No Questions Please, We’re European

The mists are clearing… I see a short, thin man… he is bald with glasses… he is… Belgian! He speaks… he says… he says… “I am very pleased to be here today!”

Here’s a prediction for you. Tomorrow, in Vilnius, European Council president Herman van Rompuy will listen carefully to the interesting ideas presented by Prime Minister Kubilius. Even if Kubilius decides to talk about nothing other than last year’s cycling holiday in Belarus, van Rompuy will listen carefully.

We can be sure of this because today the World’s-Second Most-Famous Belgian (after Jean-Claude van Damme) “listened carefully” to the “interesting ideas” presented by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip of Estonia.

Later on he “listened carefully” to the “ideas” presented by Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia. Sadly, they were not granted the “interesting” adjective in his subsequent press release about the meeting, most of which was a cut-and-paste job from Estonia, which differed by replacing congratulations on joining the eurozone with congratulations on consolidating the budget.

People in the Baltics sometimes get a bit annoyed by this one-size-fits-all way of treating them. After all HvR is, nominally at least, supposed to be representing them. He could make some effort to jazz his statements up with a bit of individuality. I find it hard to believe he would issue word-for-word statements after meetings with France and Germany.

But van Rumpole has form in this regard. As he recalled in his identical opening statements twice today: “This is my second visit to (Estonia/Latvia, delete as applicable). The first was on 9 December 2009, during my very first working days as President of the European Council.”

The fact that they were his first working days was used at the time as the reason why he wouldn’t take any press questions. More than a year on, and he still refuses to take any press questions. Is he really taking so long to settle into the job?

It’s simply not good enough. Lukashenko takes press questions, even if he locks you up if they are the wrong ones.

Of course as a journalist I am keen to at least have the opportunity to ask questions, though in the case of van der Valk, I couldn’t think of anything more interesting to ask than “Why don’t you ever take any press questions?” True to his word, he ignored the question.

As well as seeming a bit high handed, patronising and sitting rather uncomfortably with the EU’s claims to be a model of transparancy, I feel this refusal to take press questions is potentially dangerous.

For example, when van Rambo started talking about the euro, he said: “Let me emphasise that economic growth is positive in 2010 and 2011, and much stronger than expected. The euro is a stable currency with strong economic fundamentals.”

And yet just before then he had been talking about the need for “fiscal consolidation by euro area member states; full implementation of the ongoing macroeconomic programmes in Greece and Ireland; strengthening of the EFSF, banking sector repair, ambitious stress tests and with Member States having plans ready to deal with potential vulnerabilities.”

The dissonance between one and the other gave his “Let me emphasise…” a touch of the methink he doth protest too muches. It would have been nice to get him to explain why the eurozone is so strong when its members have all these problems to sort out. It doesn’t mean his answers have to be any good – he could even do the old trick of saying “Journalists keep asking me about this and I keep telling them the same thing – waffle waffle waffle…”

Similarly phrases like “a more structural response” are so vague as to be meaningless. They smack of the notorious “systemic failures” which are blamed when there is a major cock-up but no-one actually gets the blame for it.

Put simply, a refusal in advance to take questions gives the impression you have something to hide. It suggests someone who either doesn’t trust the press or doesn’t trust himself to be able to deal with the press, which is probably even more worrying given his position.

If someone told you “I’m not going to answer your questions, butlet me emphasise that I definitely have not stolen any cabbages recently,” what would you think? That they have probably stolen some cabbages recently.

The correct approach is to say “Sorry, I only have time for two very quick questions” to give at least a suggestion of openness and accountability.

I saw Rumpo’s arch-rival Jose Manuel Barroso (they are  bit like the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Captain Kirks) perform this trick with skill down in Vilnius last year. He apologised politely for his busy schedule and then answered what was clearly a planted question that not only took up the allotted time but allowed him to talk off the cuff about a subject with which he was comfortable, in the process avoiding the need for any identikit press releases.

But of course von Richtofen didn’t want to talk because the real reason for his visit is to get heads of state primed for the plan he has in his pocket from France and Germany. Perish the thought that Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians might find out about that before it was good for them.

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