposite that the people be guided, and not instructed, for they are not worthy of being so."
Dr. Roger Peters, Bristol, UK.

How about "The EU is an all-consuming Federation tempered by British unwillingness"?
Steve Hamilton, Braintree, Essex

A confederation tempered by nationalism.
Isaac, Kingston, Canada

Mark's disgust at the use of welsh as a "NATIONAL" language disturbs me. 20% of us speak it. Surely that's important enough - it's hardly latin!
Steffan Thomas, Cardiff, Wales

It would be nice if the REACH regulations actually made anything safer, but they will have only a marginal effect. What they will do is impose a massive bureacratic load and costs on to industry, making it even more uncompetitive globally, and driving production abroad, even of industries that have little or no environmental problems. It's stupid and pointless.
Chris Haines, Warrington Cheshire

As a US-born Citizen who is Celtic [Galicia], I am glad that Galician is used as a language of the EU. I hope that Cornish, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish follow suit.
Roberto, Miami Florida

Europeans wonder why Americans don't pass legislation like Kyoto, and then they worry about Reach hurting their ability to be economically competitive? It's the same thing. America has always made economics first priority; with the environment trailing far far behind. I thought Europe was different. It's partially why I moved here.
Jeff, Cambridge, UK

Nobody can seriously believe that REACH puts us in front of the choice to be poisoned or unemployed. These are simplifications in the run up to the votes in Parliament in Council. My hunch is that much stuff has already been tested before (basically reducing this to a problem of co-ordination) and that a couple of harmful substances will have to be replaced by more innovative solutions. Let the Chinese copy Dickens' capitalism while we move forward to a more intelligent world.
Ronald Vopel, Brussels, Belgium

Good luck to the German paint manufacturer wanting to set up in Russia - there may not be any inconvenient safety regulations in that country, but that is because the rule of law does not properly apply there. Many Western businesses have already pulled out of Russia due to organised crime and corruption. You pays your money and you takes your choice...
Hugh, Brussels, Belgium

These environmental controls will only work if EU businesses are forbidden from setting up overseas and exploiting poor conditions and cheap labour to be found there. The EU has singularly failed to prevent this cheap, rampant global market from ruining prmises of higher standards and better paid jobs within its own area.
Deirdre Mason, London, England

I just hope that Ms Mason practises what she preaches & for example only buys clothes made in Europe or better in England. I wonder.
colin, Brussels

Sadly this Reach proposal has been massively watered down due to Tony Blair's actions. George Bush has been putting pressure on Tony Blair to remove a whole list of toxic substances from the proposal due to the potential impact on American chemical company profits and Mr Blair the puppet has jumped on cue. The proposal is a good idea in principle but, as with Kyoto, it seems big business and personal interests are more important than the health of people or the planet.
Nick, Reading, UK

We should all learn to speak Chinese now so we can be employed as tour guides to our European version of EPCOT [utopian city of the future planned by Walt Disney] as being a post-industrial society existing on tourism and "organic" farming. (Chemists usually mean organic as any sustance containing carbon molecules combined with other substances, often hydrogen and oxygen molecules.)
Sipko Huismans, Javea spain

Too bad if you live in Europe and next year you want an effective toiler cleanser, paint remover, disinfectant, or many other common household chemical agents. Photography? Only digital darkrooms will be possible. Performance additives for your car? Nope. Drive slowly. And don't even dream of changing your own oil. Fertilizer for your farm? You lose again. There is hardly any limit to the number of chemicals that could be banned - only the capacity of the bureaucracies to say No.
Doon41, Scotts Valley, CA

Get your facts right Tony Nicholls of Swindon.. The EU is NOT a heaving, bloated, unrepresentative, expensive, incompetant, amorphous bureacracy - it is in fact smaller than that of many London boroughs and the description you give sounds a far more accurate a description of my London borough than I ever heard before. There were moves to make the EU more representative and give more power to the directly elected MEPs, but the national Governments have objected to this every time and ensure power is kept with their political appointees. So before you critisise the EU, look closer to home and blame our national Governments for preventing the sorts of reform that would have made it more representative!
Dave, London, Great Britain

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