TCS Daily

Silly Season

By Craig Winneker - August 16, 2002 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- At the European Commission's regular midday press briefing in Brussels, reporters from all over the world -- and even the United States -- gather to get the daily word from the EU.

Usually this involves a few hundred journalists quizzing a dozen or so official spokesmen in at least two languages on the latest developments in European merger control, foreign policy, regulatory affairs, and so on. This could range from, say, a decision to scuttle a multi-billion-euro corporate takeover to a radical adjustment of quotas for the fishing of hake.

But in August EU institutions shut down almost completely. The official calendar of events put out by the Union presidency is blank for the entire month, except for an "informal" meeting of foreign ministers in Elsinore, Denmark (Hamlet's home, appropriately enough), to discuss the Union's fledgling security and defense policy.

So the summer-time briefings are somewhat more laid back. One or two on-duty spokesmen and a few dozen reporters unlucky enough to not be spending the month on a Spanish beach are all who show up.

As for news, not much occurs. The other day I accidentally forgot to bring a notepad and pen to the conference, and cursed myself as I took a seat. Fortunately, by the time the six-minute briefing was over, I hadn't needed to write a single thing down.

On Monday of this week, the Commission, the executive arm of the EU, saw fit to announce only one item of note: approval without investigation of a merger between two obscure British homebuilders. Stop the presses.
In fact, the only big news was weather-related: flooding in Central Europe that was ravaging the historic cities of Prague, Vienna and Salzburg and wreaking economic havoc on small towns and farmers. In other words, precisely the sort of thing that the EU should exist to deal with efficiently.

But you wouldn't know it from its public-relations apparatus.

Spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori announced offhandedly that the Commission was looking into its emergency aid capabilities to help Austria, a member state, and the Czech Republic, an applicant state, cope with the disaster. But he had no details of how exactly that might happen, and even admitted that such aid would be tough to come by since the European Parliament recently eliminated the necessary contingency fund. Subsidies for farmers, in other words, will have to come the old fashioned way: to pay them not to grow things.

No one seemed to mind or push him very much for more information. It was almost lunchtime. And one got the sense that not much was going to happen until September anyway.

Besides the sparse attendance at the press conference - the few journalists still in town were more interested in the ice-cream truck parked outside Commission headquarters on the Place Schuman roundabout -- there were other signs that the EU had entered its slow silly season.

Oliver Rapf, of the World Wildlife Fund's Brussels office, managed to link the big news of the week to his organization's environmental crusade. "The extreme weather events we are currently seeing around the globe give us a taste of what to expect from climate change," Rapf said. Too bad he wasn't around to comfort Noah in similar fashion.

It's not just the EU government that shuts down every August. There's also an almost complete lack of economic activity in the summer months in Europe (after the legally mandated late-July "sale" period is over, no one's much interested in shopping).

EU countries famously pledged in 2000 to transform Europe into the world's "most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010." So far they haven't had much luck in moving toward this goal, as initiatives to open up energy markets to competition, to boost e-commerce, to create a single European patent and even to harmonize corporate laws across the Union have been stymied by one national interest or another.
The fact that everything goes dormant for approximately one-twelfth of the year doesn't help.

Still, shutting down the government - or, in this case, "government" - can have its benefits ("What if the government closes and nobody notices?" I remember thinking during the Washington budget battle of 1995).

In Europe's case, vacation downtime paid off in at least one way for policy-makers, facilitating passage of a proposal to streamline rules on raising capital across the Union. The Commission last week used a controversial "written procedure" to approve the measure -a necessary move because most of its 20 members were on holiday. Benefit: no one was around to criticize or even comment on the legislation, which will allow firms to raise money across Europe with just one prospectus.

In other words, while nobody was paying attention, the EU cut red tape and gave a much-needed, if admittedly small, boost to its single market economy.

It takes a Romanian newspaper, Cotidianul, to put all of this in perspective. Urging its readers this week not to fall into an apocalyptic panic over the flooding, the paper instead advises them to "laugh, sing and dance because it is August and the politicians are still on holiday."

Amen to that. Now for an ice cream.



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