While Jan Figel, the European Union commissioner for education, training, culture and (of all things) multilingualism, was holding a press conference on Tuesday to set out Brussels’ commitment to promoting the teaching and learning of European languages, some of the European Commission’s massive staff of 1,200 translators were holding a little meeting of their own.

The translators were upstairs, protesting the Commission’s plans to relocate them from central Brussels to a building in Evere, on the outskirts of the city.

The translators said they were stunned by the decision, not least because it was taken “without any proper prior consultation and discussion’’.

Certainly further evidence that Brussels is the modern world’s equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

Party over?

British legislators were not short of questions to hurl at Tony Blair on Tuesday when the prime minister made a rare appearance before a high-ranking parliamentary committee.

His controversial plans to overhaul schools and welfare came in for a sustained grilling – particularly from members of his own centre-left Labour party.

Dissident Labour voices were also very much in evidence on the other contentious issues of Iraq and the war on terror at home.

Such tough times with party colleagues has become a fact of life for Blair recently.

His efforts to drive through new hardline terror laws a few weeks ago was derailed by Labour rebels who promise further run-ins with a prime minister they judge as a lame duck.

Given all that, Blair might fancy following the example of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, and think about quitting Labour to set up a new party. Indeed the MPs even asked as much.

The response was one of those engaging chuckles which once seemed a permanent prime ministerial feature but have since been replaced by pursed lips and a furrowed brow.

No, no, Blair chortled: however appealing it sounded he had no plans whatsoever to follow his Israeli colleague.

Observer’s man couldn’t help wondering whether he was watching a case of saying one thing and meaning another.

Name pending

The Balkans are back in the spotlight for the US after what former Clinton envoy Richard Holbrooke calls “four years of inattention and neglect” by the Bush administration.

UN-mediated talks on determining the final status of Serbia’s province of Kosovo kicked off yesterday in Pristina but Washington has still not announced the name of its special envoy to the negotiations.

Apparently it’s not a job that appeals – very tough to reach a settlement between independence-seeking ethnic (mostly Muslim) Albanians and Serbs, who have long regarded Kosovo as the heart of their Orthodox religious heritage.

Diplomats hear that former state department official Marc Grossman declined the offer, but Admiral Gregory Johnson, former chief of Nato southern command, is said to be in the running.

Meanwhile in Bosnia, the UK’s (Lord) Paddy Ashdown is getting ready to end his stint as the international High Representative.

Tipped for the post is Germany’s Christian Schwarz-Schilling who quit as telecoms minister under Chancellor Kohl in 1992 in protest against his government’s ineffectual response to the conflict.

Schwarz-Schilling’s mission is to end it, so that the Bosnians can finally run their own country and eventually join Europe.

Deal them in

Thomson Financial, the data provider, refers to them as “mergers and acquisitions laggards”. Thomson is referring to countries where corporate deal activity has fallen dramatically this year, even as the global market for mergers and acquisitions is booming.

Mexico, Portugal, Brazil, South Africa and Hungary have made the unflattering list. Second in the ranking is Australia, where the volume of deals has fallen from $67bn last year to $42bn this year.

But the gold medal goes to France, where M&A has dropped from last year’s $112bn, which included Sanofi’s $70bn takeover of Aventis, to only $52bn so far this year.

An instance of France failing to keep pace with global trends in high finance? Or are French companies just shy about blowing a few billion dollars of shareholder money on bad deals?

Cooped up

All the roubles in the world cannot make Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich immune from the bird flu scare sweeping the globe.

The billionaire’s $120m yacht, Le Grand Bleu, is hoping to dock in New Zealand sometime next month along with its crew and resident pet parrot.

The application has met with a swift response from the country’s quarantine officials, who are on high alert over avian influenza.

Officials are concerned that the African grey parrot could carry any number of diseases – and are considering how to respond.

Among the options being considered are forcing Abramovich to pay a NZ$1m (€586,000) bond, keeping the bird in quarantine or barring it altogether.

“We do not have an import standard for parrots,” a quarantine spokesman told the New Zealand Herald.

The smart money is on entry being granted so long as the parrot remains caged and doesn’t leave the boat.

But the poor bird will have to be tested in Auckland, with Abramovich covering the bill for the lab. Nobody ever said the jet-set lifestyle comes cheep.

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