Merde in europe, p.12
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       Merde in Europe, p.12

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  He introduced me to his colleagues, who were all very friendly, unstressed-looking and of varying nationalities. Then, to my relief, he took me off to a meeting room, before everyone could ask me to predict the result of the Brexit poll.

  ‘Best to have a private chat,’ he said as we settled into a room with a long wooden meeting table that was bigger than Elodie’s office. I sat close to an enormous window, and understood the arrow-slit effect that I’d seen from outside. The windows had all been protected by angled sunshades. Peter saw me studying them.

  ‘No one realised that glass walls would create an oven,’ he said. ‘Typical out-of-touch architects. So they added these things. We can’t see out any more, but at least we don’t fry. Or bake, I should say.’ The communicator’s desire to choose the right word. ‘How can I help you?’ he asked, and leant back in his chair, lifting his arms as if he wanted to reveal a total lack of sweat patch. His really did seem to be a cushy job.

  ‘Well, first, what is your role exactly?’

  ‘I’m a head of unit in DG Communication, which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is one of the more sensibly named DGs. I mean, “Mare” for the fisheries? “Fisma” for financial stability? And how come they called the DG for enlargement of the EU “Near”? It should be “Next” or “Not Yet”, the plonkers.’

  He was telling me all this in his slow, I’m-not-really-Scouse voice, smiling good-naturedly as he spoke.

  ‘I deal mainly with press releases about EU decisions. We produce them for every new law or ruling, and after summit meetings – that sort of thing. We have spokespeople who give press conferences downstairs to all the Brussels correspondents.’

  ‘Including the journalists who work for the anti-EU press?’

  He laughed.

  ‘Well, they don’t generally turn up. Real news doesn’t interest them.’

  A pained expression flitted across his face for the first time.

  ‘I’ve seen what they do,’ I sympathised. ‘Taking news stories and turning them on their heads.’

  ‘Exactly. On most issues we don’t even bother publishing a press release for the UK. No point.’

  ‘Isn’t that discrimination?’

  ‘No, it just saves paper. It’s better for us if we shut up. You know the old principle: if a drunkard starts mouthing off at you in the pub, walk away. We’ve walked away.’

  Bloody hell. Things were worse than I’d imagined.

  ‘So the EU has given up defending itself against attacks from the British press?’

  ‘Yup.’ He folded his arms. This was final, he seemed to be saying. Decree nisi.

  ‘So you’re not campaigning in the referendum, then? Putting out stories to let people know all the good stuff you do, like . . .’ I couldn’t think of any.

  ‘Like putting together all the rules on safe online payments, forcing global corporations to pay tax, or giving more money to the British Council for cultural events than the British government does? Nope, no point. They’d ignore us.’

  ‘Isn’t that a bit defeatist?’

  ‘No, just realistic. And, between you and me’ – he looked over his shoulder at the closed door as if it might be listening – ‘I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near the referendum campaign. If my press releases flopped or created a backlash, my career could go on permanent hold. That’s the reason why most Brit civil servants here in Brussels want the UK to stay in. If it leaves, we’ll be stuck halfway up the career ladder. No one will trust us any more, whereas now they like us. We’re never extreme left or right, never too green or pink, we just get on with the job. Brussels loves that. So a Brexit would be a bloody disaster for us. I think I’d cash in the old passport and turn Belgian. God help me!’

  Depression seemed to be getting a grip on poor Pete, so I gave him the good news that I was here to help, backed up by the whole of France. Well, Brittany West at least.

  ‘Yes, that Madame Martin, classy lady,’ he said. He’d obviously been subjected to an Elodie charm offensive. ‘Worked for her long?’

  ‘No, but I’ve known her for years.’ No point going into a detailed history of our sex and fruit-throwing. ‘Now she’s hired me to do what you’ve given up trying to do – counterbalance all the negative campaigning and tell the Brits what Europe is really about. The French want the UK to stay in, you know. They don’t want to weaken the team.’

  ‘Hard to believe,’ Peter said. ‘I must admit I was a bit suspicious when she first contacted me. Most French bureaucrats I’ve spoken to reckon Europe would be better off without Britain. They say all we do is whinge. And whingeing is meant to be a French monopoly, of course. At a pinch, the only reason they want the Brits to stay in is so we’ll take a few refugees off their hands. And maybe take back responsibility for Calais, like we did in the sixteenth century, so they don’t have to police the tunnel.’

  ‘Yes, well, for whatever reason, Elodie is heading a campaign to keep us in. And it’s all top secret, by the way. I don’t think she even wants other French people to know what we’re up to.’

  ‘French resistance turned upside down, eh? Building bridges instead of blowing them up. That’s a new one. The French don’t usually ask the Brits to build their bridges. They usually like to do it for themselves.’

  ‘Elodie’s not like most French people,’ I said, though, even as I spoke, it struck me that in many ways that was totally untrue. ‘What we need from you is a list of the crazier stories that have appeared in the UK press. And the truth behind the rumours, so that I can contradict them.’

  ‘No sweat. Hang on a minute, I’ll get my laptop.’

  Thirty seconds later he was back, opening up a file as he walked.

  ‘How about this? “EU to rename Waterloo Station and Trafalgar Square.” That was rubbish, it was just an off-the-cuff remark by some eurocrat who said he thought the names were a bit provocative towards the French.’

  He scrolled down.

  ‘Here’s a classic: “Brussels bans smoky-bacon crisps.” Total balls, it was just a ruling about possible carcinogenics in smoked foods. And this one was bloody unbelievable: “Euro banknotes make men impotent.” What happened was that the EU released the results of tests on the inks used, and said that a man might be affected if he ate two thousand five hundred euros a day, for six months.’

  ‘In five-euro notes or hundreds?’ I asked. He gaped at me. ‘Joke,’ I added quickly.

  ‘Yes, but you see the lengths they’ll go to?’

  I did, and I was wondering how I was going to counter such creative journalism.

  He was scrolling again.

  ‘Then, of course, there are all the out-and-out scare stories,’ he said, ‘mainly about evil things the French want to do to the Brits, like redefining Christmas crackers as firearms or making sex toys in metric lengths. All total bollocks.’

  ‘Can you send me a list?’ I asked.

  ‘I can send you a bloody book. An encyclopaedia of them. And most Brits still seem to believe them all. You really can’t blame the DG for giving up the fight.’

  Below his calm Brussels-bureaucrat surface, as smooth as the laminate on his badge, this was a deeply troubled man. A beaten man.

  He escorted me to the lift, and I noticed as he walked that a sweat patch had appeared below his nearest armpit. I’d obviously rekindled some old traumas. Halfway along the corridor, we passed a set of pigeonholes, each containing a stack of printouts.

  ‘Look at this,’ he said, handing me one. ‘It’s a list of countries that have infringed EU laws, and what each one did wrong.’

  I perused it. Austria, it seemed, had not implemented some clause in the laws on working conditions. Croatia had forgotten something to do with wheelchair access. Even Germany had disobeyed some minor EU ruling on food labelling.

  ‘Notice anything?’ Peter asked me, and answered before I could reply. ‘No mention of Britain. This is the official communiqué about legal requirements not respected by all EU members throughout last year,
and we don’t bother even mentioning it when the UK fails to comply. It would only spark off a retaliation campaign in the British press. We let them get away scot-free. Well, mainly English-free.’

  Bloody hell, I thought, if the combined might of the EU had thrown in the towel against these raging-bull reporters, what chance did Brittany West and I stand?

  But then again, the British tabloids had yet to face Elodie.

  13

  ‘EU to force British fish-and-chip shops to use Latin names for fish.’

  Report in the British press, 2001

  I WENT INTO Parliament via the back entrance, where Manon had first escorted me through the security checks. For the first time I noticed a sculpture there, another example of Brussels’ bizarre taste in public statues.

  It was a bronze woman triumphantly holding aloft a euro symbol that she seems to have stolen from the defeated man slumped at her feet. A subliminal message to the Brits, I wondered? Europe’s currency is going to stomp all over the pound? It wasn’t working too well so far.

  I went to give Elodie a quick breakdown of what I’d learnt from Pete, the depressed press man. As usual, she shut all doors and windows and more or less swept the place for bugs before she let me speak.

  She seemed delighted by what I told her, and chortled merrily at the ‘euros make you impotent’ story.

  ‘Perfect, list all the best ones for me. Maybe twenty will be enough. I’ll have Cédric translate them into French.’

  ‘Why would he need to translate them, if I’m going to be doing a press release aimed at the Brits?’ I asked.

  This threw her for a second.

  ‘For my French colleagues. I’m not working alone, Paul.’ She raised her eyebrows towards heaven to suggest that much higher authorities were involved.

  ‘Where should I work? I can’t really do it with Manon looking over my shoulder. And I must admit I’m getting a bit pissed off with all this secrecy. Can’t we tell her what I’m doing? It’s all for a good Franco-British cause, isn’t it?’

  ‘No.’ I hoped she was answering the first question, not the second.

  ‘Manon suggested I work in Cédric’s office. How about that?’

  ‘No,’ Elodie snapped immediately. ‘No one goes in there. He doesn’t like it.’ She frowned painfully, as if to blame the family inbreeding. ‘You can use my desk this afternoon, I won’t be here. If you want, I can find an excuse to send Manon out.’

  This really was cloak-and-dagger stuff.

  ‘No, she’s got a ton of work to do. I don’t want you sending her out on my account. Are you off out for lunch?’

  ‘Yes, I have a . . . uh, appointment,’ she said, suddenly feeling the need to fiddle with her phone.

  ‘Going to sample some of the local cuisine?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh God, no,’ she spluttered. ‘Greasy, watery merde, a mix of English and Dutch, the two worst cuisines in the world. I never eat it unless we get force-fed at some public dinner. Give them good ingredients and les Belges will fry them, and then boil them. It’s like their language – it can turn pleasant things into a horror story. I’m sure they call a parfumerie a stinkeshop in Flemish. The other day I was in a street called Go Fart. I mean, how can you have an international parliament here?’

  ‘Where do you think it should be, then?’

  ‘Paris, of course.’

  Which was a surprise.

  ‘I thought we were campaigning to get everyone working happily together in Brussels?’ I reminded her. Again, she was thrown for a second.

  ‘Of course, Paul,’ she finally said. ‘I don’t want to change world history. I just want it to work better.’

  I didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t get the chance to find out, because she jammed her phone into her bag, made sure all her office furniture was locked down and left. A bit early for lunch, but maybe she couldn’t wait to get nibbling at her Norseman.

  With the wicked witch out of the way, Manon popped in to say ‘Bonjour’.

  I replied the same.

  ‘Tout va bien?’ she asked.

  ‘Yes, great,’ I said. ‘Elodie has said I can work at a real desk. Promotion.’

  ‘Congratulations.’

  It was beginning to feel like awkward office banter, and Manon was the first to mention the elephant in the room. Not that there was space for that size of animal in Elodie’s cramped quarters. A piglet, perhaps.

  ‘Is there a problem between us again?’ she asked. ‘I told you I was sorry I got you wrong. I don’t think you’re one of the extremists any more. But do you have a problem with me?’

  So the boot was on the other foot. The high-heeled shoe, anyway. And a very shapely foot it was. But that, I reminded myself, was not the point.

  ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s just embarrassing for me that I can’t discuss what I’m doing for Elodie. I asked her, but she said no. I don’t understand why not, because it’s nothing suspicious, but voilà. Sorry.’

  I genuinely was sorry, too. I was sure Manon would be a great help. She was bound to be as horrified as I was at all the bollocks being broadcast by the tabloids. And she had more experience of Brussels than I did. She would be able to advise me on how to proceed.

  And, of course, it would be fun going out for a drink to discuss our joint project, maybe dinner, too . . .

  But that was not possible.

  ‘OK,’ she said. ‘I believe you now, it’s nothing suspect.’

  ‘Exactly, and it was just a bit’ – I looked for the right French word, and came up with a weak one – ‘sad that you thought I was suspect.’

  ‘I’m sorry. But now we know we’re both on the same side, don’t we?’

  ‘I hope so,’ I said, and saw a flash of irritation cross her face. ‘I mean, yes. I think so. Yes, of course. Yes.’

  ‘Well, you certainly sound very sure.’

  She laughed and retreated back into her office, shutting the door behind her.

  Bloody hell, I thought. It’s so difficult talking to a beautiful woman. That’s why they all get great service in shops and restaurants. No one wants to make them frown, and risk giving them premature wrinkles.

  As soon as Manon had gone, I opened up Peter’s file and picked out some peaches for Elodie.

  There were outright false rumours about darts being banned from pubs, village fêtes having to get home-made jams tested for E. coli before they could be sold, and fish shops being forced to use Latin names for the species they fried. Then some brilliantly perverse misinterpretations of EU laws, like the story that pub barmaids would have to stop flashing their cleavage – this was an over-interpretation of a rule about protecting employees from developing skin cancer. And a familiar-sounding one about giving oysters rest breaks – an absurd application of the laws governing livestock transport. All beautifully crafted, but ultimately harmful, bullshit.

  The difficulty was going to be choosing the top twenty.

  Anyway after a fun, albeit frightening, few hours of this, I packed up and left the office. Manon was on the phone, apparently with some mayor who was insisting that every square millimetre of his constituency was occupied, and I gave her my best sympathetic smile. She replied with a friendly-looking wave.

  Back at the apartment, there was still no sign of Jake, though there was a new tenant, and an unwelcome one.

  A cat was in the kitchen – a ginger monster that rubbed itself against my leg when I went in there, presumably to apologise for having crapped in the corner.

  I wondered how the hell it had got in. Through a half-open window, I guessed. Or maybe there was a concierge who’d come nosing in and let the cat slip through.

  I bunged up my nose with toilet paper and scooped the poop into a plastic bag with a wooden spoon, which I binned along with the bag. Then I went out to hunt for the owner.

  The door on the next floor up was answered by a teenage boy who looked half-asleep, as all teenage boys do. Especially if they’ve been smoking weed, which this one h
ad, to judge by the acrid pong seeping out on to the landing.

  ‘Vous avez un chat?’ I asked.

  He looked at me dumbly.

  ‘Vos parents sont ici?’ I asked, though I guessed they couldn’t be. Unless it was a family of potheads, which I doubted, because of the swanky logo on his polo shirt and the brand of his glasses. He was classic posh French. Papa or Maman, or both, would be cogs in the Brussels machine. That was presumably how they’d got an apartment in this building.

  ‘Il y a un chat chez moi.’ I pointed through the floor. ‘Il est à vous?’

  ‘Non,’ he said. This seemed to be the full extent of his vocabulary, so I left him to smoke the rest of his brain away.

  The door on the top floor was smaller and not Art Nouveau. An attic conversion, I supposed. I rang the bell, and was surprised to see a familiar face.

  ‘Cédric,’ I said. ‘Paul,’ I added, because he seemed even more stoned than the kid downstairs. Maybe the smoke was seeping through the ceiling. Or it could just have been that Cédric’s genes were slow to get into gear.

  ‘Oui, Paul, salut,’ he said.

  ‘You live here?’ I asked, stupidly. Though it was weird that Elodie hadn’t told me.

  ‘Oui.’

  I explained my problem, and he sympathised (if an ‘Oh, merde!’ can be called sympathy), but told me he didn’t have a cat, and had never seen one in the building. He asked me how I was settling in – I said très bien, apart from the chat. I asked him how he was enjoying working with Elodie – he said très bien, and didn’t seem keen to elaborate when I broached the subject of the computers I’d bought. After that our conversation ground to a halt.

  I told him to pop down for a drink sometime – when I’d bought some drinks, anyway – and went back to try and evict my new furry room-mate. It was probably not much less hygienic than Jake, and was not likely to write excruciating poetry, but I wanted it out.

 
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