European Times: Brussels - Nothing to say, nothing to eat in a bureaucratic ghost town
Friday 06 August 1999
America may pride itself on taking just two weeks' vacation a year but Europe takes holidays seriously. And few take them more seriously than the political and bureaucratic classes of Brussels.
In theory the place never shuts and, in deference to modern media demands, the European Commission sends out its press team to brief the handful of journalists who remain at their posts.
But with most of the Commission's big cheeses clogging up the Continent's autoroutes there is nothing to say. Take, for example, Monday's appearance by Martine Reich-erts, a spokeswoman for the Commission. Her big news of the day, read in a monotone from a prepared press release, was the revelation that the European Commission had authorised the creation of a joint company by France Telecom and Editel. She then moved on to news of clearance of the takeover of Hillsdown (UK) by Hicks, Muse (USA). Were there any questions? Asked about the merits of a possible Swiss application for membership of the European Union, Ms Reicherts retorted crisply "we would welcome the idea", before adjourning with the words: "Bon aperitif."
A gaggle of reporters huddled around Gerry Kiely, spokesman for the acting agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, with the intensity of desperate refugees besieging an aid convoy. They melted away as the words "I wouldn't expect any big story" floated across the room.
Not only is there nothing to say at the European Commission, there is nothing to eat. The canteen is firmly closed and the coffee bar, open for two hours a day, cannot offer anything more solid than a few bars of confectionery. None of the bakers' and sandwich shops in the vicinity is open either.
Down the road at the Council of Ministers, the buildings are deserted although the shops in the foyer seem to be doing some business (particularly the travel agency). Ten minutes' walk away, the European Parliament is undoubtedly the busiest of the EU buildings in Brussels. Its canteen may have restricted hours though August, but at least it opens.
The habit of taking August off reflects a long-developed continental summer tradition. In Belgium, the EU's host nation, many traders simply shut up shop for a month, often refusing to take on orders several weeks in advance. This even applies to one of the ice-cream shops, which contrives to be shut throughout the hottest month of the year. Without fail each year at the end of July a sign goes up apologising that it is time for "le conge annuel" and that business will resume as usual in September.
Some of the stores that do stay open restrict their hours of business to just a few per day. Naturally these are arbitrary, making the job of the shopper a logistical nightmare. But gradually this is starting to change. Some Belgians have started taking their holiday in July, staggering the summer exodus, and outside the EU district most shopping centres conduct business as normal through August.
Even inside the European Commission some directorates, for example those dealing with competition, are being forced to work through the month. This year heralds a massive moving operation with up to 1,000 staff changing desk spaces as part of a reorganisation ordered by the incoming commission president, Romano Prodi.
But with many Eurocrats away it makes sense for the city to slow down as it sweats through a particularly muggy August. As Europe heads for the beach, it hardly seems to miss the stream of announcements that normally spews forth from the EU.
Whereas British politicians feel obliged to fill the "vac-uum" - the Conservatives once launched a particularly dismal campaign called "Summer heat on Labour" - their continental counterparts sensibly bow to the inevitable.
All of which is rather healthy unless you happen to be a journalist.
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