Pope Offers Tough Love to EU

It was a rare visit from a Pope to an institution that prides itself on its secular nature.

But the EU is in crisis and many here will admit it needs help to redefine its relevance.

Before a packed chamber of MEPs, the Pope pulled no punches.

“Despite a larger and stronger union Europe seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even at times suspicion.” He said.

He claimed his was a message of hope but he clearly feels Europe has lost its way. It has forgotten its religious roots he said, should do more to support human dignity and reconnect with people who no longer trust it.

“we encounter selfish lifestyles marked by an opulence which is no longer sustainable and frequently indifferent to the world around us and especially to the poorest of the poor.”

This was a critical speech. In a time of economic stagnation the Pope urged EU leaders to create jobs, he criticised a throwaway culture, spoke of the elderly being abandoned and of unborn children being killed in the womb, of people becoming cogs in the machine of the global economy. He spoke of increasing loneliness, and he reasserted the importance of the family. He referred to a vacuum of ideas.

Uncomfortable listening for some who were concerned that the Pope did not speak for all. Dutch MEP Sophia In’t Velt said the Pope spoke of human dignity while his Church was still denying women the right to make decisions about their own bodies.

“The Catholic Church is preaching that women should not have control over their own lives and on the other hand they say we want to fight poverty but the two cannot be reconciled, we should have been able to discuss these matters.”

The Pope also spoke about migration and the need for Europe to do more to welcome those in desperate need.

“We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery. The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance.” He said.

The Pope’s identification with the poor is well known. His demand for more and better jobs, for putting human needs above those of multi nationals will have appealed to many, but asking the EU to reverse what he called its “forgetfulness of God” will be more difficult to accept.

Dutch Remember Those Killed on MH17

A National Memorial was held in the Netherlands on Monday 10th November for the 196 Dutch citizens killed on board flight MH17, which was downed over eastern Ukraine in July. Of the 298 people on board Nine bodies are still missing and a proper investigation has yet to start because of the ongoing fighting in the area between Ukrainian government forces and Russian backed separatists.

This was a highly emotional ceremony of remembrance.

The Dutch King and Queen were there, as were politicians and diplomats, but most importantly, 1600 relatives mourning their lost loved ones.

Several spoke bravely of their grief. 13 year old Gita Wiegel lost her Mother. She told the audience her heart is breaking.

There was a white candle for each of the 298 people onboard – every name was read out and remembered. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said they will never be forgotten.

“With every fibre of our being we want these 298 people to get their due. Not only today, at this national ceremony where we pay respects and honour their memory, but also in the future. Today we will read their names aloud. They will not be forgotten.”

Monday’s ceremony may have provided emotional support to the relatives but so many questions remain unanswered. A proper investigation to determine what happened to flight MH17 and who was responsible still hasn’t started, nine bodies are still missing, no wreckage has yet been recovered and justice for those who died seems as far away as ever.

Dutch investigators were to have started collecting evidence at the crash site on Monday, but were again postponed because of fighting close by.

For Robert Van Heyningen who lost his brother the ceremony itself was a huge help;

“it’s not ending this day but this day symbolizes all the warmth of the Dutch community and it goes right to my heart and it helps me a lot about grieving for my family,”

Monday’s ceremony showed the relatives their country grieves with them. But for those who need to know what happened and who want justice? It seems they might have to wait a very long time.

Great War Remembered in Ypres

At 8 o’clock every night in Ypres they pay homage to the dead.

At the Menin Gate there are 54,000 names of British and Allied soldiers who died near here but have no known grave. Almost a hundred years later hundreds still come every day to remember them.

Today the ancient town is smart and prosperous, but back then constant German shelling reduced it to rubble.

After a brief period of mobile fighting in 1914 the two opposing armies dug in and the daily carnage of trench warfare began. There were 5 separate battles outside the gates of Ypres. It was here that gas was first used and where men drowned in mud. Over the four bloody years just a few miles of blasted territory were exchanged.

Belgium Beer
Belgium Beer

It’s in the farmland outside Ypres that you first get the sense of the sheer scale of the sacrifice, in what was the world’s first truly industrialized war. In this British and Allied cemetery there are 12,000 individual grave and on that wall back there, 35,000 names of soldiers whose bodies were simply never found. And don’t forget this is only one sector in a much bigger battlefield.

In four years of fighting 550,000 soldiers died near Ypres. The main German cemetery at Langemark is the final resting place and memorial for over 44,000.

Today people come from all over the world to remember. Bryan and Gayle Frazer are from Australia. They have both German and British ancestry. So, like many, they remember the dead from both sides.

Today Ypres styles itself a “city of peace”. It’s twinned with Hiroshima in Japan. Inside the rebuilt Medieval Cloth Hall there is a museum, to the “war that was meant to end all wars,” – as you leave, there is a sobering list of all the wars fought since, and those still being fought today.

Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague

This is the third International security summit,

The idea is President Obama’s. In 2009 he identified the world’s burgeoning stocks of nuclear material as one of the gravest threats to world security. Since then there have ben two summits, the last will be in Washington in 2016. The process has an ambitious agenda.

The desire of terrorists to get their hands on fissile material to make a bomb has long been advertised. Tightening controls and improving security to guard those stocks is one of the principle goals of the summit process.

But this summit is overshadowed by events in Ukraine and the outbreak of rising tensions between Russia and most of the international community.

On the fringes of the summit President Obama has called an informal meeting of the G7, without Russian participation. Russia’s temporary ejection from the G8 is thought to be high on the agenda, as is the cancellation of this year’s G8 summit in Sochi.

There is too much highly enriched nuclear material in the world, and too many countries have stocks for civilian programmes that they don’t really need. That’s the firm belief of many experts in nuclear security, and it is the intention of the summit process to reduce the stocks, improve their security and develop binding global practices to deliver transparency and a uniform system for all materials, wherever they are.

Some progress has been made and on Monday Japan looked set to announce it will hand over 315 kg of highly enriched material to the US. Japan has a huge stockpile of material and has been under pressure to start dealing with it. The security at its storage sites has long been criticized. The Iranians have used the example of Japan’s stocks as reason for them to continue enrichment for what they claim are civilian programmes.

Experts worry that current US Russian tensions will threaten what has been good cooperation between the two powers over nuclear disarmament. Despite the crisis the two have maintained good relations when it comes to observing the recently signed START treaty and the Vienna Document which allows unannounced inspections of each other’s nuclear facilities. A serious escalation of the Ukrainian dispute may cast doubt on that process.

The US still holds between 150 and 200 B61 nuclear bombs in Europe. Many have called for their withdrawal as a goodwill gesture. Russia has threatened to move short range nuclear warheads closer to its western borders in response to US plans to station missile defence systems in former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland. Worsening relations may provide the grounds for an escalation in nuclear deployment by both sides, something that would overturn all the progress made on disarmament since the Cold War ended.

The Paris Housing Crisis

INTRO – There’s a housing crisis in Paris. There aren’t enough rental properties to go round. Huge demand has led to extortionate rents, and an increase in the number of people living in cramped, over priced and sometimes un-sanitary conditions. The crisis now has a political edge, it is set to be a major issue in next month’s local elections.

Mamadou who didn’t want to reveal his family’s identity, lives at the top of this building in one of Paris’s most expensive districts. They live in what used to be the maid’s room. It’s 7 square metres and costs $600 a month. They have been here five years. So scared are they of upsetting their landlord, they want to hide their faces.

Mamadou is only too aware of the desperate nature of his family’s plight. “I don’t usually let the kids go to friends homes because I don’t want them to see what they have. But once my son went to a birthday party. He was shocked, he saw his friend had his own room. What could I say to him?” He asked us.

He works two jobs and earns over $2000 a month. He could afford more, if it was available.

Paris is bursting with people looking for homes. But demand far exceeds supply. This family’s plight is not uncommon.

A recent poll found 60% of Parisiens now think housing is their number one concern. Being able to afford rent, having all the right documents and proof of permanent income, all make it incredibly difficult. It’s become a key political issue ahead of local elections in March……the politicians ignore it at their peril.

France’s biggest homeless charity says the politicians “get it” but don’t have the policies or money to address it.

Patrick Doutreligne, from the Fondation Abbe Pierre says: “In France we have great companies that make concrete, plaster and glass, so why doesn’t the government invest in building and jobs that can solve the employment crisis as well as the housing crisis.”

In one of the city’s suburbs we found a house which is home to 18 people. The Toures live in one of the rooms. They have one child and another on the way. Every time they ask for social housing, they’re told the list is full.

Again Lassane Toure like Mamadou works hard and feels he should be rewarded with better from the much vaunted French state. “For 13 years I have been working, paying taxes, and look at this, it’s too small. It’s no good.” He said.

Back in the maid’s room, an eviction letter from Mamadou’s landlord. The council says the room is not fit for purpose. They could soon loose what little they have.

UN Committee Blasts Vatican on Child Abuse

UN Committee Blast Vatican on Child Abuse

The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child thanked the Holy See for its cooperation in compiling its report and then proceeded to launch a damning indictment of the Church’s failures.

First, it rejected the Vatican’s long held defense that it cannot monitor the behaviour of all of its priests, all of the time. The UN says by signing up to the Convention the Vatican committed to doing exactly that.

Then the killer paragraph summing up the principle accusation of the report: “The Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests.”
In other words it has put itself above the needs of the thousands of victims affected by this scandal.

There was a long list of well known accusations; that priests are still shuffled from place to place to avoid prosecution, that there is a code of silence, that whistle blowers are ostracized, and that data remains secret.

The UN called on the Vatican to open up its archive, to remove everyone guilty or accused of abuse and that they should be reported to police, that reporting to the police must become mandatory, and that Pope Francis’s new commission must have outsiders and everything it does must be made public.

Elsewhere the committee was equally critical of the Church’s attitude to children born outside marriage, needed to do more to empower young people, and in terms of contraception and teachings which confine young boys and girls to old fashioned sexual stereotypes and social roles.

It didn’t take long for the Vatican to hit back. A brief statement said parts of the report interfered with the Church’s teachings and that some areas involved non-negotiable areas of belief. Unnamed sources started briefing that the report was ideological and politically correct.

It shows how big the challenge Pope Francis faces. If he is genuinely committed to ending the Vatican’s culture of secrecy vested interested have to be confronted. Can he convert the new language and tone of his papacy into a revolution in how the Church interacts with civil society.

The UN committee demands that the sexual abuse of children be declared a crime by the Vatican. Today it is simply referred to as a moral failing. It also invites the Vatican to return before the committee by September 2017 having implemented all of its recommendations. Fat chance that will happen.

Russians at the EU



It was the 32nd Russia-EU Summit and one held against the backdrop of deep disagreements over Ukraine’s future, and the future of Europe’s eastern partnership strategy.

The EU Commission building in Brussels was under tight security. There were far fewer journalists present than for the regular EU Leaders’ summit, but dozens of Russian journalists were there. This was normally a two-day meeting, with a dinner and working groups. But such is the tension over Ukraine and other emerging differences EU leaders reduced it to a three-hour meeting over lunch.

One EU official explained that the idea was to make it clear to the Russians, it was not business as usual.

So paranoid was Russian presidential security that before Putin and his hosts Barosso and Van Rompuy made their way to the press conference, the large atrium where live camera positions were set up, had to be completely cleared of journalists. I’m not sure if this has happened before, and certainly it hasn’t during EU leaders summits when leaders walk through the crowded area teaming with hundreds of journalists.

Everyone in the building is accredited and screened, and besides, this was the EU HQ, and Putin was a guest. Does Barosso get to dictate media access rules when he visits the Kremlin, we wondered. Probably not. The phalanx of Putin’s bodyguards, shielding their boss, left you in no doubt of where they were coming from on security.  But this wasn’t a public space. All part of the theatre I suppose.

Lots of diplomatic language used in the press conference, but the frequent use of the word frank, to describe talks, leaves us no doubt that things are frosty. Putin’s body language is self consciously macho during these events. Legs wide apart. Lots of peculiar facial contortions, and no effort to hide smirks and shakes of the head when his hears something he doesn’t agree with.

One note about Foreign Minister Lavrov – quite the enforcer, despite the elegant cut of his suit. Minutes before the press conference he and his security detail swept through the atrium, and straight out of the building. Fag break in the frigid Brussels winter air. Given Russia’s recent legislation against so-called gay propaganda, by fag, I of course mean a cigarette.

Brussels Restaurant tip – Volle Gas, 21 Place Fernaud Cocq, 1050 Brussels. tel 02 502 8917

This is a very attractive traditional Belgian brasserie with great food, good selection of local beers and an interesting local crowd. Reasonable prices.