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Brussels was busy discussing the biggest issue facing the European Union on Thursday – and it set all the alarm bells ringing. The European Commission is set to come up next week with a highly sensitive report on Turkey, the most controversial potential EU member of them all, and on Thursday the 25 commissioners’ experts were preparing the ground.
The problem is that although the EU took the decision to start membership talks last year – and formally began them in October – progress on the ground has been very scrappy indeed. During Thursday’s discussion, there were premonitions of stormy times ahead.
The representative of Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the Austrian commissioner, wanted stronger language on Turkey’s patchy record on women’s rights and free speech.
The expert advising Stavros Dimas, the Greek commissioner, wanted to emphasise the importance of cutting back the Turkish army’s powers, as well as clearer references to border disputes. And though a wide range of speakers supported the measured language of Olli Rehn, enlargement commissioner, the debate is only going to get more uncomfortable for Ankara.
That’s where the alarm bells come in. Almost every time Rehn’s man attempted to start the discussion, he was interrupted by a fire drill and had to try again. Let’s hope it’s not an omen.
Hot news about the home life of a legendary Indonesian president. A probing website interview with one of the grandchildren of Suharto reveals that these days the former strongman likes to spend his Saturday nights watching the game show “Who wants to be a millionaire?” Somehow that brought to mind a 2004 Transparency International report that declared Suharto and his family the most successful dictatorial clan of the 20th century with an estimated tame home stash of $32bn. The great man himself hasn’t commented on the coincidence.
Unlikely partnerships are at the heart of politics, as this week’s ructions around the world show only too well. First, Edmund Stoiber, Bavaria’s traditionalist prime minister, withdrew from Germany’s cabinet in waiting, because of problems encountered by Franz Müntefering, the man who once denounced foreign investors as “locusts”. Stoiber is a rightwnger and Müntefering a Social Democrat, but the two men have a modus vivendi they thought could cross the political divide.
Now Matthias Platzeck, new SPD leader, is touted as a potential soulmate for Angela Merkel, Christian Democrat chancellor-designate – because the two are easterners, share a scientific background and have little charisma to speak of. Of course, such partnerships can sometimes thrive.
In Israel, two old men from opposing parties – Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres – are at the core of the government and could even form a new political force of their own.
And in Britain, there’s a lot of mischievous talk that Tony Blair, prime minister, would like to pass his mantle on to David Cameron, the favourite to lead the opposition Conservative party, rather than to his old comrade Gordon Brown. Remember the old Westminster saying: people in other parties are merely your opponents; your enemies are in your own.
Guests at the London Metal Exchange’s annual dinner this week were given an insight into how not to leave a position uncovered. Donald Brydon, LME chairman, told the 1,800 guests about his experience many years ago while staying at a hotel in New York where, after his morning shower, he decided to push the room-service breakfast trolley out of his room, only to find the door shut behind him. He was then naked, locked out in the corridor and fearing that any moment the lift opposite the room was going to open. Fortunately, the lift had a phone, which he used to summon staff who jokingly asked him for identification.
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Philippine president, stirred up a controversy when she revealed during lunch with a columnist last week that military intelligence suspected a popular television reporter of coddling a suspected Islamic terrorist. The reporter allegedly paid a 200,000-peso bail for the suspect, who was arrested last March after police said they found explosives in his house. While the information was “off the record”, it proved too tempting for the columnist’s newspaper not to publish. The television reporter promptly denied paying the terror suspect’s bail and said he was merely covering the suspect’s court hearing. But he went on leave from his television station all the same. Meanwhile, military intelligence officials clarified that their “evidence” against him was merely circumstantial. The president has come under criticism for using information from raw intelligence reports to spice up her lunch conversation. The intelligence bosses must be very proud their reports are being put to such good use.
Congratulations to Michiel van Hulten, elected chairman of the Dutch Social Democratic party this week after five years in the European parliament. Van Hulten’s meteoric rise shows there is life after Strasbourg and Brussels. Having fought hard to improve transparency in the parliament, the 36-year-old no doubt relishes the opportunity to spice up the Netherlands’ political debate. In the summer Van Hulten explained his decision not to seek another mandate in the European assembly by saying he was afraid of becoming a “full-time professional politician”. Clearly the mark of a real pro.