In defence of Brussels, Europe’s most underrated city break

Strolling around the Belgian Comic Strip Center, admiring the elegant artwork of Hergé (creator of Tintin), I wonder for the umpteenth time why so many of my British friends are so disparaging about Brussels. It’s one of my favourite cities, but most Britons I know wouldn’t dream of planning a break here. They don’t know what they’re missing. I’ve been here countless times, yet on each visit I discover something new. It’s full of quirky shops and exquisite restaurants, and there are some excellent museums too. If your idea of fun (like mine) is nosing around art galleries and antique shops, with plenty of pitstops en route, you’ll have a

Qatargate and the dubious moral authority of NGOs 

The Qatargate scandal haunting the European Union is not merely about corrupt politicians and officials. The deplorable role of a non-governmental organisation is at the heart of the scandal, which highlights the interlocking of NGOs and EU parliamentarians and decision makers. The most interesting feature of the corruption scandal surrounding the detention of the EU parliament’s vice-president Eva Kaili and politicians and EU apparatchiks is their connection to a supposedly squeaky-clean NGO called Fight Impunity. The current president of the organisation is Pier Antonio Panzeri, 67, a former Italian leftist MEP. He was arrested after €600,000 in bank notes was found in his house in Brussels. He and his wife and daughter are alleged to have received bribes from a Moroccan diplomat. Even more interesting is the revelation that

How to eat frites the Belgian way

Many things about Belgium are impenetrably mysterious to the incoming foreigner: the commune system, which language to use, how to politely eat moules. But few are as cryptic as the menu of sauces that accompany Belgian frites. Ketchup, tartare, barbecue and mayonnaise seem fine. But what is Samourai? Andalouse? Mega?  Unlike many great Belgian things that have successfully been exported (Trappist beer, chocolate, Tintin, speculoos biscuits, Audrey Hepburn), frites can only be experienced on home turf. And my, aren’t they so Belgian. First, the friteries or fritkots in Dutch – chip shop kiosks found wedged on to street corners and in city squares – are totally egalitarian and the service

Imperial measures are culture war bait

The idea of reintroducing imperial measures in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee has one quality that will have commended it to No. 10’s wizard wheezes department. It seems to have driven remoaning liberal elite types pleasingly bananas. It’s the perfect culture war bait, because it plays into the stereotype: if you are unshakeably complacent in your conviction that Brexit, and the government which advanced it as a project, are pandering to empty symbols of trad patriotism and little Englander nostalgia, you’ll shriek with a sort of delighted horror at the news. Here is confirmation of everything you imagined. These backward-looking clowns, with their Union flags and their saudade for wars they never fought in and imperial power that had vanished a generation before they were born! Their Enid Blyton worldview, their privet-hedge parochialism! Is this really what

David Frost’s solution to cool UK-EU relations

Since David Frost quit the government in December over its political direction, he has not said that much about the future of UK-EU affairs. But in the Churchill lecture at the University of Zurich tonight, he sets out a potential new basis for relations. His tone is warm and marks a deliberate attempt to move on from the scratchy relations of the last few years: he argues that there is a ‘need to recognise that the EU is a natural ally of the United Kingdom, and that we should seek – as sovereign equals – ways to cooperate and work together more.’ Frost’s speech is a sign of a reminder that there is

Donald Tusk is playing a dangerous game in dismissing Polexit

‘The British showed that the dictatorship of the Brussels bureaucracy did not suit them and turned around and left.’ That’s the verdict of the parliamentary head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Ryszard Terlecki, who has once again brought discussions of ‘Polexit’ to the foreground of Polish politics. Donald Tusk, Poland’s new leader of the opposition, has responded by suggesting this is party politics at work. But he is making a dangerous mistake to dismiss the prospect of a Polish exit from the EU. ‘If things go the way they are likely to go, we will have to search for drastic solutions,’ said Terlecki on Friday, citing Brexit as an example of

Hungary, Poland and the EU’s ‘diversity’ problem

It is quite something when the self-proclaimed ‘illiberal’ prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, reminds Brussels of its liberal principles. As part of the ongoing row over a Hungarian law which bans the ‘depiction or promotion’ of homosexuality and gender reassignment, Orbán has argued that: ‘If we want to keep the European Union together, liberals must respect the rights of non-liberals. Unity in diversity.’ ‘Unity in diversity’ has been the official motto of the European Union for over 20 years. The idea that the continent can unite in a common political and economic framework without losing the diversity of its constituent nations underpins the very idea of a democratic union

The EU will regret its legal onslaught against Poland

When European governments openly disobey courts, ears prick up. When two courts simultaneously contradict each other on the same day and descend into an unseemly shouting-match, all bets are off. Welcome to the mad world of Poland’s legal relations with the EU. The ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland, PiS, is cordially detested in Brussels. Its policies, which are quite popular locally, are anathema to the liberal and cosmopolitan Euro-nomenklatura. Back in 2017, PiS introduced technical changes to the terms of appointment of the Polish higher judiciary, including a disciplinary chamber with political connections armed with powers in certain cases to sanction judges.  The measures were aimed at halting corruption. But

The EU’s Brexit bill doesn’t add up

A dozen hospitals. A hundred million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and a lot more of the Oxford one. Or even a few trips in one of Jeff Bezos’s new space rockets. Even with inflation, there is still plenty you can buy with an extra three to four billion pounds.  In recent days, it has emerged there is a big gulf between what the European Union insists we owe under the terms of our departure agreement, and what the UK believes is due.  In the EU’s accounts, it put the sum at £40.5 billion. The UK now says it will be £37.3 billion, or £3.2 billion less than the EU reckons.

Why has the EU let German car manufacturers off the hook?

Two billion? Five billion? Perhaps ten billion to make it a nice round number? For colluding on diesel emissions you might think the European Union would hand out a pretty stiff fine to the big German auto-manufacturers. After all, it has hit American tech giants with huge penalties for far lesser transgressions.  Yet in the end, its response was predictable: the EU has largely let them off the hook. The reason? It turns out that protecting German auto manufacturers is what the Commission really cares about – and nothing else matters. According to Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s anti-trust chief, German manufacturers ‘possessed the technology to reduce harmful emissions beyond what was legally required under EU

Viktor Orbán goes to war on the European parliament

‘Times have changed, and whereas thirty years ago we believed Europe was our future, today we understand that we are Europe’s future’. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has never been one to shy away from controversy when it comes to the European Union. But on Hungarian Independence Day on Monday, he went a step further by presenting an alternative vision for the bloc.  Orbán’s plan involves a major restructuring of the European parliament, which he described as a ‘dead-end’ for democracy. He wants to fix the EU’s democratic deficit by building a ‘democracy of democracies based on European nations’.  In practice, this would mean a reformed European parliament consisting of delegates

Prepare for the EU’s ‘Hamilton moment’

The EU may boast a common currency like any other state (even if nearly a third of its 27 members do not use it). It may also have, through its regulatory jurisdiction over banks and financial services, a vast say in the running of the financial system throughout the bloc: powers at least comparable to those of a federal government such as that in Canada or Australia. But there is one thing the EU has not yet managed to get: a unified tax system.  Any attempt seriously to impinge on national tax laws still requires unanimity among member states. This irks Euro-federalists.  One reason is that it draws the centre

The manhunt dividing Belgium

Belgium’s leading virologist is in hiding, holed up with his family in a government safe house. The reason? A right-wing Flemish soldier. Jürgen Conings disappeared from his home on 17 May, leaving behind a booby-trapped car and a series of letters laying out his grievances against ‘the regime’. In a goodbye letter to his partner, Conings wrote: The so-called political elite, joined now by the virologists, are deciding how you and I should live… I don’t care whether I die or not, but I will live my last days the way I want. The muscular 5ft 9in former corporal is now officially a grade-4 terror risk. But that hasn’t stopped

Brussels embraces vaccine nationalism

Just what on earth is happening in Brussels? The latest saga in the European Commission’s botched vaccine roll out is president Ursula von der Leyen’s threat today to block vaccine shipments to the UK from Europe. Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, the under-fire Eurocrat singled out Britain and suggested she could block imports of Pfizer unless UK-manufactured AstraZeneca jabs are shipped to the Continent. She said: ‘All options are on the table. We are in the crisis of the centre and I’m not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible’ before accusing AstraZeneca of ‘underproducing and underdelivering’ in vaccine production and

Can the EU be trusted to introduce vaccine passports?

The contracts were badly drafted. The orders were late. Too few resources were made available for the scale of the task, and the regulators dithered and delayed. Even the most fanatical federalists such as Guy Verhofstadt have admitted the EU’s vaccine programme was little short of a catastrophe. But hey, what does that matter? Ursula von der Leyen has decided this is the moment to double down on the EU’s Covid-19 strategy, and launch a centralised vaccine passport. What could possibly go wrong? Well, er, as the EU’s vaccine fiasco has taught us, lots actually. Von der Leyen has today tried to bounce back from her difficulties with the vaccine

The EU is stepping up its raid on the City of London

It is not usual for the Governor of the Bank of England to ask permission to make a statement about a completely unrelated issue when giving evidence on inflation to the Treasury Select Committee. So we knew it was serious when Andrew Bailey yesterday told us his concerns about Brussels trying to force banks to relocate their euro clearing from London to the EU.  It is not a surprise that the EU wants to do this – France has been pushing for this for years before Brexit, leading to it losing a case to the UK at the European Court of Justice – but what is concerning is the desperate

Biden’s rift with Brussels is only set to grow

It was meant to be a special relationship. After the tumultuous Trump years, President Biden was planning to reset relations with the European Union, Inherently liberal, rules-based, and engaged with climate change, it would be a natural ally, and far more so than a UK still tainted by Brexit. The Biden team were no doubt looking forward to working closely with officials in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin to repair the damage of the last four years and put the world on a more rational course.  But hold on. It is not going according to plan. There are already reports that the White House is growing increasingly frustrated with the EU.

This is just the start of the Brussels-Britain bust-ups

This is a crucial year for the UK’s two most important relationships, I say in the magazine this week. If the Johnson/Biden diplomatic relationship has got off to a better start than expected, the same cannot be said of the post-Brexit UK/EU one. The alignment between Johnson and Biden on climate change, Russia and China is helping the alliance. This relationship should become closer still given the two side’s agreement on China, the most important geo-political issue of the decade. The EU will attempt, often in not particularly edifying ways, to assert itself as the bigger partner. Earlier this month, Kurt Campbell — who will hold the pen on Asia

Isn’t it time Michel Barnier retired?

He took the European Union to the edge of a no-deal Brexit, creating logistical chaos on both sides of the Channel. His high-handedness and patronising manner hardened positions on both sides. And his brinkmanship clearly failed, leading to a far more distant relationship with the UK than might otherwise have been possible. It would be hard to conclude from the wreckage of the last four years that Michel Barnier had been a great success as the man in charge of negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU. But heck, this is Brussels we are talking about, and you can’t let a little thing like success or failure derail the careers of

Why the ECJ still has a role to play in Britain’s lawmaking

Now that Britain has left the EU, we are no longer bound by the European Court of Justice. Some may view that as something to celebrate. Yet there may also be downsides. The ECJ is the final court of the EU. It hears lots of cases about EU member states who break EU law. It then reaches conclusions which form case law. All 27 members of the EU are bound by this, but Britain, outside the EU, is not. But here’s the catch: some of those decisions might actually be good ones. The solution is that we should borrow these good ones for ourselves. English law is a magpie. We