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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 11:16 GMT
A hack's life at EU summits
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Political Diary

By Mark Mardell
BBC News political correspondent
line

If Tony Blair looked a bit glum at the end of the Barcelona summit it is only going to get worse after this.

The rolling circus taking politicians, journalists and civil servants to some of Europe loveliest cities will end after a couple more jaunts.

After that, all such meetings will be held at headquarters in Brussels.

This is very, very bad news for junketing journalists.


Our elegant silver carrier contains a bottle of Cava, a rather lovely modernist terracotta water jug and a tough shoulder bag in trendy pale olive nylon

You've probably already absorbed all you can on energy policy, European armies and research and development budgets so let me tell you about the really important stuff: our presents.

Every country hosting the summit gives each of the hundreds of journalist covering it a goody bag.

Our elegant silver carrier contains a bottle of Cava, a rather lovely modernist terracotta water jug and a tough shoulder bag in trendy pale olive nylon.

My most prized gift is a not so slender volume detailing the history of the Catalan autonomy movement.

On my return home, I display my trophies.

My nine-year-old son asks why we're given these presents.

"Well, I suppose they want to..."

"They want you to write nice things about them don't they?"

"I suppose they might think..."

"But isn't that a bribe?"

Looking at the very largely hostile coverage of this and every other summit I am glad to report what you knew already: the great British hack is incorruptible.

Or at least ingrates to the last man and woman.

The bad news for the TUC's John Monks is that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is determined that Mr Blair is to become his newest, bestest best friend.

Blair with Berlusconi
Silvio takes his place close to Tony
Politicians will tell you the real value of these events is to get to know their opposite numbers as real people, not just the power behind a positioning paper.

Certainly the man nicknamed the water snake agrees.

An insider tells me that whenever the summiteers responsible for protocol place the two Mr B's apart, Silvio makes his way over to Tony's side, smiling and offering to translate.

Other sniffy EU leaders shun the billionaire as an egomaniacal rogue but Europe's most colourful leader feels he's finally found a pal.

The Catalans have a proud history of defiance towards central authority (my treasured gift tells me) but my medal for "conspicuous lack of bravery in the face of largely friendly and helpful representatives of the state" goes to Barcelona's taxi drivers.

Many will refuse a fare rather than go anywhere near the conference centre.

If they can be badgered into it they will stop dead every time they see a policeman.

As every route is thick with the boys and girls in dark blue this makes travel rather laborious.

My first taxi driver stops to ask a machine gun totting policeman the way.


If ever there's a European war I'm going to join the Barcelona Taxi Driver Brigade and be in the forefront of retreat

Happy to help he gives very detailed instructions, watched by his colleagues further on down the road.

The driver travels, I exaggerate not at all, all of a hundred yards and stops again.

This policeman repeats the instructions with more arm waving and less smiling.

Three hundred yards and three policemen later it is a toss up whether our latest speaking A to Z will use his machine gun himself or I'll grab it and do the job for him.

Instead we both settle for shouting "vale, Vale !"(ok, OK !) in a menacing way (If you think a heavily armed policeman is slightly more menacing than a seriously out of condition BBC hack armed only with a bottle of Cava think again).

A similar process is repeated on every single journey over the next three days.

If ever there's a European war I'm going to join the Barcelona Taxi Driver Brigade and be in the forefront of retreat.

See also:

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