Merde in europe, p.1
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       Merde in Europe, p.1

           Stephen Clarke
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Merde in Europe


  Contents

  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Stephen Clarke

  Title Page

  Disclaimer

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Emails

  Copyright

  About the Book

  Does Brussels really want to outlaw bingo, bagpipes and smoky bacon crisps? Are eurocrats trying to rename the English Channel? And can the ink in euro notes really make men impotent?

  No. Well, not exactly.

  But it is true that the EU is a seriously flawed institution.

  And it’s about to become even more so as Englishman Paul West goes to Brussels to work for a French MEP, and gets an insider’s view of what really goes on in the massive madhouse that is the EU Parliament.

  As Britain prepares to vote whether it stays in or exits the EU, Paul gets the chance to influence the result of the referendum.

  He has to decide: better the devil you know? Or bring on the Brexit?

  It’s a decision that could cost him a lot more than his euro paypacket . . .

  About the Author

  Stephen Clarke lives in Paris, where he divides his time between writing and not writing. His five Merde novels, A Year in the Merde, Merde Actually, Merde Happens, Dial M for Merde and The Merde Factor have been bestsellers all over the world – including France. Stephen also writes non-fiction books, which include Talk to the Snail, an insider’s guide to understanding the French, How the French Won Waterloo (or Think They Did), an amused look at France’s continuing obsession with Napoleon, Dirty Bertie, the story of King Edward VII’s youthful follies in France, and 1000 Years of Annoying the French, which was a number one bestseller in Britain.

  Research for Stephen’s novels has taken him all over Europe and America. For Merde in Europe, he ventured deep into the cloistered corridors of Brussels. He has now returned to Paris, and is doing his best to live the Entente Cordiale.

  Also by Stephen Clarke

  Fiction

  A Brief History of the Future

  A Year in the Merde

  Merde Actually

  Merde Happens

  Dial M for Merde

  The Merde Factor

  Non-fiction

  Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French

  Paris Revealed

  1000 Years of Annoying the French

  Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France

  How the French Won Waterloo (or Think They Did)

  EBook Short

  Annoying the French Encore!

  For more information on Stephen Clarke and his books, see his website at www.stephenclarkewriter.com

  Read Stephen’s tweets at @sclarkewriter

  All the characters and events in this novel are completely fictitious, even those that might seem alarmingly real.

  The author would like to thank everyone who showed him around, or talked him through, the darkest corners of the European Union’s institutions. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to name them, or even give both their initials.

  So thanks, merci and dank uwel most of all to E, P, N, G, J, I and S.

  And also, in no particular order, to J, A, J, R, W, T, O, D, K, S, V, B, C, L, S, F, H and M.

  Thanks as always to N and to the UEA crowd for their support, and to SLA for getting things moving.

  ‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.’

  Albert Einstein

  1

  ‘Euro banknotes can make men impotent.’

  Report in the British press, 2002

  ‘VIOLENT THINGS, OYSTERS,’ the Englishman said. I didn’t know why he was telling me this. We were just two drinkers sitting side-by-side at a bar in Brussels.

  ‘Violent?’ I asked.

  ‘Brutal,’ he said. ‘Vicious.’

  ‘Really?’ My own encounters with oysters had all been pretty one-sided, usually ending in a twelve–nil victory in my favour. ‘You mean the way they can shred your fingertips if you try and open them yourself?’ I asked.

  ‘No, they’re evil little bastards. They sneak up on you. Didn’t you know?’

  ‘No.’

  I turned my attention back to my nearly empty glass. I didn’t feel like listening to some drunkard’s paranoid rant about being followed everywhere by molluscs.

  But he nudged me, threatening to empty my glass completely.

  ‘People don’t realise that it’s not always a bad oyster that makes you ill,’ he said. ‘It can be a good one that you haven’t killed cleanly.’

  ‘Killed cleanly?’

  I tried to work out how you’d do this. A karate blow to the neck? Assuming oysters have necks. Or with a shotgun, perhaps? Might be a bit messy.

  ‘Yes, you have to chew the whole thing up into a mush, so it’s well and truly dead before you swallow it. If you don’t, it’ll slide down into your guts alive, and pump out antibodies until it finally dies.’

  He burped. Apparently his digestive system wanted to join in the conversation.

  ‘So what you’re saying is that oysters are intestinal terrorists sent on suicide missions to destroy humanity?’ I asked.

  ‘You may take the piss,’ he said, perceptively, ‘but if you’re not careful, a perfectly fresh oyster will redecorate your insides with its antibodies, and you’ll be sick as a dog for twenty-four hours. You can stay allergic for ever, too. You eat another oyster and you’ll be vomiting through the bathroom wall.’

  ‘Delightful.’

  ‘Sorry, but that’s just the way they are. Evil, vindictive, slimy bastards.’

  Luckily I hadn’t been feeling like dinner anyway. We were in a raucous pub in the centre of Brussels, and after several glasses of a thick, dark-brown liquid brewed by sadistic Belgian monks, I didn’t even fancy a plate of perfectly non-aggressive lettuce. Nourishing stuff, that beer.

  ‘You’ve had a bad experience yourself, I take it?’ I asked him.

  ‘Yes, but that’s not why I want to ban them.’

  ‘Ban them?’

  ‘Make outlaws of the little slimeballs. A new European law making them illegal.’

  ‘That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘If Europe went around banning anything that makes us chunder, schnapps would be outlawed in twenty-eight countries by now. And late-night kebabs would be a thing of the past.’

  ‘Well, maybe not ban them outright, but make them damn near impossible to sell. We might introduce a law whereby oysters have to be humanely killed before being served. You know, oblige restaurants to stun each one electronically before opening it. Or apply the old straight-cucumber principle, so oysters can only be sold if they have perfectly oval shells. That’ll have those Frogs weeping into their seaweed, won’t it?’

  ‘And you can do all that, can you?’

  ‘I work for an MEP who’s into food practices. So I can try. ‘

  ‘Wow.’

  Even I knew enough about Brussels to realise that Members of the European Parliament were people who had the power to turn their personal crusades into law.

  So my new friend was ri
ght about making Frenchmen weep. An embargo on oysters would scuttle the economy of a large slice of the French coast, as well as sabotaging the menus of some very chic brasseries in Paris.

  And not only Paris.

  ‘I’ve seen lots of people eating oysters in London, too,’ I said.

  ‘Yeah, a few posh posers who don’t vote in European elections. We don’t care about them.’

  ‘Are you planning to do the same thing to mussels?’ I asked him.

  ‘What, outlaw the Belgians’ national dish? No, couldn’t do that to our generous hosts, could we?’ He gargled a laugh through a deep swallow of Flemish ale. ‘Anyway, mum’s the word on all this. You’re English, right?’

  ‘Yes, but the MEP I’m working for is French.’

  ‘French?’ Suddenly he was sitting bolt upright, and looking as if a dozen oysters were pumping antibodies straight into his bulging eyes. ‘French? You’re joking?’

  ‘No joke. I usually live in Paris, but I’ve come to Brussels to do some work on protecting endangered local languages in France. You know, Breton, Basque, Corsican and all that.’

  ‘You’re not actually French, though? You haven’t given up your passport?’

  ‘No. But the woman I’m working for would be very interested in your scheme to ban the oyster. She’s the MEP for Brittany West.’

  ‘Oh, shit,’ he groaned.

  ‘I think you mean merde,’ I corrected him. ‘Unless you were trying to speak Breton, in which case it’s kaoc’h.’

  I must admit that I wasn’t being entirely truthful with my loose-tongued English friend. I wasn’t really working for a French MEP. Not yet, anyway.

  In fact, I’d only arrived in Brussels that same day. I’d come at the invitation of my friend Elodie, the daughter of my former boss in Paris, Jean-Marie. Well, I say invitation, but it was more like a summons: ‘Reserved a room for you at the Hotel Empereur Napoléon Bonaparte in Bruxelles. Call me and I’ll tell you more.’

  I’d asked for details, of course, but all she’d been willing to say was that she wanted to offer me a ridiculously well-paid job working on endangered languages. When I asked whether this would mean trekking through Amazonian rainforests, she’d laughed and said, ‘No, more like Breton pig-shit.’ But she’d sent me a first-class train ticket, and so here I was in Brussels, intrigued but wondering whether it might not be a very bad idea indeed.

  I tried to convince myself that any doubts I had were symptoms of gross ingratitude. After all, Elodie had promised me a generous slice of Europe’s budget to come and work for her on a short-term contract. What was I worried about? She’d even paid me a sizeable chunk up front. Whatever happened, it was going to be a profitable few weeks.

  The trouble was that I had been screwed by Elodie before, both literally and metaphorically.

  We’d been (very briefly) lovers, but only because she wanted to shock her papa, who was my boss. Then a few months later she’d tried to sabotage a new job I had, promoting the UK as a tourist destination in America. That little rivalry ended in a vicious fruit-fight in Los Angeles that had left her dad smothered from head to foot in fresh strawberries. But since then we’d made up, and I’d even done the catering for her wedding to a filthy-rich Parisian banker. So I hoped I could trust her now.

  My instinct was that her trustworthiness depended on whether her father, Jean-Marie, was involved in whatever scheme she had bubbling in her cauldron. Too often the pair of them were side-by-side in the family kitchen, cooking up mischief.

  Jean-Marie was the député (Member of the French Parliament) for a country town in Mayenne, just south of Normandy, an election he’d won by promising the local farmers that they would be able to give up the tiresome business of growing things, and live for ever on the subsidies that he was going to obtain for them from Brussels. Although, come to think of it, that’s what most French politicians promise their farmers, so maybe Jean-Marie wasn’t so bad after all.

  It seemed only logical that Elodie should follow her dad into politics and get herself elected as an MEP. What better way for him to obtain those subsidies for his farmers?

  Even so, there were two things that confused me about her move to Brussels.

  One: how did she get herself elected in the far west of Brittany where, to the best of my knowledge, she’d never been in her whole life?

  And two: she’d studied at France’s most expensive business school and recently married into a Parisian private bank, so why give up sky-high earnings in the world of wealth management to go to Belgium and spend half her life listening to debates about the minimum size of haddock and whether to reclassify British chocolate as ‘sugary brown fat’?

  It seemed almost certain that her dad was involved somehow.

  Early next morning I was due to find out. So it was time to say ‘au revoir’ to the Brussels pub and its talkative English barfly, get back to my hotel and have a bit of shut-eye.

  The only problem with that idea, I realised when I finally located the pub exit and emerged into a cobbled side street, was that Belgian beer seems to coagulate somewhere behind the knees, making the act of walking unusually difficult.

  Worse, thanks to some quirk in the Brussels climate, the evening had suddenly become rather blurred. I found that I couldn’t recognise the street I was in, or see clearly enough to call up a map on my phone. I couldn’t even aim my fingers at the phone to unlock it.

  It occurred to me that maybe the beer was slightly stronger than I thought.

  I still had a vague idea of the name of my hotel, so I just needed to ask someone for directions. And there was a friendly-looking woman standing a few metres away on the street corner. She seemed to be smiling at me, as if she wanted to help.

  ‘You English?’ she called out. ‘Français? Deutsch? Italiano?’

  ‘Oh, one hundred per cent English. Not French at all,’ I replied, and laughed for some reason.

  She seemed pleased to hear this, to judge by the way she thrust out her ample chest, which was, I now noticed, only half-covered by a tight, low-cut T-shirt. She began to totter towards me on perilously high heels, and I was afraid that she would topple over on the cobblestones and scuff her knees, which were totally unprotected by her tiny shorts.

  ‘Can you do something for me?’ I asked her. ‘Something very kind?’

  ‘Anything you want,’ she said, which was highly thoughtful of her, considering that we’d only just met.

  2

  ‘Brussels to force farmers to give toys to pigs.’

  Report in the British press, 2003

  NEXT MORNING THERE was one reason to feel grateful, but only one. On waking up (or oozing back into the swamp of consciousness), I found a message from Elodie saying that she’d had to go to Paris, and would be arriving back in Brussels about eight hours late for our meeting. This was a huge relief, because my body was quivering at the idea of getting anywhere near vertical, never mind having to walk, think or speak.

  As hangovers go, it was an astonishing 3D experience. A non-stop barrage of beer bottles was being thrown at my head by a stone-cold-sober Belgian monk. Those brothers certainly know how to make you feel guilty about over-indulging the flesh. I’ve never prayed so hard for forgiveness.

  And through the shroud of physical pain, I got a vague sense that I’d sinned in more ways than one. I’d drunk far too much, that was certain, but hadn’t I also committed some other awful misdemeanour?

  Fortunately, my memory seemed to have shut down.

  I devoted the whole day to foetal moaning, until about five o’clock when I dragged myself to the bathroom for a frostbite-inducing shower. After that, it only took a quadruple espresso to give me enough strength to crawl into a taxi and beg to be taken as smoothly as possible to Bruxelles-Midi station. A strange name, I thought, ‘Midday Station’ – was it just for lunchtime trains? Did they also have a ‘Bruxelles-Soir’ or a ‘Bruxelles-Petit Déjeuner’? I decided to ask Elodie, if I could still remember the question when she go
t there. Her train was due in from Paris at six fifteen.

  As the taxi rattled through the busy streets, I closed my eyes and tried to force my brain to focus on the task ahead – namely, to appear sober, sane and employable. Despite all the dangers of associating with Elodie and her dad, I needed the money. The tea room I part-owned in Paris was doing well, but virtually all the profits were being re-invested in the business. We were also hoping to open up a second branch. Consequently, filling my empty pockets with cash was top of my to-do list.

  I must have dozed slightly, because I opened my eyes to see the driver mouthing something at me.

  ‘Monsieur, la gare, we are arrived,’ I heard him say.

  I gave him some euros, asked him to wait and did my best to walk straight as I entered the station.

  The new section, where Elodie was due to arrive, put Paris’s Gare du Nord to shame. The concourse running below the tracks was a bit gloomy, but this was a relief for someone with a blinding migraine. And there was nothing shabby about it. The shops were posh, wafting out fresh baking smells and chocolaty aromas that would have been highly attractive if I hadn’t had a force-nine hangover. There was a fresh-juice bar and even a flower shop. It was all a pleasant change from the Gare du Nord’s wind-blown, pigeon-pooped coffee cabins and its gangs of beggars on the hunt for open bags and loose pockets. It always seemed to me that the French had spent so many years whingeing because London’s original choice as its Eurostar terminal was Waterloo that they forgot to doll up their own station.

  Bruxelles-Midi wasn’t bad at all, I decided. I even found a bench with no one living on it, so that I could relax while I waited for Elodie.

  Her sudden appearance at the foot of the platform steps cut short my brief rest period. She looked as if she’d been drinking, too, though in her case it had been cocaine cocktails. She came charging at me, her black raincoat billowing behind her like a parachute. Oh no, I thought, this was exactly what I didn’t need in my fragile state – Elodie in supercharged business mode.

 
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