Friday, December 31, 2004


Hello everyone, still safe in Thailand. Here's a story I've written for TCS -- it isn't much in the way of disaster journalism but it may interest you to know what's going on in one place that hasn't suffered too badly from the tsunami.
Happy New Year

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

To Be Safe and Fortunate in Thailand

"Sawasdii krap" from Thailand. As I write this the devastation around south Asia is intense and the death toll in countries around the Indian Ocean is mounting (is it just me or do the cable networks seem obsessed with the body count figures?). But Karen and I are safe and sound at an idyllic spot on the calm and beautiful Andaman Sea. We were up north, in Ayuttaya, when tragedy struck, and have been safe at all times on our vacation. Sadly, many other tourists were not so fortunate. The island we are on now, Ko Mook, in the south of Thailand, was almost completely (and miraculously) spared major damage from the tsunami. It was shielded from the wave by another island nearby, Ko Kradan. The resort where we are staying is beautiful and it is nearly full of people. We have air-conditioning, clean running water and drinking water, delicious food, beautiful beach, sunsets, everything. Unfortunately, like you, we are watching the devastation elsewhere on CNN. We are watching such scenes of horror and it makes us feel a little uneasy about our vacation. We are especially saddened by the scale of the tragedy in South India, in the state of Tamil Nadu, where we were two years ago at this time and where we have friends -- and also by what is going on in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia, and north of here in Phuket and Krabi in Thailand. They just cannot cope with a disaster like this.
A small fishing village on the other side of the island we are on now was pretty badly damaged, and we are going to spend some of our time here helping the people there. The Thai people are very friendly, and they are all smiles, even though many of them have lost friends and family on other islands. A smiling man appeared at the door of our resort's office this morning, chatting away with his colleagues. Someone mentioned to us that the man's wife had been killed by the wave. She worked at a resort affiliated with this one on Ko Phi Phi island, which was totally devastated by the wave. Most Thais are Buddhist. Perhaps he is comforted by his belief in reincarnation. But I doubt it.
I will try to write more later, but wanted to let anyone know who checks this site that Karen and I are safe. We have always been fortunate in our lives with our family, friends, health, safety. We continue to be that way.
We will stay safe. You do the same.
Love, Craig

Saturday, December 04, 2004

This Is Rumor Control

Got a minute or six? Check out a very cool blog edited by a former colleague of mine who is operating under a nom de plume taken from Aliens. The movie, not from actual aliens. I can't exactly remember which one Apone was but he seems to have a good kill ratio.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Send Rove on Over

In today's Wall Street Journal Europe, I suggest dispatching Karl Rove to the EU, where he might help orchestrate victories in the various constitutional referendums. You need a subscription to read it online, but I'll post the article below for those of you who don't have one. Please don't tell the fine people at Dow Jones...

Roving Europe

November 29, 2004

After masterminding President George W. Bush's re-election victory,
Karl Rove probably needs a new challenge. Nothing could be more
difficult than getting the EU's unwieldy constitution through a series
of national referendums.

Soon, up-or-down votes on the controversial 855-page (including annexes, protocols and declarations) document will be held in many of the EU's 25 member states -- among them the U.K., Ireland, Denmark and other "countries like France." But EU leaders and political spin-meisters have proven exceedingly inept at communicating the constitution's benefits, and polls show support for it slipping almost everywhere.

If even one country votes no, the constitution is dead. Who better than the widely acknowledged "Smartest Man in Politics" to sell an almost entirely unsellable and incomprehensible document to an increasingly dubious electorate?

So, just as he did for Mr. Bush, Mr. Rove might come up with a targeted campaign effort in each problem country. Here's how it might look:

• The U.K.: This will be the toughest nut to crack. Most Britons do not even think of themselves as European, much less support the idea of giving up more of their "sovereignty" to Brussels via a constitutional treaty.

Classic Rovian strategy here would comprise a two-pronged effort. Prong number one involves countering the influence of Rupert Murdoch. Yes, he was on Mr. Rove's -- sorry, Mr. Bush's -- side in the U.S. election, but his coverage of the referendum debate will not be so fair and balanced. Fortunately, there are other tabloids in Britain that rival Mr. Murdoch's Sun and Times of London. They also have Page Three girls and run made-up stories about the royal family. Throw in a forged memo and let the bloggers handle the rest.

Prong two requires discrediting the man who has become the telegenic face of the anti-constitution effort: Former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk. After being booted from his BBC chat program for making some controversial remarks about Muslims, Mr. Kilroy-Silk took up the banner of the fiercely anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party and wound up winning a seat in the European Parliament.

But several skeletons could be let out of his closet -- by privately funded groups acting independently of the pro-constitution campaign, of course. For example, in a publicity stunt reminiscent of John Kerry's tossing of Vietnam War medals over a U.S. Capitol fence, Mr. Kilroy-Silk was the star attraction at a demonstration during which a copy of the EU constitution was brandished ominously near Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London.

Traitor's Gate -- sometimes the 60-second spot just writes itself.

• Denmark: This small Scandinavian country has proven to be an inveterate flip-flopper when it comes to EU referendums -- a reputation that should be exploited to maximum effect. Case in point: Denmark actually voted against the Maastricht Treaty before it voted for it. Just as the indecisive Hamlet eventually chose the road that led to self-destruction, so can today's wavering Danes be trusted to eventually vote "yes" -- and, with Mr. Rove's help, maybe even in less
than two rounds.

• Ireland: Forget trying to win the whole country, it's not going to happen. But Mr. Rove will have done his homework, and certainly knows that old Irish political maxim: "As votes the Dingle Peninsula, so votes County Kerry." Besides, Ireland has gone from being one of Europe's poorest states to one of its richest, all thanks to lavish infusions of money taken by Brussels from taxpayers in other, wealthier European nations. So it's really not too different from Florida.

• France: First order of business is a massive get-out-the-vote operation, consisting mainly of explaining to the French electorate just exactly what is a referendum and how it works. Then, have Jacques Chirac give a nationally televised speech in which he argues that a non vote on the constitution will hand over effective control of EU foreign policy to "countries like the U.S."

If all else fails, organize a train strike.

Copyright 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 26, 2004

Hey, thanks

I'm not going to get all sentimental on the subject of Thanksgiving, but I will link to this short and sweet posting by my high-school buddy Grant Doty in Baghdad. He's an officer in the US Army, stationed in the Green Zone, and if you aren't reading his Catch-22 blog regularly, you should be.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Condi, Condi

Here’s the profile of Condoleezza Rice I did for this week’s edition of European Voice newspaper. I've gone in and fixed all the little edits they do to make me sound British. In other words, I’ve put it back into modern English. I may have missed a few titbits, er, sorry tidbits...

Bush’s ‘Yes’ minister
Condoleezza Rice

By Craig Winneker

NOTHING better sets the tone for George W. Bush’s second term in the White House – after the ideological cleansing of suspected moderates from his first administration, the sudden solidifying into Orwellian irrefutability of his electoral ‘mandate’ and the seemingly unconditional surrender of his vanquished opposition – than the nomination of Condoleezza Rice to be US secretary of state.

Assuming she is confirmed by the Senate for America’s top cabinet position – its version of foreign minister – Rice will become the most powerful African-American woman in her nation’s history (not counting, of course, Oprah). From humble beginnings in the segregated South to a meteoric rise through the academic ranks to international prominence as chief spokeswoman for the Iraq war, Rice now finds herself with a new challenge: restoring international credibility to US foreign policy.

It’s tempting to expect her to be nothing more than the velvet glove sheathing an iron fist. True, she is not even close to being the most hawkish or hardline member of the new cabinet. She was not originally one of the ‘neo-cons’ who dreamed up the so-called Bush doctrine of preventive war and have worked hard to preserve it in the face of world opinion…and of reason. If anything, she is a policy chameleon. But given her background as the ultimate teacher’s pet and recent conversion from nerdy academic to slick practitioner of, yes, neo-conservatism, it would be dangerous to predict how and whether she will change the State Department after the departure of Colin Powell.

At least until his embarrassing presentation before the UN Security Council last Spring, Powell was Europe’s favourite member of the Bush administration. What will Rice’s appointment mean for Europe? If EU leaders worried when they spoke to Powell that the departing secretary of state did not have enough of a moderating influence in the administration to do much more than pay lip-service to their concerns, they have another thing coming with Rice.

What makes her so formidable is the fact that she is the president’s alter ego – his ultimate ‘yes woman’. The New York Times fretted that, after the choice of Rice for the job, “the whole world seems to be noticing that George Bush is stuffing his second-term cabinet with ‘yes’ men and women”. But it noted correctly that “when the president did have dissident voices in the top tier of his administration, he did a very thorough job of ignoring them. Optimists can regard the new team as a more efficient packaging of the status quo”.

Rice, therefore, is an improvement for Europe – even if leaders here do not agree with her brand of diplomacy – because at the very least they will know she speaks for the president. That is something they were able to believe less and less about Powell over the previous four years. She will, however, have some fence-mending to do.

“Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia,” was her widely quoted remark last year as the Bush administration lashed out at allies who had not backed them on the war. Observers on both sides of the Atlantic expect her to try to repair the damage done by those kinds of comments. But it will take more than shuttle diplomacy.

Some here are already expecting the charm offensive. A European Commission official from Italy notes wryly that Rice’s first name, loosely translated into the Italian con dolcezza, means ‘with sweetness’. But, he laughs: “I don’t think the French will necessarily translate her name that way.” Probably not. Then again, they may be too flabbergasted at the idea of such a powerful position being held by ‘a woman of colour’ to have a rational reaction.

In announcing his decision to nominate Rice, Bush spoke movingly of her compelling personal background. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she quickly established herself as a child prodigy: a concert pianist, a trained figure skater and a star student. According to one source in Washington who went to grade school with Rice, the teacher used to preface every question to the class this way: “Does anyone except for Condoleezza know the answer to..?”

She served in the Bush senior administration as a Soviet expert, just when that job was becoming irrelevant. After Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, she returned to academia, becoming provost at Stanford University. But she had become personally close to the Bush family and, when George W. launched his 2000 campaign, Rice was brought on board as one of a team of experts tasked with applying a patina of credibility in the international affairs arena. Translation: she was Bush’s foreign policy tutor.

She also became an attractive and seemingly moderate public face for the overwhelmingly white, middle-aged and conservative Republicans to put forward on the national stage. Young, black and female, she defied the political stereotypes.

Now, if confirmed, Rice will be third in the line of succession to the presidency (after the vice-president and speaker of the House of Representatives). Despite her impressive background, sharp intellect, and thousand-kilowatt smile, Rice does not have a strongly positive profile with the American public. She has not benefited much from her historic status. Rather, she is often seen in negative terms – perhaps a reminder of the know-it-all types everyone used to hate in grade school. She is therefore often portrayed as a Bush pet (although perhaps the critics have the caricature the wrong way round). One cartoonist for a major US newspaper last week showed Rice as a parrot perched on the finger of a baby-talking president, who asks: “How woodums wike to be Secwetawy of State?” Rice responds: “Awwrk!! OK, chief! Anything you say, chief! You bet, chief! You’re my hero, chief!”

Offensive as the characterization may be, it does not overstate how close the president and Rice are personally. The Washington Post recently reported that “Bush and Rice know each other so well they have conversations based on body language, with maybe four words exchanged”.

As national security advisor, she frequently accompanied Bush and his wife to the presidential weekend retreat at Camp David, in Maryland. Given the pressing security issues of the day, this shouldn’t be so surprising. But what to make of an incident that fired up the gossips in Washington last April after a juicy item was published in New York magazine?

At a dinner party attended by several top Washington journalists, Rice was overheard to say: “As I was telling my husb—” before stopping abruptly and correcting herself: “As I was telling President Bush…” Paging Dr Freud… It may be a testament to her schoolmarmish image that almost nobody in Washington thinks Bush and Rice are actually an item.

But Rice, who has never married, does have her admirers. American roots rocker Steve Earle this year offered up ‘Condi, Condi’, a reggae tune in which the outspoken left-winger admits a tongue-in-cheek infatuation with Rice. “Sweet and dandy pretty as can be/You be the flower and I’ll be the bumble bee/Oh she loves me oops she loves me not /People say you’re cold but I think you’re hot.” (Not since comedienne Carol Burnett’s 1957 hit ‘I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles’ has a secretary of state been so lovingly serenaded.)

What does the future hold for Condoleezza Rice? Occasionally during the first Bush term there were rumours that she’d be picked to replace Dick Cheney, who would resign as vice-president, thus positioning her advantageously for a campaign four years hence to become the first woman and first African-American president. This, of course, would most likely pit her against the former first lady and now New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Refuelling the speculation in the days following this year’s election was the sudden visit of Cheney to the hospital for ‘chest pains’.

Hillary versus Condi in 2008? As the president would say: “Bring it on.”

© Copyright 2004 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Get Over It?

The Brussels-based Parliament magazine, an in-house glossy for MEPs, asked me to write a piece describing "the US view of the European reaction to the US elections". Once I figured out what that meant, I wrote the following piece:

US to EU: Get over it!

Bush’s re-election may not have been popular in Europe, but could it turn out to be good news?

Despair…frustration…clandestine joy…even perverted glee. These are just a few of the immediately detectable European reactions to George W. Bush’s re-election as US president.
Granted, they are also some of the responses found among Americans themselves – even as they handed Bush a surprisingly strong victory on 2 November. But it’s been a revealing exercise during the campaign and in its immediate aftermath over the last several days to gauge the European mood.

After all, Europeans seemed to have invested an unprecedented amount of emotional and political interest in an American election. For the most part, they wanted Bush to lose to his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. Some went so far as to set up websites such as Others, such as UK’s Guardian newspaper, attempted to influence the election outcome more directly. (The paper’s letter-writing campaign aimed at undecided voters backfired spectacularly. Clark County, which the Guardian had targeted, was the only one in the state of Ohio to give more votes to Bush this year than it did in 2000. Bush owes the Guardian’s editors a thank-you note.)

So it’s no surprise to see such widespread shock and dismay over Bush’s victory. Congratulatory messages from European leaders were delivered through gritted teeth. Newspaper headlines (the UK Daily Mirror’s “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” and Libération’s “L’empire empire” come to mind) were harsh and dismissive. Some reaction was even gleefully condescending – as if Bush’s re-election confirmed the view held by some that Americans are overweight rubes who care only for their SUVs and low tax rates.

Then there was the rash of condolence emails from Europeans to their American friends: one showed a map of North America showing the states that voted for Kerry renamed the ‘United States of Canada’ and the rest ‘Jesusland’; another circulated Michael Moore’s ‘17 Reasons Not to Slit Your Wrists’.

Putting aside the derision, how have Americans accepted this unusual level of concern over how they chose to exercise their democratic rights? Well, their message to Europeans who’ve had such visceral reactions to the US election result might best be summed up in three words: ‘Get over it.’ (Or perhaps three other, more crude words suggesting an anatomically impossible physical act.)

But this presupposes that a significant number of Americans would even concern themselves with how they are viewed in Europe or anywhere else abroad. If that were the case, Kerry would be rehearsing the oath of office. But his strategic decision to make a key part of his campaign a promise to restore US credibility around the globe clearly did not pay off.

Let’s face it: Europe’s predominant support for Kerry was mainly the product of wishful thinking. The Democrat was not going to pull US troops from Iraq, did not support the Kyoto protocol, and talked just as tough as Bush about “hunting down and killing” terrorists. He even went out and shot a goose. It was ridiculous to think his election would suddenly turn the US into some bastion of multilateral sustainable development and social cohesion.

A good example of this mindset was the post-election statement issued by the European Parliament’s Green group leaders, Monica Frassoni and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. “We regret that a change of course in US foreign, security, environmental and social policy – hoped for by many Europeans – is now very improbable,” they opined. But this ignored the fact that Kerry had offered to make none of these dreams come true.

Several American commentators have called on Europe to stop fretting about Bush’s re-election and start dealing with it. “President Bush is no fluke, and there’s no wishing him away,” wrote conservative columnist James Glassman in the Wall Street Journal Europe. “The good news is that Mr. Bush isn’t devious or unpredictable. He’s entirely open and obvious. A major theme of his campaign was that he does what he says.”

In fact, Europe should be pleased as punch with the Bush victory for another important reason. A Kerry win would have forced reluctant EU nations to consider helping to clean up the mess Bush has made of Iraq. With Bush still in the White House, Europe’s political leaders can continue to keep their hands clean – and wring them at the same time. And, as many have noted, an emboldened Bush may give Europe just the impetus it needs to get its foreign policy act together.

Some Europeans realize this and are already choosing to play the hand the US has dealt. “The re-election of George W. Bush means that the Europeans will be under far greater pressure to come to grips with the U.S. foreign policy agenda,” says Werner Weidenfeld from Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation think tank. He predicts Bush will now send the Europeans more demanding signals but that this only provides an opportunity to act.

To their credit, Frassoni and Cohn-Bendit seem to have realized this, too. “In the next four years the role of the European Union as a counterweight to the US will become ever more important,” they proclaimed. “Only a strong, united Union that is able to act decisively when needed, will be capable of fulfilling this task. Therefore, a rapid ratification of the Constitution must become priority number one in Europe.”

So is that Europe’s silver lining in the Bush re-election – which could rally EU leaders to a common foreign policy and EU citizens to a realization that only with a European constitution can there be an effective check on US hegemony? Would we see headlines in US papers asking, “How can 450 million people be so UNITED?”

Don’t bet on it.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Thinking Outside the Tank

Just back from a conference in Bulgaria, where some new think-tanks were networking, and sharpening their thinking and tanking skills. Appropriately enough, I had a few random thoughts about the whole thing, which you can now read in my TCS column. News of the last few days has me thinking seriously about heading back to Bulgaria...

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Is This the End of Rocco?

Yes, it is. But before incoming European Commission President Jose Barroso decided to withdraw his slate of candidates for the new commission today, I had this article in the Wall Street Journal Europe on the Rocco Buttiglione flap. I'm just happy to have been able to make a gratuitous reference to the Spanish Inquisition, which of course no one expects.

Sin of Commission

October 27, 2004

BRUSSELS -- Good old-fashioned political battles are rare in Brussels,
where marathon disagreements over cod-fishing quotas or
qualified-majority-voting logarithms are what normally pass for high

So it has been refreshing over the last couple of weeks to see
politicians, bureaucrats and opinion-leaders in the EU capital
engaging in the kind of down-and-dirty melee we've come to expect in
Washington or London.

What started out as a hubbub -- indignant reaction from
parliamentarians to some ill-considered comments made by Italy's
nominee for the European Commission during his confirmation hearing --
has grown into a full-fledged hullabaloo. At stake is not simply the
question of whether 25 new commissioners will be allowed to take their
posts next week nor even the fragile political standing of the
institution's next president, but also the future of the European
project and possibly even democracy itself.

OK, that may be overstating things a bit. But the Pope has already
gotten involved and Mel Gibson can't be far behind. This is serious.

* * *
Incoming Commission President José Manuel Barroso has impressed many
with his media savvy and his near-Clintonian ability to say exactly
what any particular audience wants to hear. But the concrete of his
European political foundation is only just beginning to dry, so
naturally members of the EU Parliament -- especially ones from the
center-left and left-leaning political groups who didn't want him to
get the top job in the first place -- want to scratch their names into
it. Rocco Buttiglione, a former minister in the Italian government and
the man Mr. Barroso had chosen to head up the commission's justice and
civil rights department, gave them the perfect opportunity.

During his Parliamentary confirmation hearing, Mr. Buttiglione
declared that women exist "to have children and be protected by their
husbands" and said he believes homosexuality to be a "sin." He also
said he wouldn't let his personal moral beliefs influence his
policy-making. But the remarks caused an uproar and led to his being
the first commission nominee in the history of the EU to be rejected
by a committee of the European Parliament.

Some, including the Vatican, have rushed to defend Mr. Buttiglione,
accusing his tormentors of a "secular Inquisition," although a more
appropriate analogy might be the Monty Python Inquisition, in which
the torturers used such implements as "the comfy chair" and "the soft
pillow" to great effect.

The Italian last week issued the requisite apology -- or at least a
textbook non-apology that amounted to expressing "deep regret" for all
the fuss. And Mr. Barroso bent over backwards to appease his critics,
promising to set up a subcommittee of other commissioners to make sure
Mr. Buttiglione's personal views do not encroach on EU legislation.

This offer was rejected as too little, too late by socialists in the
Parliament. Never mind that it was both unnecessary and absurd. The
commission acts as a whole, and nearly everything it does is subject
to the approval of member states or the Parliament, so the notion that
Mr. Buttiglione would launch a one-man jihad against working gay
mothers is far-fetched.

But the issue no longer seems to be Mr. Buttiglione or the handful of
other commission nominees who have offended one party group or another
for some pet political reason. Now, it's an interinstitutional battle,
a game of chicken between the historically strong commission and the
once-weak but gradually empowered Parliament.

The Parliament must approve the 25 commission nominees en bloc; it
cannot reject one or a few. If it vetoes the whole incoming class, the
EU would suddenly find itself without a new commission -- and would
have to ask the outgoing one to stick around for awhile. Departing
Commission President Romano Prodi, displaying once again his talent
for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, has already
nobly declared his willingness to serve if called. That may yet prove
precisely the sort of threat Mr. Barroso needs to ensure that his
commission slate is approved at today's session of the 732-member
assembly. The former Portuguese prime minister yesterday told
parliament that he wouldn't change his line-up.

So Mr. Barroso is gambling that MEPs won't sacrifice the whole slate
of candidates just to make a point. Either that or he's hoping that,
at the last minute, Mr. Buttiglione will cash in his chips and head
back to Rome.

But what would really happen if there were no Commission? We don't
have to look that far back in EU history to find the answer: Not much.

In March 1999 the commission headed by Luxembourg's Jacques Santer
resigned en masse after allegations of fraud had tarnished a few of
its members. Europe was left without a commission until the new one
was appointed six months later. The EU functioned, the 19,000
bureaucrats who work for the commission continued in their jobs, and
the earth turned on its normal axis. (Actually, in that case, the
disgraced commissioners continued to serve during the interregnum in
what was called a "caretaker role" -- prompting the question, what is
the difference?)

* * *
As for this year's standoff, we won't know for sure whether a
full-blown crisis can be averted until Day One of the new commission's
mandate, when its members either take office or don't. Actually, we
may have to wait until Day Three. Monday and Tuesday are holidays for
the EU.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

How to Build a Laser Gun


UPDATE (from July 2007) on how to build a laser gun can be found here...

IMPORTANT UPDATE (from AUGUST 2006): For the latest on how to build a laser gun, click here and here!

unedited post from October 2004 follows:

Dear Friends and Future Readers,
Thanks for all the input on the website. As you can see, I've changed the colors a bit in an effort to make it more readable. I promise to work on making the posts themselves more readable. And, in the course of my research, I discovered a nifty project for a rainy Brussels autumn. Good luck!

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Three-Pillar Circus

Wondering about that huge circus tent in the middle of Brussels' Rond Point Schuman? Of course you are! Now posted on TCS: my analysis/review of a phantasmagorical EU project aimed at defining the Image of Europe. I'm working without a net here, folks...

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Let's Talk Turkey

I take a typically over-simplistic look at a problem of great political, social and theological significance in this week's TCS column. Enjoy!

Check Out My Links!

Just a brief post to encourage visitor(s) to be sure to check out my links -- not just the ones on the right side of the page, but also the post headings, etc., which are hyperlinked. You never know what you might find...

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Beers That Made Belgium Semi-Famous

Two new articles to add to the collection: my latest piece on TCS has posted today; check it out for some instanalysis of the European Commission confirmation hearings.

And in the Wall Street Journal Europe I hold forth on something I actually know about: beer. The subtopic is marketing, of which I know nothing. I paste it here, since the WSJE is subscription only.

A Tale of Two Belgian Beers
Business Europe
By Craig Winneker
27 September 2004
The Wall Street Journal Europe
(Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Brussels –

Beer, like popular music, is usually more about marketing and demographics than such elusive and unquantifiable phenomena as, say, taste.

Anheuser-Busch's now-iconic Bud Light did not, in some singular cosmic occurrence, suddenly become a more satisfying form of refreshment than Lite Beer from Miller. Rather, a relentlessly clever advertising campaign simply overwhelmed a competitor that had become America's first successful low-calorie pilsner in the 1970s with TV spots featuring aging sports heroes and a slogan -- "Tastes great, less filling" -- that was memorable if doubly dubious.

Then there is Rolling Rock, a beer now favored by Blackberry-wielding young hipsters paying premium prices for it on the U.S. West Coast, while in the Rust Belt, where it has been brewed for decades, it remains the default pitcher-filler of the hardhat set. They drink it because it is cheap, and local.

It all has to do with brand positioning -- and, yes, with the undeniable lure of something that appears to be new even when it isn't.

In Belgium, home to the finest beers in the world (including a handful still crafted by Trappist monks -- although one suspects they, too, have beefed up their marketing staffs), a new battle is brewing between one of the world's largest beer companies and a small but clever local competitor.

It has all the makings of a classic beverage war: expensive marketing campaigns, a struggle for the right kind of retail visibility, ambitious brand re-positioning, and the occasional bevy of tank-topped women in a bottle-shaped truck.

Order "une biere" or "een pintje" in just about any Belgian bar -- from the grandest Art Nouveau cafe to the humblest corner tavern -- and you are almost certain to be served one of two nearly indistinguishable pilsners. Stella Artois and Jupiler, both produced by Belgium-based multinational Interbrew, are ubiquitous in this small country.

Moortgat Brewing, on the other hand, is a small, family-run operation based in a suburb of Antwerp. Its flagship brand, Duvel, is sold around the world and is justifiably considered one of the finest beers available anywhere. Its light, slightly sweet flavor is notorious for fooling British lager louts into thinking they can drink huge quantities with impunity. They can't; its alcohol content is nearly 10%, or three times as strong as any English beer.

But recently, Moortgat has moved beyond simply promoting Duvel around the world as a super-premium product for connoisseurs. It is taking aim at Interbrew in the local market for beers made to be quaffed.

And it has a secret weapon. Frederic Nicolay opened his first bar in Brussels in 1995 and has since amassed an empire of trendy establishments that now includes everything from converted warehouses serving shaggy students to a Michelin-starred restaurant. But back at the beginning, when he was broke and just looking for a change from the usual dark-wood and smoke- and ennui-filled Belgian brasserie, Mr. Nicolay was visited by a Moortgat rep who offered a free refrigerator if he would sell the company's beers.

It was fortuitous timing for both: for Mr. Nicolay because he had no money and needed a fridge, and for Moortgat because it had just struck up a relationship with a young man who would turn out to have the golden touch when it comes to in-crowd nightspots. "Little by little we started to work together and they saw that I sold a lot of their products," Mr. Nicolay says.

His establishments, one of which opens soon in London, share certain characteristics: they are understated and clean in design, have service that is stylishly indifferent, they are full every night -- and they all feature Moortgat beers.

Eventually, the brewery became partners with Mr. Nicolay and now co-owns all of his restaurants and bars. And when they decided to relaunch one of their nearly unknown products, an unassuming pilsner called Vedett, they asked Mr. Nicolay to mastermind the whole effort, from the label design to the advertising and promotion campaigns.

Vedett, it must be said, tastes like just about every other Belgian pilsner. To be honest, it's not a whole lot different from Schlitz. But its recent marketing efforts have been more eye-catching than anything the big boys have done in years. First came beermats that appeared to have mobile-phone numbers scrawled all over them, enticing customers to pick them up. Then came the bottles with little pictures of photogenic young Belgians; each label had a different hipster, and there seemed to be no two alike, thus encouraging bar patrons to collect several at a time.

Still, Moortgat is appropriately post-modern about the campaign, and its Web site acknowledges the absurdity of the Vedett rebranding. It has even crafted a sort of legend around what it says was once a "cult" beer favored by "an intimate circle of insiders in the Antwerp-Brussels region" but is now going through a "second childhood in a number of trendy cafes." It proudly proclaims the beer's image to be "hip, young and slightly absurd."

How has Interbrew responded to this small-scale attack? The only way a big company can when confronted with an energetic upstart who can make an advertisement painted on the side of a cement mixer look cool: by getting bigger. Much, much bigger. Interbrew has been buying up small, medium and large breweries everywhere; it is now the world's largest beer producer by volume.

And, strangely, it has changed its name twice in the last six months. First, after merging with Brazil's AmBev (whose flagship brew is Brahma, a beer that could taste good only if consumed on a sweltering hot Rio beach -- and whose ads feature thong-clad women choosing instead to pour it on their bodies), it become InterbrewAmBev.

That, wisely, did not last long. Now, in a move that is neither likely to improve the flavor of Stella Artois and Brahma nor send Mr. Nicolay back to the drawing board, it has become . . . InBev. Actually, it's !nBev, with an exclamation point substituting for the capital I and signifying, well, who knows what. !'ll probably have a Vedett instead.

Friday, August 27, 2004

The Next Blog

I'm new to the blogging game, and clearly I've got a long way to go before I can catch up to the likes of this, which I found at random by just clicking the "Next Blog" link at the top right of the screen. Awesome stuff. Sigh.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Farmer's Almanac

Check out my friend Dave Farmer's new blog, Farmer's Almanac. It's not just a clever name. You can read his editorials from the Lewiston (Maine) Sun Journal newspaper. Disappointingly, he does not appear to be predicting the weather or providing tidal information...

Meanwhile, stay tuned to this space for the imminent Grand Opening of this site...

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Meet the New Boss

Hello Reader! Someday I hope to have more than one of you...
Anyway, TechCentralStation-Europe has just published my article on promising recent moves by the new European Commission president. Enjoy, and feel free to comment here or on TCS.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Two from the Vault

I am just back from a two-week trip to the U.S. and am swamped with work, but have updated my list of links on the right side of this page. I hope to have more articles posted soon. In the meantime, here are a couple of old articles: one from this spring in the Wall Street Journal Europe and another I did last summer for the Washington Post. I don't have live links to these, so I'm pasting them in. Read at your own risk...

Throwing Money out the Windows

March 26, 2004

As politicians, business leaders and consumers ponder the larger meaning of the EU's harsh antitrust action against Microsoft, including a record-high fine of €497 million, one question remains unanswered: What will the European Commission do with all that money?

Knowing that Brussels bureaucrats often need help figuring out ways to spend such large sums, I offer the following list of suggestions (and, thanks to a recent commission ruling on forced licensing of comedic intellectual property, I can freely adapt an innovation of talk show host David "dominant position" Letterman: the Top Ten List):

10. Buy five million new, MediaPlayer-free copies of Windows for Commission computers. There would still be enough money left over for the nominal bandwidth charges related to downloading (free) versions of MediaPlayer.

9. Build half of a new Berlaymont. Remodeling the Commission's headquarters building in Brussels after an asbestos scare closed it down nearly a decade ago will end up costing taxpayers more than €1 billion. With 10 new nations joining the bloc in May, it might be worth using the Microsoft loot to add a spiffy new east wing.

8. Pay some old legal bills. Two big European companies, Schneider Electric and MyTravel, are currently suing the Commission for pain and suffering they endured as a result of Mario Monti's efforts to block their separate attempts to merge with other firms. The European Court of Justice overturned the Commission's decisions in those cases and allowed the mergers to go forward. To quote a competition lawyer I know but can't identify, "This money can make their little problem go bye-bye."

7. Subsidize more farmers. It's only a drop in the milk bucket, but still, €497 million percent is about, well, 1% of the EU's annual budget for the Common Agricultural Policy. When you're trying to grow sugar beets in arctic climates, every little bit helps.

6. Help preserve France's key role in the EU. The European Parliament is forced to spend nearly €200 million per year to shuttle back and forth between its seats in Brussels and Strasbourg. This could help extend this noble tradition by . . . almost three years!

5. Ferraris for commission staff. The fine would pay for a new Ferrari Modena ($180,000 MSRP) for each of the 600 officials working in the Commission's Competition directorate. There'd be enough left over to buy 5,000 Smart cars. But don't think of it as the latest example of commission excess -- it's economic stimulus for central Italy.

4. Build new houses for members of the Commission. Bill Gates' ultra-modern lakefront home cost $50 million, so these would only be half as fancy as his. But it's a start. And there's still another Microsoft investigation waiting in the wings.

3. Two words: EU Spacelab.

2. Finance a film project. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson is available. Give him half the money to make a blockbuster trilogy on The Lisbon Process. Give the other half to Eurostat -- and watch it disappear!

1. Boost innovation. The EU could finance development of a new computer operating system that seamlessly ties together various software programs in a dynamic, easy-to-use format. Oh, wait . . .
A Perfect Specimen Of Colonial Mythmaking

By Craig Winneker

Sunday, August 10, 2003; Page B04


I recently revisited Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa for the first time since I went there on a class trip more than 25 years ago, when my family lived here for a time. Turns out I hadn't missed much.

Housed in a splendid Louis XIV-style palace on the outskirts of Brussels, the museum has proclaimed the glories of Belgian rule in the Congo for more than a century. And during that time, its impressive collection has remained largely unchanged. Imposing gilded statues depict Belgium's influence in Central Africa. "Belgium brings civilization to the Congo," reads the inscription on one, showing a priest ministering to an adoring Pygmy tribesman. Others illustrate the "security" and "well-being" that were brought to the natives by their colonial masters.

I did notice one new feature, though: a small posterboard sign that appeared earlier this year, with no fanfare, in one of the more controversial exhibits. The "Gallery of Remembrance" is a shrine to Belgians who died while serving in Central Africa. Its walls are painted with the names of some 1,500 fallen military officers, bureaucrats, traders and pioneers. A bronze plaque salutes the martyred leaders of an anti-slavery campaign. But now, the new sign offers a one-paragraph addendum in French, Dutch and English:

"The attentive visitor," it reads, "will not fail to notice that, at the time, no need was felt to question the Belgian presence in Central Africa. There was no mention of the Congolese victims, for instance. The viewpoint is exclusively European and concentrates on a few historical episodes. The underlying reality of colonial events was completely ignored. The memorial to the campaigns against slavery, unveiled in 1959, is a rather late example of mythmaking."

For the first time since it was founded in 1897 by King Leopold II, the museum is finally getting ready to recognize that "underlying reality" and "mythmaking." It may take an unusually "attentive visitor" to find it, but the temporary plaque is a small step in a two-year project aimed at transforming the institution to acknowledge the brutal realities of Belgium's colonial history that have come to light in recent years. It is the first public measure the country is taking to make its citizens aware of the atrocities committed a century ago.

These long overdue plans have stirred controversy. Some Belgians argue that changing the museum too much will obliterate what they see as their country's honorable role in improving life in Central Africa. Others say the institution, considered one of the foremost of its kind in the world, should be preserved as it is -- as the embodiment of a particular kind of worldview during an important period of history. I have a more postmodern view: The best thing to do with this museum might be to display it inside another museum.

Once you know the history behind the collection -- as I do now but didn't as a grade-schooler -- there would seem to be no choice but to change it. In 1998, writer Adam Hochschild published the best-selling "King Leopold's Ghost," a book that vividly described what the museum does not: how Leopold, a first cousin of Britain's Queen Victoria, persuaded the world to let him take personal control over a domain nearly one-fourth the size of the United States; how he duped America and Britain into thinking he would establish a free-trade zone in Central Africa, "civilize" the natives and fight the scourge of Arab slave-trading; and how, instead, he established a brutal regime that exploited the territory's population and natural resources for his personal benefit.

Hochschild's book revealed how mercenary soldiers forced Congolese men into the jungle to gather wild rubber for the bicycle and automobile industries. Those who refused or failed to meet their quotas were liable to have their hands chopped off or to be whipped nearly to death; some were simply shot dead. Others went into hiding, leaving their farms to fail and their families to starve. There never was any anti-slavery campaign. In fact, Hochschild estimates that Leopold's quarter-century reign of terror caused the deaths of 10 million Africans.

Suddenly an inconspicuous cardboard sign doesn't seem adequate. Especially since the rest of the museum today looks much the same as it did when it was built -- even if it no longer features reconstructed Congolese villages with real tribesmen on display.

Director Guido Gryseels has already launched the effort to overhaul the museum with several exhibits running through the summer entitled "The Africans Have Their Say," featuring the work of contemporary African artists and photographers. Gryseels calls the museum's current design "paternalistic" and says the campaign he's started will give the collection a modern, "multidisciplinary theme." Out will go the bland, detailed presentations on export crops (installed decades ago to convince Belgians their colony was worth having), and in will come a more holistic "historical journey," synthesizing social and natural sciences with art, culture and such contemporary notions as "sustainable development."

"The big controversy," Gryseels conceded to me recently, "comes with how do we deal with our colonial past? A lot of people who worked in the colonies are sensitive." In fact, when translated editions of his book were published in Belgium, Hochschild was met with anger from many quarters, especially from associations of people who had worked in the colonial administration, or their descendants. These same people are not likely to be pleased that their government, which owns the museum, will soon be accusing them or their relatives of having taken part in genocide. They "get emotional," Gryseels acknowledged, and argue that Belgium had a civilizing influence on the Congo, helping provide infrastructure, schools and medicine. Somehow they overlook that when Belgium pulled up stakes and left the Congo in 1960, it left behind only 14 African university graduates and a continuing legacy of political mayhem.

What the museum hopes to do, Gryseels said of the colonial atrocities, is "recognize that [they] happened and . . . provide the context. Some people will walk out and say that Leopold was a murderer -- other people may recognize the vision he had."

Belgium is not the first nation to have to confront a dark part of its past. To be fair, few other European countries have come completely clean on their colonial records. France and Britain have long accepted their responsibility to help former colonies, but they do little to highlight atrocities. Germany only recently acknowledged and apologized for its massacre of Herero tribes in 1904-08 in what is now Namibia.

Belgium has come later than most to its face-off with history, even though this history was never a complete secret. It was a matter of public record, though that record was sometimes hard to find. Over the years, any atrocities were erased from official history, not taught in schools, not acknowledged as part of the national memory. So a full reckoning now is bound to be painful.

And not everyone sees the need for contrition. At a press conference Gryseels held to announce the museum's makeover, I overheard two Belgian journalists complaining about the changes, deriding them as "politically correct" leftist revisionism. A comment written by a Belgian in the museum guest book pleads, "Don't change it too much! It is a magnificent museum of which Belgians can be proud."

Perhaps there's something to the notion that the museum in its current state provides its own unique lessons. As offensive as it appears when viewed in the light of modern knowledge and sensibilities, it's fair to ask whether, from a historical perspective, overhauling it is the right approach. It's one thing to revisit the record and make it a more accurate reflection of reality, but it's another to ignore different versions of what happened. Like it or not, the museum is a kind of time capsule that perfectly illustrates the evil of colonialism and the paternalism and racism that allowed it to exist.

Gryseels' planned "historical journey," on the other hand, sounds suspiciously like so many modern "interactive" museums that overdo the computer animation and the Disney-fied dinosaur bones, where the largest exhibits always seem to be the gift shops.

The dilemma posed by the project is summed up in a painting, specially commissioned for the museum, by Congolese artist Chéri Samba, whose works combine a playful, cartoonish visual style with often gruesome political and social commentary. Entitled "Reorganisation," it shows Gryseels watching a group of Africans drag a particularly patronizing sculpture out of the museum while a clutch of Belgians tugs desperately in the opposite direction. "We cannot accept that this work should leave the museum," the Belgians are protesting. "It is what has made us what we are today." To which the painted Gryseels responds: "It's true that it's sad, but in fact the museum must be completely reorganized."

Maybe so. As I walked through the museum's dusty and dated galleries, I couldn't help agreeing that a makeover is necessary. It's a travesty that there is no mention of the millions of Africans who died so that the treasures visitors ooh and aah over -- the stuffed animals, the rocks and minerals -- could be brought to Belgium. I watched groups of museum-goers who hadn't read "King Leopold's Ghost" touring the exhibits and listening to guides who never mentioned the horrific truth that lies behind the display cases, and I felt they urgently needed some context.

Still, part of me wants to keep this bizarre, offensive time capsule just as it is, to preserve it as an example of the kind of imperial hubris that reigned in turn-of-the-20th-century Europe -- not as a tribute, but as an artifact.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Press Review 27 July

Here's the latest installment of my press review for European Voice newspaper. Enjoy...

HOLIDAY time is upon us, bringing with it a kind of hazy, sangria-fuelled news siesta. So once again this column revisits what that street bard Will Smith, aka The Fresh Prince, called “a new definition of summer madness”.
Le Monde looks at a military action waged by France’s most lethal fighting force: anti-GM food campaigners. Protesters invaded yet another field of genetically modified maize on a test site in southern France, uprooting the plants and causing general mayhem – at least until the lunch break. Anti-globalization leader José Bové is warning that more GMO crops will be destroyed in the coming weeks.
Le Figaro points to a report by the French Health and Food Safety Board made public on Friday. According to the paper, “It highlights, albeit cautiously, the fact that certain GMOs could be beneficial to health, reducing the use of pesticides... and possessing improved nutritional qualities.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, José.
Actually, Bové might have to turn his Luddite sights onto a new bakery in Paris that offers bread to customers in a hurry. It’s a drive-through boulangerie.
Several wire services describe the courageous venture, which is set in a former service station on a busy road west of the French capital. “’Drive-in Joly’ boulangerie is the first in France and caters to about 200 customers per day,” Reuters reports, quoting the owner as saying customers are increasingly rushed and need convenient service. This kind of thinking just reeks of efficiency.
Meanwhile, Madrid’s El Pais reports that former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar paid a lobbyist $2 million in public money to secure a medal from the US Congress.
“This episode shows that Aznar has confused himself, his post and the state,” the paper says.
A current prime minister who takes it on the chin from his national press is The Netherlands’ Jan Peter Balkenende. De Volkskrant describes some bizarre comments he made during a visit to Germany to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Balkenende told an audience of Bundeswehr recruits that the incident “was an important link in the creation and development of European cooperation and integration”.
Radio Netherlands’ press critic sums it up this way: “One of the great advantages of being a prime minister is that you can travel abroad and say things there that you could never say at home without being dismissed as a bit off the wall at best and, at worst, a blithering idiot.”
Not as long as What the Papers Say is in business you can’t!
But even sun-addled leaders can’t compete with ordinary Europeans when it comes to downright weirdness. Consider this grab-bag:
* Reuters reports that Irish airline Ryanair has sacked two of its workers who sat in an overcrowded plane’s toilets for a flight from Spain because there were no other seats. The captain of the packed flight from Girona, near Barcelona, to Dublin airport resigned after he gave the two cabin crew permission.
* Norway’s NRK radio tells of a four-year-old boy who caused chaos at a Norwegian airport this week when he hopped aboard a luggage conveyor belt as if it were a merry-go-round.
“Ole Tobias crawled onto the belt next to an unmanned check-in desk Monday, continued unnoticed through a trapdoor along with bags and suitcases about his size, then passed through an X-ray scanner and into the luggage hall,” according to wire reports.
* The Italian town of Monza has banned pet owners from keeping goldfish in bowls, according to Agence France Presse. Explains a town official, “A fish kept in a bowl has a distorted view of reality...and suffers because of this.”
That’s all from the Brussels goldfish bowl. Have a great summer!



Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Press Review

My weekly press review column appears in European Voice newspaper, which is available by subscription only, so I've decided to start posting a sort of enhanced version here. I can add links to the stories I mention, which I can't do in a good, old-fashioned newspaper.

So, here you go. Enjoy. Still working on a better name than the one European Voice gives it ("What the Papers Say")....

British papers go ga-ga over what appears to have been the biggest news out of the opening session of the expanded European Parliament: a newly installed British MEP’s unexpected discourse on gender issues.
Once again (remember when Silvio Berlusconi, almost exactly a year ago, likened a German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp guard?), a sideline incident satiates the public’s already bird-like appetite for news from Strasbourg.
The Independent’s Stephen Castle describes the scene: “Nominated by UKIP for the Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee, Godfrey Bloom, newly elected MEP for Yorkshire and Humberside, made a bizarre series of comments that seemed destined to dent his party’s credibility as a serious political force [sic].
“Speaking on the fringes of a press conference Mr Bloom joked that women ‘don’t clean behind the fridge enough’ adding: ‘I would represent Yorkshire women who always have dinner on the table when you come home.’”
Writing in The Guardian, Martin Wainwright adds a literary twist to the saga. “While the shades of Amy Johnson, the Brontë sisters and other famous Yorkshirewomen whirled beyond the grave,” he writes, “Mr Bloom unrepentantly went on local television - promptly syndicated - to make sure that his mission statement was understood.
“‘The more women’s rights you have, it’s actually a bar to their employment,’ he said, citing his experience in the Territorial Army and a London investment firm for which he still works as a researcher. ‘No self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age.’”
Hmm, I wonder how he would know that.
The Daily Mail sees fit to mention in the last sentence of its account of the Bloom incident that “Spanish socialist Josep Borrell, 57, was elected as the new president” of the Parliament. Glad we could fit in that piece of information.
Speaking of the latest Iberian to secure a top EU post, Spain’s El Pais calls Borrell’s election the product of the “complex balancing acts” which have come to typify the institution. “He is a politician with great management experience, who spent a long period in the wilderness and who faces a task which is less partisan than being a deputy in the Spanish parliament,” it says.
But Polish papers think Liberal group candidate and Solidarity legend Bronislaw Geremek should have won.
“There could hardly have been a better candidate to lead the European Parliament,” says Rzeczpospolita, “in which for the first time we have deputies from the part of Europe that was once cut off by the Iron Curtain.”
The paper complains that many MEPs still think in terms of a division between “old” and “new” Europe.
Trybuna argues that the choice of Borrell over Geremek reveals the true balance of power in Europe. “It’s very unfair, but it is the strongest who decide on the order of the world and its institutions,” it writes. “The largest groups in the European Parliament agreed long ago who its president was going to be and shared out the offices between their candidates. So the outcome of the vote was a surprise only to those who believe in willpower overcoming the laws of political physics.”
The International Herald Tribune's Thomas Fuller wonders about the choice of Borrell after the selection of Portuguese prime minister José Barroso as Commission president and Spaniard Javier Solana as the EU’s first foreign minister.
He notes: “The Iberian domination of the EU’s top posts is coincidental but somewhat incongruous, analysts say [translation: it is obvious to this writer and everybody else], given that leaders from the Union’s western fringe are taking office two months after the Union expanded eastward.”
Never mind the Iberian domination of top posts. Despite what UKIP has to say about it, let’s do something about the masculine one.

Friday, July 16, 2004


No real blogs yet, but here are some articles I've written recently:
My Ode to Spam, in the Washington Post

A banana as the symbol of freedom, from the Wall Street Journal

Czechs, We Have No Banany
By Craig Winneker
Sometimes, to misquote Freud, a banana is not just a banana. Sometimes it is a symbol of freedom.
Such is the case in the Czech Republic, where in the decade and a half since the fall of communism, the banana has become the fastest-selling fruit at the green grocer. Per capita annual consumption of bananas in the country has risen from almost zero in 1990 to more than 15 kilograms per person, one of the highest levels in Europe.
And it's not just the Czech Republic; all of Eastern Europe loves bananas.
Legend has it that during the Cold War, West Berliners used to throw them to their neighbors on the other side of the Wall. When the Wall came down in 1989-and again when Berlin marked the anniversary of that dramatic event 10 years later-bunches of bananas were passed around as if they were celebratory bouquets. In former communist countries bananas are seen not just as a tasty and nutritious snack but as an exotic delicacy that freedom has made easy to obtain.
Enter the EU. That's what the Czech Republic and nine other countries have just done, to much deserved fanfare. But one of the many soon-to-be-felt side effects of this historic reunification of the continent is that the banana will change from a symbol of sweet liberty to an emblem of a spoiled rotten trade policy way past its sell-by date.
Followers of EU affairs will recall that bananas were at the center of one of the longest-running and, let's face it, most complicated and insufferably boring trans-Atlantic trade wars. Put as simply as possible, the EU protects banana producers in its former colonies by limiting access to its markets for others, such as Latin American growers. This artificially controls supply and keeps banana prices high all across the union. The new member states started operating under this regime on May 1-and the price hikes will hit soon.
"Suddenly, Czechs are going to have to line up for bananas . . . again," complains a friend from Prague. That's an overstatement. What they will have to do is pay more for banany than they have been, and a lot more than they should have to.
Chiquita, the U.S. banana giant that fought the EU quota system (achieving only minor success) has a big market share in Eastern Europe and recently sought assurances from the European Commission that it would be able to retain it once the quotas take effect there. "Consumers in those countries will be exposed to greater market dynamics," says a Chiquita spokesman. That's putting it delicately.
What's even more galling is the secondary effect this will have on shoppers in the 15 pre-enlargement EU member states, who are by now used to paying too much for bananas (and sugar, and a lot of other products). They'll benefit from what one industry lobbyist referred to as a "blowback" from the still cheaper prices in East European countries.
In other words, in the richer West, people will pay less for bananas than they have been, but still more than they should have to.
Thanks a bunch, Brussels.
My weekly column in European Voice can be read here, but only with a subscription.

My artices on can be read here, for free!


Testing, one, two, three... testing... hello? First blog entry!