Brussels Stories: Smoking eurocrats suffer; surreal cows take a walk

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The Independent Online

Counsellors have been booked and special courses arranged. Doctors are on standby and a website is being constructed. On 1 May next year, the European Commission undertakes one of the most traumatic steps in its history: it will ban smoking on its premises.

For EU veterans, late-night meetings will never be the same. The haze of smoke that habitually hangs over the Greek and Italian delegations will disappear, and visiting dignitaries will be asked to stub out their cigarettes. Commission staff will be confronted with a slogan which, with unintended irony, sounds like a song from the greatest smoker of them all, Bob Marley: "Don't give up giving up".

Smoking is to be banned on health grounds in all buildings and for all staff, including the commission President, Romano Prodi, who has been known to puff on the odd cigar. This was not a step taken lightly or without thorough consideration of alternatives. The idea of building special smoking rooms was rejected on cost grounds, and the notion of exempting VIPs was thrown out as too élitist. The result is that the pavements of the EU quarter of Brussels are to be littered with cigarette butts as of next summer.

So worried is the commission about the move that it is taking extraordinary measures to acclimatise staff, including a nine-month period to kick the habit. There will be courses on "cessation techniques" plus "support from counsellors". Medical advice will be offered, complete with a starter kit, and the cost of nicotine patches will be reimbursed to the tune of 85 per cent.

But whether this will be enough remains to be seen, particularly since 1 May will also see the arrival of 10 new nations into the EU, eight of which are ex-Communist countries with a reputation for heavy smoking.

Even the commission's official document does not pretend that the timing of the smoking ban is a coincidence. It would, says its official paper "be psychologically easier for new colleagues to come to a non-smoking environment from the beginning of their career in the commission, rather than to be permitted to smoke for a few months and then be faced with a ban". Some newcomers from former eastern-bloc countries may find the rule less of a challenge than their established colleagues. Smoking among existing fonctionnaires has produced a number of disputes, some of which have been "quite aggressive", according to the commission.

By contrast, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia already have complete bans on lighting up in government offices. And, unlike the commission, these countries tend not to offer agricultural subsidies to tobacco growers.

Belgium, the birthplace of René Magritte, has a fine tradition of Surrealist art. So it is appropriate that the Art on Cows movement, which started in Zurich in 1998 before going on to Chicago, Salzburg, Bilbao and London, has now come to Brussels.

Each of the life-sized glass-fibre cows, which have appeared in some of the best-known streets of the capital, has been decorated by a Belgian artist, with designs ranging from comic strip cartoons to denims. The show has been a big hit, both with shoppers on smart Avenue Louise, and with children around the city.

But, it seems, not all of Brussels is amused: the police have been called in after the disappearance of six of the 187 bovines. The identify of the culprits remains unknown, but organisers have accused purist opponents of staging an act of organised sabotage. Because of its blend of populism and business sponsorship, the show is seen by some critics as a commercially inspired stunt masquerading as art.

So far, five of the cows have been recovered not far from their original sites, but one remains on the run. Surreal enough, even for the Belgians.