Category Archives: Life In Brussels

Day 92 – Two Days, Two Issues

I’ve had two completely unrelated issues on my mind for the past few days: China and domestic abuse.

My meditations on China largely come from a meeting between a group of Parliament assistants and Ambassador Song Zhe. The meeting was arranged by a Chinese-born assistant to a European People’s Party MEP in order to foster a greater understanding in China-European dealings.

I went to this meeting because my main source of information regarding politics within China is the Economist, supplemented by occasional articles in the Guardian and the Herald on high-profile Chinese citizens who have been placed under arrest or executed by the regime. The picture built up by these sources is not necessarily the most balanced, ignoring, for example, how the controlled economy deals with the overwhelming poverty in areas of China.

The meeting, as it turned out was terribly balanced either.  The Ambassador made a twenty-minute presentation on how China and the EU could work together in the 21st Century, highlighting various cultural similarities and differences. This was actually quite educational, and I learnt a few things I didn’t know about Chinese culture. Unfortunately it was also very much a party line. I’ve read propaganda from the Soviet Union and from Nazi Germany which struck a similar tone.

Following the presentation, the floor was opened to questions. Given the enormity of China’s human rights violations, I suspect no-one will be surprised that this was one of the main issues raised. Several specific cases were referred to, with the Ambassador largely stonewalling on them. It was interesting hearing him attempt to justify the human rights violations as being down to differences in perceptions of human rights in China and the West. I don’t buy the idea that exercising freedom of speech endangers the rights or quality of life of others in China. In fact it would seem to be the opposite of what freedom of speech results in.

After the Ambassador left, one of his staff opened up a lot more. He talked at length about his negative experiences growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and certainly seemed to indicate that China is liberalising slowly (something which would seem to harmonise with my reading in the Economist and diplomatic trends over the past decade). One point which he made which has stuck with me was that the Chinese people remember Mao too well and they don’t want another violent upheaval. The phrase he used was “evolution, not revolution”. I can sympathise with that sentiment given historical precedent in China, Russia and Iran.

I wouldn’t say I view China particularly favourably. I dislike the CCP’s environmental policy, their nuclear policy, their attitude towards human rights, their continuation of the cult of Mao and I’m very nervous about the rate of Chinese resource consumption and European reliance on Chinese imports. I can certainly see room for working with China to deal with these issues in a mutually beneficial way while building up a stronger European export market.

As regards domestic abuse, this something I’ve been doing some research and writing on the past few days. One of the things which came up was a recently launched campaign by Scottish Women’s Aids, simply called Stop. I’ve signed up to their pledge to help stop the abuse of women, as have Alyn and my manager. I also signed up to the White Ribbon Campaign, which is a male-orientated campaign to end domestic abuse against women.

This is an issue which I have very strong feelings on. There is no excuse for the fact that one-in-five women in Scotland will experience domestic abuse of some time during their lives. Sign up to the campaigns, raise awareness and remember that domestic abuse can be perpetrated against everyone, not just women (although they are the main victims).

Day 90 – An Early (and Unpleasant) Start

It’s 1:13AM local, and I just got off the phone with the police.

This is part of a progression of events.

Around about 9:30PM, I heard some shouting and a smash. The flat next to me and both flats upstairs have kids, so shouting and the odd thump isn’t unusual. It’s actually kind of reassuring.

About 10:30PM, I nipped out to the shop across the road. I noticed that the glass door to the lobby had been smashed from the inside out. The lift door has also been jammed open on the ground floor. I tweeted, worrying about whether I should call the police or not. I decided not, thinking the vandal either wouldn’t be back or would have calmed down.

Around about 1AM, as I was drifting off to sleep, I noticed some thumping. I didn’t give it much thought until about it had gone on for about ten minutes or so. Then I noticed there was also a smashing sound. After sticking my head out the window, noticing a car that might be a police car (they aren’t as garish in Belgium as they are in Scotland) and thinking about going downstairs to investigate, I called the police.

For reference, the EU-wide emergency number is 112. If you phone this in Belgium, it puts you through to the ambulance line. 110 is the police number here. I presume 111 gets you the fire brigade. Also useful to know is the fact that the emergency operators in Belgium speak fluent English, although you might need to repeat “Parle vu Anglais” a few times before they realise.

After I’d given him the details, the operator informed me that there was a car at the scene with a second car on the way. There had also been other reports of a domestic dispute. Since then, the thumping has stopped, but the lift has been going up and down a lot and there was the sound of a child crying coming from upstairs. As of 1:30AM, the police cars have gone. It’s all rather horrible.

Of course, I’m now wired on adrenalin. I did send a text to my manager saying that I might be late in tomorrow. I think being up till 1:30AM due to a police incident might be a reasonable excuse in this case.

Last time I had a night like this was about four years ago when a couple where having a violent domestic in the car-park beside my flat in Maryhill. It was equally horrible, possibly even worse. I just hope the poor woman in that case got good support and got rid of the fellow ASAP.

I am glad to say that this doesn’t reflect my experience in Brussels overall. It’s just the sort of event which happens all too frequently all over the world. The sort of thing which really needs to be stopped, and can be stopped if people act with more sense and maturity.

Anyway, I had better try and get some sleep.

Day 89 – St. Andrew’s Day in Brussels

Many national days are acknowledged in Brussels. Since I’ve been working in the Parliament, special dishes have featured in the canteen menus for Spanish, Romanian, Latvian, Polish, Maltan and Lithuanian holidays. Lobbying groups, MEP social clubs and Member State Representations also arrange events for days of national importance.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of internal politics which prevents the acknowledgement of St. Andrew’s Day in the Parliament: if one devolved nation is recognised, then all devolved nations must be recognised. So there was no haggis, neeps and tatties to be had today. C’est la Vie.

Of course, that’s no excuse for not expressing a bit of national pride.

Day 87 – No Snow Here!

From reports on Twitter, Scotland is grinding to a halt due to snow. Being of hardy Cairngorm stock, I tend to take my sassenach friends’ tales of snow with a pince of salt. The media are, of course, useless when it comes to snow, defaulting to a bizarre “shocked and awed” response to an annual event.

Still, not my problem, because today is a stunning day in Brussels.

Day 85 – Countdown to the Homecoming

It’s less then three weeks until I return to Scotland on the 16th of December. I have to admit, I already have my first night at home planned out.

  • A long bath to wash off the residue of Brussels’ hard water.
  • An Indian take-away, because you just can’t get a good Indian or Pakistani meal in Belgium.
  • Some West Wing, starting with the fantastic Season 1 episode “Mr. Willis of Ohio“.
  • Playing some Xbox games with my flatmate.

These are just a few of the pleasures I’ve particularly missed while being in Belgium.

Unfortunately, it’ll be back to reality with a bump on the 17th, since I’ve yet to find gainful employment.

Day 61 – Eine Scot Aus Berlin

Apologies for the silence over the last few weeks. For the week after conference, I was in Aberdeenshire and Edinburgh dealing with personal manners. While some of these may even go so far as to be slightly gossip worthy, they didn’t seem like they needed blogged about at the time.

As far as the conference itself goes, it was extremely enjoyable. Unfortunately the construction of Perth Concert Hall is not conductive to the use of phones. There was also a distinct lack of wifi in the building. These factors meant my plans for frequent blogging were put to one side. Over the next week, I do intend to back-date some posts, with pictures, regarding the events of the conference.

I only got back to Brussels last Tuesday (thanks to the strange operating days of Ryanair’s Edinburgh-Brussels route), so I’m not quite back into the swing of things yet. This isn’t helped by the public holiday on All-Saint’s and All-Soul’s Days, which means that the Parliament building has been closed for the last two days.

Rather then loafing around Brussels, I took the opportunity to visit Berlin.

Day 59-61 – Berlin (Photo Heavy)

The European Institutions take the Belgian bank holidays, which gave me two days off at the start of November for the celebration of All-Saints and All-Souls Day. Being the humanist that I am, I didn’t feel it necessary to acknowledge these particular festivities and trotted off to Berlin for three days.

The trip itself was eventful. Between Liége and Aachen, the Brussels-Köln ICE-3 broke down. This necessitated 8 carriages of passengers fitting into a two carriage local train which looked like it had been built in the ’50s. I take back everything I’ve ever said about Deutsche Bahn’s efficiency and about ScotRail’s diesel Sprinters being outdated. After a horrendous journey to Aachen and a painfully uncomfortable journey from Aachen to to Köln, I eventually got on to another high speed ICE train. Annoyingly, it wasn’t fast enough to get me to Berlin before 11, but c’est la vie.

In defence of Deutsche Bahn’s record, all four of the ICE trains I was on was faster, roomier and more comfortable then the Intercity trains used by East Coast and the Pendalinos used by Virgin. I was particularly impressed by the standing bar area and cheap prices on the train. The main annoyance was the lack of Wi-fi and power sockets, which is something that East Coast and Virgin definitely win on.

Berlin itself was fantastic. Having spent many years studying German history between 1800 and 1939, I spent a lot of time trying to put the events I’d read about into geographical context. This was considerably harder then I had anticipated, as I simply hadn’t realised how much had been destroyed in the invasion of Berlin and then by both the East and West German Governments. While, as a former history student, I do dispair for the lost of so many historic buildings, I can fully understand why the buildings which were used by the Nazi regime were destroyed rather then repurposed (with a few exceptions).

I did, however, take pictures of various streets in what was the heart of the Nazi Government. These are mainly to show my mother, as she also studied German history but has never visited the city.

This street, for example, was the site of the first Reich Chancellery. Hitler and Speer built the Nazi-era Chancellery on a perpendicular to it. The opposite side of the street housed various ministries.

The site where the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun were bruned, which was once the gardens of Chancellery is now a carpark. This area has a series of signs which explain what went on in each of the buildings which stood there. Some of these can be (rightly) unsettling, such as the sign outside my hotel which explained that the Ministry for Jewish Affairs, one of the main government bodies involved in the Holocaust had soon on the site. I didn’t sleep terribly well knowing that Adolf Eichmann could have signed death warrants meters away from where I was.

There are some remnants of the Third Reich preserved in Berlin.

The German Finance Ministry was the home of Göring’s Aviation Ministry during the Second World War. According to signs outside, many aspects of it’s interior have survived intact (but de-Nazified) and have featured in a number of films since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior to the fall of the Wall, it was used as a command centre by the Soviet military then as a government building by the DDR. It was also the site of a major uprising in 1953.

The Finance Ministry features a DDR-era mural, in a particularly soviet style. During the Second World War, this wall held a massive bronze casting featuring marching soldiers. It disappeared in the confusion of the invasion of Berlin and I suspect it was probably ceased by the Soviet Union to be melted down.

Nearby these relics of the Third Reich is on of the best memorials to those who suffered at the hands of Nazis. The Topography of Terror is an open museum built on the site of the SS, SA and Gestapo headquarters. The outdoor section contains photos of the area before, during and after the Second World War, along with pieces of the foundations of several of the buildings. There are also the remains of prison cells which were used by the SS and the foundations of a canteen which was just metres from interrogation cells and a prison yard.

There is little I can say to convey the full horror which overcomes you as you walk around this site, knowing what happened here.

There is also a very large exhibition on the Nazi reign of terror and the Holocaust in the visitor centre at the Topography of Terror. It’s one of the best curated museums I’ve ever been to and I highly recommend visiting it. Entry is free and it has very long opening hours. There are also temporary exhibitions and the longest surviving portion of the Berlin Wall at the site.

In addition to visiting various sites related to WWII and the Holocaust, I also did some more light hearted exploring. Amongst other things, I visited the Berlin TV Tower and the DDR Museum (which featured some amazing mock-ups).

I also treated my inner-child by visiting the world’s largest model railway, which was very, very cool. It has dozens of cameos, including a rave, a movie being filmed, a fire being put out and even Angela Merkel greeting Barack Obama as he steps off Airforce One.

I managed to pack in quite a lot (even managing to take some pictures of the German President). You can check my flickr pages for day 1, day 2 and day 3 for more images of the various things I saw and did. Most of them haven’t been captioned yet and some are unfocussed and need to be deleted, but most of them are pretty good.

I will have to visit Berlin again. Next time, I’ll be certain to give myself more time, because it does actually take quite a while to get between things in the city. There are also a host of attractions nearby which I couldn’t contemplate going to because of travel time required. I’ll also try and take someone with me next time I go, because being in a strange city on holiday from another strange city can be a bit lonely and I was dying for an in-depth conversation by the time I got back (my German is reasonably good, but doesn’t stretch too far). Still, it was a fun holiday, the food was great and so was the beer.

Day 40 – Fiscal Issues

First of all, thank you to everyone on Facebook and Twitter who offered to wire or loan me money. Thankfully, my mother was able to wire me some money via Western Union, allowing me to survive until I got back to Scotland. The most difficult part of this process was probably negotiating the arcane queuing system used by the Belgian post office.

I’ve also found out from the Bank that the payments were made to two companies which own online gambling websites (something which I wouldn’t use, since other then very occasional bets on the horses and the odd lottery ticket, I don’t gamble). Both of these are based in Gibraltar and I’m not entirely convinced that either of them are actually genuine companies, since there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of corporate websites for either of them.

I did try to contact one of them by phone (having gotten their phone number from a WHOIS request). After being shunted around a few people, I was told that there was no-one from the accounting department in the office and given an email address to contact. The other company didn’t have a phone number online that I could find. You can see why I’m suspicious about these companies.

The inconvenient news is that a week later, the payments haven’t been taken from my bank account. My money is now in a limbo condition, where it’s still in my account but it’s unavailable. HBOS can’t apparently do anything about this as fraud investigations can only be initiated once money has left the account in question. Which is a tad annoying.

Hopefully this will all get sorted out soon.

Day 38 – Account Hacked

Lets cut to the chase: if you notice anything at all suspicious in your bank records, phone the bank! Don’t give up on the hold queue because you have other things to do, which is exactly what I did on Friday.

Apparently, sometime in the last few weeks, someone got ahold of either the card-numbers for my debit card or the account numbers for the bank account it’s linked to. I’m not 100% sure how this happened, because I haven’t used my card to pay for anything in a shop since I got to Belgium. I’ve only used it online and at cash machines, which narrows the cause  down to malware, a hacked website or a card-cloning device attached to an ATM.

I only use three different ATM machines here, because not all of the banks will deal with my debit card. One of the machines is in the Parliament itself while the other two are in the city centre and near my flat. While I know what I card cloner looks like in the UK, I probably wouldn’t notice one here because most of the cash machines look completely different from the ones at home.

What I find more likely is that my numbers were stolen via an online transaction. In the last few weeks, I’ve made purchases from the Steam service, iTunes, the EU’s publisher and RyanAir. My iTunes and RyanAir purchases were made on my Mac from home, using a wired connection. I’ve seen no evidence of malware or other exploits on my computer or that any of the other services which I use (such as my email account) have been hacked.

The Steam purchase should have been pretty secure, since it uses a dedicated client and encrypted security. It’s also a large and reputable service. However, I did make it from the Windows 7 installation on my computer, which probably isn’t as secure as it should be (mostly due to the fact that I only use it for playing videogames on).

The purchase which I’m most suspicious of is the one from the EU publisher. I made it in work, on a Windows XP based machine. The Parliament does have security in place, but it’s not unknown for large institutions to be targeted by cyber-criminals. I’m also not sure that the payment details for the book I bought (The Consolidated Treaties of the EU since you asked) were sent through a fully encrypted channel, which means they could have been intercepted.

There are a hundred and one other methods which could have been used. Anything from a hardware key-logger to someone pilfering details from a company which I’ve bought from. Whoever it was and however it was done, I suspect that Bank of Scotland’s fraud office won’t be able to catch them. With luck, they’ll at least be able to get my money back.

The immediate problem for me is that I have no money to get to Charleroi so I can fly back to Scotland on Tuesday. I’ll also be rather hungry by the time the plane lands on Tuesday night, since I was planning to go shopping today.  The bank have sent a new card to my home address, but that’s in Scotland and won’t arrive for a few days. So, I’ll be paying a visit to the British Consulate in the hope of getting a crisis loan. The downside to this is that it requires surrendering my passport in exchange for emergency travel papers until the loan is repaid, which could cause issues when I try to get back into Belgium.

We’ll see what happens though. C’est la Vie.

Day 37 – Mini-Plenary Retrospective

Most of the plenary sessions of the European Parliament are held in Strasbourg. This dates back to the treaties which founded the European Coal and Steel Community in the ’50s. It was intended to ensure the French retained more power in the ECSC then the Germans did. Since then, various treaties have come and gone and the French Government have vigorously fought for Parliament sittings to remain in Strasbourg despite MEPs being based in Brussels, where committee and group meetings are held. The exception to this are Mini-Plenary sessions, which only last two days, compared to the full Plenaries which last four.

This week was my first Mini-Plenary. It wasn’t originally expected to be too stressful, expect that following an Environment (ENVI) committee vote the previous week, the vote on Thursday was to include a motion calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in EU waters. While this wouldn’t have been binding on the members states, it would have led to a communication to the Commission and Council suggesting that they impose a legally binding moratorium through the Council of Ministers.

Understandably, this meant this it was all hands on deck in SNP quarters: a ban on oil drilling would potential devastate Scotland’s economy and jobs market, as well as cutting the UK treasury’s revenue. Initially, we believed that they moratorium would pass so we prepared damage controls and started to think ahead to what could be done to persuade the Council and Commission that Scotland’s rigs were safe.

When it came down to the vote, the motion which contained the resolution passed, but an amendment which removed the moratorium from it also passed. This makes it more unlikely that the Council of Ministers will seek a moratorium, even though the Commissioner for the Environment is quite enthusiastic about one.

What will happen now is that the EU will look at coming up with collective response strategies for oil accidents as well as looking at increasing the safety standards on rigs. The UK rigs already have very high standards of safety thanks to the Cullen Inquiry on the Piper Alpha Disaster, which put stringent regimes in place. These were tightened by the Health and Safety Executive (a Quango which is essential) in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon accident.

For much of this week, it was just Alyn and I in the office. It was an interesting experience dealing with this without Laura. I’m not sure I did as well as I could have done, but Alyn seemed happy enough with how I coped. Admittedly, by the time he left at 2 on Thursday, I was just about ready to pass out from stress, cold symptoms and exhaustions, but it was great fun. It was also something extremely important and it felt daunting to know that I was lending a hand to a current issue that might affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Next week will be more relaxed. I’m heading back to Scotland on Tuesday for the SNP conference. This years conference is in Perth (as normal) and runs from Thursday to Sunday. After that, I’m take a week off Europe to sort out some stuff for Uni and to visit my Grandfather, who is very probably dying (of old age rather than anything specific, but he’s being very well looked after in a carehome near where he grew up). I may well write a bit about him over the next week, because without him I wouldn’t be sitting in Brussels or heading to the SNP conference next week.