Barroso's Conrad in arms

José Manuel Barroso has wasted no time in getting down to business as president-designate of the European Commission - or in testing out the fabled Brussels gravy train.

Observer has learnt that, following his appointment, the former Maoist student revolutionary turned liberal Portuguese premiere confirmed his political conversion by staying at the sumptuous Hotel Conrad in Brussels, located on the city's ritzy Avenue Louise.

An initially hesitant Commission spokesman confirmed that Barroso spent approximately 15 nights in the Conrad, from late July to late August.

While Observer is told the Commission does not use competitive tendering to secure the cheapest hotel rooms, its protocol department does indulge in some lobbying to get the most favourable rate.

Seemingly, the best deal to be found was at the priciest hotel in Brussels, a mere €384 a night.

European taxpayers can now rest easy, however, as they will not have to subsidise these favourable rates any longer. Barroso has now moved to an apart-hotel in the city, and will soon decamp to a house with his family.

And it could have been worse. Europe's grand old man Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, installed himself at the Conrad for more than a year while chairing talks on Europe's new constitution.

Vive le français

There is much fretting in Paris that French is losing out to English in the enlarged European Union. While almost all the 25 incoming commissioners speak English, only nine boast French - about as many as know Russian.

The fightback has begun, however. Five commissioners went on a French government-organised course over the summer: Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, Danuta Hübner of Poland, Siim Kallas of Estonia, Ján Figel of Slovakia and Markos Kyprianou of Cyprus.

Two more, Slovenia's Janez Potocnik and Malta's Joe Borg, are booked in for the autumn.

“It was a great success,” crowed a French official. “Whenever people are given a chance to learn French they take it. They realise its importance. Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg are all French speaking cities.”

Of course, the high attendance had nothing to do with the residential course's location, a chateau just outside Avignon in sun-drenched Provence.

Meanwhile Frenchman Jacques Barrot, the lone English refusenik, repaid the compliment by taking a two-week course in Bristol, south-west England.

Telling tales

Well, that didn't take long. George Tenet, the Central Intelligence Agency director who left his post in July amid controversy over intelligence failures preceding the war in Iraq, has gone the route of all good pundits, ex-politicians and former athletes - that is, signed up to join the speakers' circuit.

The Washington Speakers Bureau represents keynoters from across the political spectrum, from Madeleine Albright to Rudy Giuliani. So Tenet - who joined the CIA under Bill Clinton but famously assured George W. Bush that the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “slam-dunk” - should feel comfortable among the other ex-policymakers.

There's quite an Iraqi connection among Tenet's fellow newcomers picked up by the bureau. The group includes José Mar´a Aznar, Spain's former prime minister and Jessica Lynch, the US soldier and prisoner rescued early in the Iraq war.

They are both good story tellers too. The account of Lynch's dramatic rescue turned out to have been overdramatised by the Pentagon while Aznar, of course, paid the ultimate electoral price for intimating that Basque separatists were responsible for the Madrid bombings when it was in fact down to Islamist terrorists.

High liquidity

The equity analysts at HVB Group are anything but dry.

The technology team at the Munich-based bank tacks a handy list of “upcoming events” on the end of its daily briefs. September's top tech diary dates include Texas Instruments' mid-quarter update, Oracle first quarter figures and an ASML analyst day.

But life, according to the team, should not be all about work. And so they have taken care to include on their list the most important event of the month: the world-famous two-week Munich beer festival, aka Oktoberfest, which, despite its name, kicks off on September 18.

Then, of course, there is HVB's unmissable “investor relations Wiesn event”. For all those non-Bavarians out there, Wiesn is what Bavarians call the Oktoberfest. Whether the bank's maths will be fuzzy that week remains to be seen.

Progress stalled

Enough of all the negativity dogging the European project, say the leftwing campaigners of the new Centre for a Social Europe, which was launched in the UK yesterday.

The group of Greens and trade union activists, which seems set to expand across the continent shortly, promises to come up with alternative policies to reclaim the union from the neoliberal elitism of the Commission.

Here is their positive opener: “Over the coming months we will make the progressive case for reform - starting with a rejection of the proposed constitution.” Double ringEuphony Communications, how sweet the sound. Observer was initially envious of the person who registered that name for the European telecoms services reseller now headed, and controlled, by former Alpha Telecom chief executive Giles Redpath.

But what if things go wrong? “You phoney” is tempting fate.

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