FLAT EARTH

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The Independent Online
Name of infamy

You can picture the pride of the citizens of Maastricht when the future of Europe was decided there five-and-a-half years ago.

Their town, they imagined, would become synonymous with Euro-harmony, a common currency and odes to joy. Many hotels and restaurants were built for the 1991 summit, and their proprietors must have contentedly looked forward to the armies of pilgrims who would come to this shrine of unity.

Now it is 1997, and no politician who wants to stay in office refers to Maastricht with anything like affection. The Netherlands has again held the EU presidency for the past six months, and how many Euro-meetings have gone to the scene of its former triumph? Answer: none. The main preparatory gatherings were in Noordwijk, and the grand Maastricht review summit tomorrow is in Amsterdam.

Well, there was one "very informal" meeting held in Maastricht, but it can't have been much consolation to the townspeople. Instead of being bracketed with Rome, where the EU came into being, they find themselves saddled with a name as embarrassing in history as Vichy, say, or Gallipoli.

Stay calm ...

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, with the handover to China only 15 days away, the authorities are trying to leave nothing to chance, whether it be protocol clashes or the threat of anti-China demonstrations. There is nothing they can do, though, about the territory's notoriously unpredictable and often violent weather.

Those who believe the climate takes its cue from politics point out that the last time a typhoon hit Hong Kong head-on was the day China declared martial law in 1989, just before the Tiananmen Square massacre. The end of June is peak typhoon season, but even without a full-blown weather alert the probability of heavy rain is high, according to the local observatory. In the best tradition of weathermen covering themselves for any eventuality, they say the records show that the two days of 30 June and 1 July have "seen fine and hot weather as well as inclement weather with passage of tropical cyclones".

Pressed further, however, the forecasters concede that there is a 60 per cent chance of rain, and that it could be heavy. Some 4,000 Buddhists are due to gather for a prayer meeting at the time of the handover, and they are being asked to put in a word about the weather.

Rat racer

This column has remarked before on the strangeness of the Austrians. My distinguished predecessor observed that in the soft toy department of Vienna airport's duty-free shop, they stocked a life-size Dobermann pinscher, glass eyes ablaze among the teddies and fluffy ducks.

The nation's cuddly-toy marketers have now turned their attention to Niki Lauda, one of the few Austrians anyone outside the country can name - transformed into a rat. For 1,190 schillings (pounds 60), Niki the Rat comes complete with red overalls, black boxer shorts and the Formula One champion turned airline owner's trademark red baseball cap.

Even more bizarre is that all this is fine with Niki himself. "The rat," he says, "was always my role model in the animal kingdom, with its high intelligence and instinct for survival." Coming next: Damon Hill as a ferret?

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