PracticeConsultingEurocrats: once more unto the beaches

Eurocrats: once more unto the beaches

It is clear that this column is widely read in Central Europe. A month ago I advocated the re-injection of a bit of royal pomp and circumstance in the EU.

The Bulgarians were obviously listening – lo and behold, King Simeon has returned to power. Whether to a throne or merely a high chair in the Cabinet Office, his aim is to join the EU party.

The Swedes have just handed over the EU presidency to Belgium. (After riots in Gothenburg, they would probably be glad to hand back the Treaty of Rome as well.) For the next six months, Belgium will preside over the EU agenda. This will be a dummy run. As from 2003 all EU summits (with the exception of the Spanish presidency) will take place in Euroville.

For some time, the EU has recognised the nonsense of an EU travelling circus pitching its Big Top in a new city every six months. The original objective was to bring the EU closer to its citizens. In practice, it has merely brought Eurocrats closer to the Hiltons and the Sheratons.

In some respects, the Belgians will really only be in charge for three months: it is holiday time on the continent. Here in Brussels, the skeletons are emerging from their cupboards and staffing offices while live eurocrats go on holiday. Euroville is about to close down. Nothing – just nothing – is going to happen in the EU until September.

With Romano Prodi in the lead, the good and the great of Europe are off for their annual confessional. The accumulated misdemeanours of the last eleven months will be gently washed away by sun, sand and palm trees.

The Americans, whose vacation time is usually rationed to a five-day package deal with the mobile, remain scandalised by such indolence. The British (as ever) are stuck mid-Atlantic: longing for a rest but scared a will land on their desk in their absence.

But come September millions of continental holiday makers will return home refreshed and re-energised. Life really does appear to begin again.

This sense of ‘la rentree’ is still largely absent from Britain. No-one – not even the king of the Belgians – would dare call a Belgian under-secretary during ‘les vacances’ – far better to let war break out.

Even the Euro will have to wait until bags are unpacked. And then battle will commence. In the short-term, this could lead to chaos on a scale that would make Gothenburg look like a picnic. While over the last few weeks, dual pricing has become increasingly common, the figures are seen but not read.

September will see a massive advertising campaign to familiarise the great unwashed with the new currency. I still predict chaos. There is a limited transitional period after which national currencies will no longer be legal tender.

As the Latin tradition has been to place money under the mattress rather than in the bank, hundreds of thousands, perhaps a few million people, will have something of a dilemma. Strip the mattress, hire a wheelbarrow and explain all or, alternatively, lie on what will rapidly become new monopoly money. A bad night’s sleep all round.

  • Julian Paleson is a director of the ICAEW’s office in Brussels.

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