The Parliament Magazine's week that was - Solar eclipse edition

PMHQ's take on what really mattered this week in Brussels and beyond.


20 Mar 2015

Regrettable decision of the week

Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders painting his face black for a traditional festival in Brussels. The city's website explains that the 'Noirauds' - 'Blacks' - festival is 133 years old, and was originally started to help save a nursery from bankruptcy. 

Apparently, back in the day, "dressing up as an 'African notable' was ideal to ensure the anonymity" of those seeking donations, often members of the bourgeoisie or regular patrons of restaurants where they went to ask for money. 

The tradition has endured, and participants in the festival continue to black up their faces to collect money for children's charities, apparently unaware of a little thing called racial profiling.

Reynders insisted he couldn’t understand what the big deal was, which left human rights watch campaigner Peter Bouckaert wondering if this is also his outfit of choice when meeting African leaders.

The history buffs among you will no doubt be aware of Belgium's dark colonial past and its reign of terror in the Congo. Yet the country doesn't really seem to see a problem with this.

To this day, it still has a royal Belgian overseas union, which states one of its aims as, "to restore the image of the Belgian colonial period, including the one preceding it, the Congo free state".

And even prominent politicians have spoken somewhat favourably on the topic, with former foreign minister and current MEP Louis Michel saying, "maybe colonisation was domineering, but at a certain moment, it brought civilisation".


Public speakers of the week

Brussels' finest came together this week for the Parliament Magazine's annual MEP awards and PMHQ was there to capture all the glitz, glamour and interestingly worded speeches.

The first gem of the night was courtesy of Adam Mouchtar, managing director of EU40, who confessed to those in attendance that he was imagining them naked to calm his nerves, which, you know, fair enough, we all have our stress remedies. But then things took a bizarre turn when he added, with a cheeky glint in his eye, "I'm enjoying the view".   

Taking home the economic and monetary affairs award, Pablo Zalba Bidegain thanked "MEPs who are no longer with us". Queue puzzled looks around the audience, before the Spanish deputy clarified, "…who did excellent work in the previous term". Then again, they do say if you're tired of the European parliament you are tired of life.

Christian Ehler, who won the research and innovation award, provided an interesting perspective on gender equality, saying, "I am married and German, so I am used to serving women".


"Sad" day for politics of the week

Jan and Nige in happier times

Everyone's favourite anti-feminista firebrand Janice Atkinson has been suspended from UKIP pending an investigation into financial irregularities. A video in the British tabloid The Sun allegedly shows one of Janice's assistants asking a restaurant manager to provide them with a falsified receipt for more than €4000 so that it could claimed as expenses. That's one heck of an Atkinson diet.

The dinner was allegedly attended by senior UKIP members and cost a mere €1300, with The Sun claiming this would have allowed the funds to be claimed against the European parliament's expenses and then 'repatriated' into UKIP's coffers.

UKIP leader and EFDD co-chair Nigel Farage called the incident, "One of the most incredibly stupid and dishonest things I have ever seen in my life."

Now PMHQ and Janice go back a long way and this is not the time for schadenfreude, but while we will withhold judgement until the findings of UKIP's internal investigation are revealed, at this stage it seems that Atkinson has had more scandals than hot dinners (though we'd have to check the official figures on that).


... And in other alleged corruption news

European ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has ruled that the European investment bank (EIB) has "failed to meet its obligations under its own transparency policy" in regards to allegations of tax avoidance by Mopani - a Glencore-owned Zambian mining firm.

A decade ago, the EIB loaned Mopani €40m to fund sulphur dioxide emission reductions, but was forced to launch an investigation after a leaked Zambian audit report seemed to show the mining firm had dodged millions in local tax. Mopani and Glencore deny any wrongdoing.

The EIB has refused to release its investigation findings resulting in its referral to the ombudsman. In her report O'Reilly disputes the EIB's assertions that "it was not possible to comprehensively prove or disprove the allegations" against Mopani, saying, "this statement does not adequately reflect the information contained in the investigation report".

The EIB still has no plans to release its report, but it's good to know that during the European year of development, our very own investment bank is flying the flag for transparency and financial probity.


Not a day for soundbites

There was more sad news this week as former British prime minister Tony Blair departed his role as quartet Middle East 'special representative', following a meeting with EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and US secretary of state John Kerry.

The quartet, which describes itself as "an informal diplomatic contact group" was set up in 2002 by the European Union, the United Nations, the United States and Russia "to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations and to support Palestinian economic development and institution-building in preparation for eventual statehood" - something we can all agree it has been particularly distinguished in making progress on.

Blair was charged (if only!) with "spearheading transformative economic change" in the region, a role for which he was more than qualified, just look at the post-war Iraqi economy, which is now just 90 per cent reliant on oil revenues and where "[€16.7bn] from the Iraq development fund had been wasted since 2013 as a result of mismanagement.

Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic human rights commission (IHRC), was first to pay tribute to the active role of the former British prime minister. He told Newsweek, "Eight years is a long time for doing nothing."

Blair was definitely not forced to depart the role as a US official was very keen to stress to BBC News: "There is one thing I want to be absolutely clear about there has been no effort by the quartet to push Tony out of his current role as quartet representative. There is just no truth for that." The official paid tribute to Blair saying he was "a very valued partner".

As we know Blair is a man with unlimited ambitions. His own former deputy prime minister John Prescott, when about Blair's continued justification of the 2003 US-led invasion revealed, "Tony, unfortunately, is still in to that. I mean the way he's going now, he now wants to invade everywhere"

He added, "He should put a white coat on with a red cross and let's start the bloody crusades again." Blair hopes his role will be "reconfigured". Here's hoping that the 'hand of history' brushes Tony's shoulder again soon.


On a lighter note

Host of the MEP awards Viviane Reding springing a nice surprise by bringing along a caricature from the pages of our very own magazine. While her son (pictured in the briefcase) is now 25 years old and probably unrecognisable, Viviane remains as vivacious as ever and performed her hosting duties with trademark panache.

Read the most recent articles written by PMHQ - The Parliament Magazine's week that was - pre-Easter edition