30 June 2011

Farewell to the Hungarian Presidency – or “is there life after the Presidency?”

(There is definitely life for this blog after the Hungarian Presidency, as we will carry on blogging and tweeting, so you are welcome to follow us.)

During the last six months the Presidency has fully occupied our days and part of our nights. A few presidencies had a rougher start than ours, but equally few have finished more successfully if we look at the actual achievements (we don’t want to bore you with the details, you can read them here if interested). This spectacular comeback was based on the solid moral strength and the concentrated effort of our colleagues. Such concentrated effort can of course lead to addiction, which will unavoidably cause a few weeks of post-presidency depression. (Even though at the moment we can’t wait to see our families in normal daylight and get our lives back.)

However what we are interested in this post is a wider question: Is the presidency just a passing moment or does it serve a higher purpose? How did it change us personally and how did it change Hungary’s role in the European Union? 

In the new post-Lisbon institutional setup the rotating presidency is the last link that connects the Brussels Bubble to the Member States. And we must protect this role! The fact that the presidency rotates between Member States lends it great importance, but also creates its Achilles-heel: presidencies come and go and each one tries to reinvent the wheel again. This is why we tried to look at the incoming presidencies as a continuous flow and not as separate, conflicting or competing entities. We did our best to involve the Polish (and the Danish) communication team into our work and share all good and bad experiences honestly. Hereby let us wish good luck to the Poles, we are really crossing our fingers for your success!

But what is going to happen to Hungary’s role in the EU? We fully agree with what Greg Dorey, UK Ambassador to Hungary wrote: ”The Hungarian EU Presidency has gone well, with much-needed legislation and business of importance to the EU as a whole steered through in a professional and competent manner. The challenge now is to preserve the expertise and skill that has been built up – it is only when a new Member State has held the Presidency for the first time that it can really understand how to use the EU to best effect.”

Even though the Hungarian Permanent Representation will now go back to a “normal” operation, we expect that: 
  1. the Hungarian public administration back in Budapest will be much more efficient in defining Hungarian national interest very early on, and
  2. our Brussels based diplomats will be even more competent in representing these positions
  3. furthermore we hope for more Hungarian lobbyists/activists in Brussels. 
As the Multiannual Financial Framework* negotiations are just starting (see live tweeting from @hajduspox on 29/06), this improvement comes at the best moment. 

*aka EU Budget, fate of lots of money, in the 7 years between 2013 and 2020

We are caught up now between worlds 

And how about us, Kovács & Kováts? Well, we are in a strange situation. In the Brussels institutional setup, most people spend their EU-career in one institution and they begin to identify with their institution. If we wanted to draw a caricature, we could say that Commisison officials tend believe that the Commission equals Europe and Council and Parliament are only there to disturb. Council sometimes lives in a diplomatic ivory tower thinking they are the only real power in town and everyone else is just a joke. Finally Parliament officials believe their institution is the only one with a democratic legitimacy. 

In our “normal existence” Kovács is a Commission official, while Kováts is a Parliament official, and both of us have been seconded to the Hungarian Presidency. Thus we are caught up now between two worlds – carrying the original identity of our proper institutions while having gone through a very intensive crash course in Council mentality. Whether this ”double-identity” will be appreciated upon our return to our sending institutions or whether we will be castigated, is to be seen. (Kováts has been asking for more blood in Brussels, now he might get it – in London.)

And before we go a few words of thank you to a few special people!

First to the whole Brussels press corps – thank you for taking us at face value, (mostly) without preconceptions and for a straightforward relationship. For those journalists with whom we had more regular contacts and have grown closer to our hearts (you know who you are), well we hope to stay in touch. 

For the Brussels bloggers, especially to the Bloggingportal editors: we are happy that you came to that meeting in the winter that started us on an intellectually motivating cooperation that finally led to the pilot project of opening up the Council to bloggers. 

We are grateful to colleagues in the Council’s press team who have run most of the press relations for us or instead of us. Sometimes we thought that we were only a nuisance disturbing the smooth operation of the system, but you never made us feel as outsiders. Also colleagues at the 26 permanent representations were extremely helpful and cooperative on a bilateral basis when we needed them. 

We must thank the spokespeople and press officers of all other institutions for their cooperation (some were more, others less cooperative, but we met no bad intentions and have no ill feelings) and for bearing with our sometimes rather undiplomatic blog posts without much complaint.

A great thank you to the interpreters, whom we have often criticized (and might have gone over the top –new blog post on this subject coming up), but without whom the Presidency could not have survived for one day. 

And finally, the Hungarian Presidency team, including the Brussels diplomats who endured our constant pestering, but still proved to be most helpful. And of course our closest collaborators (Emi, Eszter and Magda) for enduring the hardship of supporting our work.

We will miss you!

29 June 2011

The (many) mistakes we made

From the feedback we get from all over in Brussels, it seems the Hungarian Presidency is considered a great success. From Olli Rehn, arguing for a Schuman Prize, to Hannes Swoboda wanting to stop the clock on the 30th of June, all actors are impressed by the results. (We could have another post on whether this is unfair or not, as a Presidency cannot be evaluated on its own but in cooperation with its partners, but this is not the point here.)

The point is that Kovács & Kováts believe the way to success in life leads through small failures. We achieve results if first we make mistakes and learn from them. (This is why we look forward to reading the new book of Tim Harford this summer.) It is of course important to make mistakes at a small scale, so when you get to the important tasks, you have already cut your teeth . It’s common sense, and we are looking forward to experiencing it with our children, when we will actually see them, that is, after the Presidency is over… 

We of course like to think that we did contribute something to the Presidency’s success, so it is just fair if we try to take stock of the mistakes we made on the way - especially as it was the mother of all learning curves for us, newbies to the Council. So here is our ’best of mistakes’ collection. (Please feel absolutely free to point out other mistakes we made, even we know more but we are reluctant to share them) 

1. Limited engagement with electronic media

While we did well with the print media, our performance vis-a-vis electronic media was mixed. While we made some e effort with the Brussels based online media and also with Hungarian online media, we were not able to connect like we did with the print media. We also connected superbly with the Brussels blogosphere, so our lack of success with online papers leaves a bit of a bad taste.

We also connected relatively well with radios (although could have paid more attention to their specific needs), but we totally missed TVs. At the beginning of the presidency there was an increased interest, we gave several interviews (especially on the famous carpet), but as the results of the Presidency work started to show in February, the TVs have all but disappeared. We have been too busy reacting to the recurring crises so we simply had no energy to look for „sexy” subjects and proposals. The nitty-gritty of European Union legislation is hard to sell to TV audiences (and especially to editors), though not impossible. Lately we had some success, e.g. with the issue of Macedonia or the ’cross‑border exchange of information on road safety related traffic offences’. The latter sounds like a super boring subject, but it’s extremely timely before the summer vacation, so we could achieve prime airtime. We should have worked on this much more. 

2. Sticking to known journalists only

This is a variation of the electronic/online media problem. Not all journalists are equal in importance, and we did not have the same „chemistry” with all journalists. Therefore there was a tendency to only talk to the same circle of journalists whom we trusted and liked and/or who we thought were super-important. We invited them for backgrounds, we called them (back) first, we sent them press releases under embargo, etc. It took us quite some time to recognize this trap at all. At a later stage, so that we don’t miss everything, we tried to expand our circle. Invited new faces for a background to see what they are like, talked to them and checked out their reporting. But we could have done more and earlier.

3. Reaching out to national bloggers

We had no energy and no plan to connect with the national blogospheres. Our lack of engagement with Hungarian bloggers is a special shame. We have only thought about it at the end of the Presidency after some discussion with the Bloggingportal editors, but by then it was too late.

We know that the Holy Grail in Brussels is to connect the Brussels blogosphere to the national blogospheres. (Something that seems to be starting with the UK blogosphere thanks to committed people like Jon Worth and Joe Litobarski.) The presidency has offered us a golden opportunity to connect with Hungarian bloggers and we missed it. We can only hope that the Polish Presidency will not make the same mistake towards Polish bloggers.

4. Not reaching out properly to fellow spokespeople

Our record is decidedly mixed here. We worked perfectly well with the press officers and spokespeople of the Council (General Secretariat and some embassies).Cooperation was OK with the communication team of both the President of the European Council and of the High Representative. We also received support from the European Parliament’s press team, even though there were some spectacular clashes between the institutions. Where we feel we failed was in setting up a systematically good cooperation with the Commission – an especially sore point for Kovács (“once a Commission official, always a Commission official.”) After a promising start we only managed to have random contacts with the spokespeople, even in cases where cooperation, early warning, etc. could have been helpful. 

5. Being too cautious with on the record information

Especially in the beginning, we held back and offered only background information because we wanted to play it safe, or wait for the actual decision to take place. What then happened was that the media ran our stories without us being quoted. Happened more than once, and difficult to avoid even with a full speaking mandate that we thankfully have.

6. Not engaging our diplomats proactively enough 

Let’s face it, most administrations are not geared towards external communications, and the unsung heroes of a presidency, the diplomats below the ambassadors did not necessarily have the spokespeople on their mind in everything they did. We had mixed results in the beginning, and we were certainly not pushy enough in regularly going around and collecting information. We realised that sometimes a reminder is enough, but sometimes you have to fight for the info. 

Was that frustrating? No doubt. Could we have done better? Absolutely. Have the diplomats improved? Tremendously. (By the end we had more suggestions/requests coming in for „some press work” than we could handle, and there are "hidden gems" who draft better press releases than we do (almost))

7. Not considering the personal preferences of our clients (the ministers)

Being a spokesperson for half a dozen VIPs once a month (or less) is difficult and very different from being a personal spokesperson. So in the beginning we were struggling with offering a one-size fits all approach to all ministers. Predictably, all of them had issues to take with our approach. With repeat councils it became much better as time passed, but we could have done a better job in gathering information about personal preferences in advance (e.g. from the ministry press people.)

8. Focusing only on journalists 1., (not engaging other opinion leaders)

In the beginning, we missed a large part of the opinion leaders by focusing solely on journalists. Surely, what you want is to get your message across and that the media gives you favourable coverage, but indirect ways are often useful, too. It took us some time to realise that we should talk to think tanks, academics, lobbyists, etc., who are sources for news stories, and whose opinion matters more to a journalists than what a spokesperson says. Now we are doing it as much as we can (and find pleasure in the intellectual exchange) but it is somewhat late.

9. Focusing only on journalists 2., (not taking the direct route)

Again, in the beginning we did not realise that the Presidency can appear directly in newspapers, with opinion pieces and articles, as long as they are relevant, well written and provocative. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that’s nevertheless worth a try in order to increase your audience and get your message through. We think we are doing well in the end, but again, we could and should have been doing this a long time ago. (It’s also extremely time consuming, and a pain to cut and cut again your carefully worded sentences…)

Now it's your turn - what could we have done better?

27 June 2011

Federal plans in Central Europe and its message for today’s Europe

(This article is based on an exhibition organized by the Hungarian Presidency in the Berlaymont building under the title “Central European Union”. The closing cocktail will take place at noon on 28/06)

We have stumbled upon some interesting Central European thinkers/activists, whose thoughts on European integration gain new meaning today, when we are looking for a recovery from the economic crisis.

In order to explain our point, we need to step back a bit in time. Talking about the origins of the European Union, even the Brussels bubble think of Western European politicians, like Schuman, Spaak, Adenauer, Churchill, etc. However the people who actually invented the theoretical foundations of an economic community and have started the political movement were mostly Central Europeans between the two world wars. The origin of their ideas lie in the political and economic situation in the 20’s and 30’s, when some brave politicians and experts in the newly formed small sovereign states in Central Europe started actively working for a federation of these small states in order to increase their economic, political and military clout vis-a-vis the bigger European powers (especially Germany). They argued that a fragmented Central Europe will fall prey to Germany and the Soviet Union – and how right they were!

Who were these people and what is their significance today?

The “inventor” of European integration as we know today was Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the son of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat and founder of the Pan-Europa movement.

The eminence grise of European integration was a Polish diplomat/activist, Józef Retinger. Without his energy and organisational talent, the EU might not exist today. Working closely with Duncan Sandys he helped found the European Movement and the Council of Europe. (By the way, he had an immensely interesting life, aged 56, in 1944, he was parachuted by the Allies back to Poland in Operation Salamander and in 1954 he founded the Bilderberg Group – the ultmate proof for conspiracy theorists about the EU’s real nature. His biography is a superb read, usually available at Amazon – see here)

The person drawing up the economic theory of a common market in the 30’s was the Hungarian Elemér Hantos: “It was Hantos who did the most to make known the necessity of a Danubian economic confederation to the world. Through the economic institutes he founded in Vienna, Budapest, Brno, and Geneva, Dr. Hantos focused strongly on winning over European opinion and putting Central Europe on the map economically.” (Jacques Droz, from hantosprize.org)

The highest ranking politician among them was Milan Hodža, PM of Czechoslovakia, who developed a federative project in exile, which he described in 1942 in his book ‘Federation in Central Europe’.

Another important activist-campaigner, was the Hungarian Pál Auer (Paul de Auer), who has been closely cooperating with Coudenhove-Kalergi and was later active in the European Movement. Finally, as political thinker, we must underline the role of the Hungarian István Bibó and his thoughts on nationalism and Central European identity.

(Our list is probably not exhaustive, but gives a good idea of the development of Euroepan integration thought.)

Why is it significant today? Because even larger European states feel their significance decreasing at the global stage today compared to the US, China and the other upcoming powers. This relative weakening is clear in geopolitical, military, political and economic terms, as well. What was true for small Central European states in the 1930’s, may become true for all European states. (Just think of Robert Gates’s latest Brussels speech on NATO’s state of affairs.)

Quoting Milan Hodža’s argument on the economic necessity of the federation: “When planning for Central Europe they are anxious to present themselves as a unit; not in order to be self-sufficient, but to be instead of small, helpless would-be sovereignties partners on an equal footing through the intermediary of their federated unit. If any of their big neighbours were able continuously to force on them bilateral commercial treaties, they would become the objects of international trade instead of its subjects. Treaties between bullying great powers and bullied small nations, though they are contemplated as bilateral, become in fact unilateral, because they establish obligations deliberately. A bilateral treaty of a Central European Federation, however strong its partner might be, should enable this important portion of the Continent to enter into fair trade relations with anyone according to the effective interests ofthem both.” (Federation in Central Europe, p 167.)

Apply this to the role of Europe in the world economy today and no need to explain any further why we need a Strong Europe as advocated by the Hungarian Presidency.

26 June 2011

Sunday reading list – a very subjective take on Hungarian books

On Sundays we’ve been trying to give a little cultural twist to this blog. This time, it is not music, but books. Kováts is a great fan of listing things, so here is a very subjective list of the five “best” Hungarian books:

1. The most talked-about Hungarian writer these days is Sándor Márai (a good Guardian piece on him here) and his most famous book is probably the ’Embers’. It’s a magical realist tale of love and loyalty written in 1942. Kováts had the chance to see the book turned into a play in the Duke of York Theatre with Jeremy Irons, which has started him down on a slippery (and expensive) slope of theatre going in London.

Warning: starting to read Márai is addictive. Don’t blame us if you end up as a serial reader of his books.

2. “Many Continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game.” By poking such gentle fun at the English, How to be an Alien by George Mikes has become an instant bestseller in the UK after WWII. It’s most famous line is probably about sex and the English – we have heard it quoted several times and most people probably don’t know where it comes from. You can read the whole text here – although without the fabulous illustrations by Nicholas Bentley. 

3. My happy days in Hell – The first part of the autobiographical novel of György (George) Faludy, a poet and a connoisseur of life who was chased by every possible totalitarian regime. He takes the reader through the period between 1938-1956 with so much inteligence, humanism and fun that contrasts the terrible events described. (If you read this, you may understand why the Council conslusions on crimes committed by totalitarian regimes was an important achievement for us - and why we insisted on the inclusion of communist crimes.) 

4. Linked and Bursts by Albert-László Barabási: Eye-opening books if you want to understand how networks work and what that means for humans: "Barabasi is one of the few people in the world who understand the deep structure of empirical reality." -Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan.

5. And a translation for the end: Winnie ille pu – Who would think of translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin? And expecting this to be a bestseller? It must be a polyglot Hungarian Jew, a doctor hiding in Rome’s libraries during WWII and later emigrating to Brazil and using his last savings to publish the book. As one of Kováts’s favourite British writers, Robert Graves explains: “Through some inexplicable quirk of fortune, Winnie ille Pu was taken up by publishers in Sweden, England and the United States, and everywhere became a best seller. Since then, several other Latinists have exploited the trend with translations of Peter Rabbit, Peter and the Wolf and Alice in Wonderland; but all that I have read lack Winnie ille Pu’s audacious wit and stylistic felicities, doubtless because they are written in the wrong sort of Latin.” (A very funny take on the story is available from George Faludy here)

Alexander Lenard (or Lénárd Sándor or Alexander Lenardus) has a few original works available in English. ‘The valley of the Latin bear’ is a superb account of life in the “Interior” of Brazil and one of the best cookbooks we know is ‘The fine art of Roman cooking’.

Some of the books above were translated into English (like those of Márai, who rejected even in emigration to write in anything then Hungarian), while others like Mikes, were written originally in English. We find it fascinating how some writers are able to produce lasting works in a language other than their native language(s). In addition to George Mikes and Alexander Lenard, think of Arthur Koestler, who wrote in Hungarian, German and English or of the leading American poet Charles Simic. This would be worth another post, but for the moment we must go back to more mundane tasks and prepare for tomorrow’s IGC with Iceland, the summing-up press conference of the Hungarian Presidency and the extraordinary Competitiveness Council which is expected to give a critical push to the creation of the EU patent (details for the press regarding tomorrow's events here - press conference for the Competitiveness Council will be broadcast from Luxembourg at around 5PM.)

24 June 2011

A practical solution to the migration questions arrives just in time

File:Schengen Monument.jpg
Getting serious on a solution to migration?!

Today’s the last European Council during the Hungarian presidency, with migration and Schengen high on the agenda. (After meeting Jerzy Buzek, leaders will discuss economic issues over dinner. Tomorrow comes migration, Croatia, Southern Mediterranean + endorsing the Danube Strategy and the Roma Framework Strategy. If we have a few moments to spare during the night, we will try to blog on it)

Let’s pick one particular subject, which is of interest to everyone, the Schengen System. Lately, there has been lot’s of focus on one aspect of this complex question, i.e. “the exceptional reintroduction of internal border controls”. As Jon Worth (with a great nose for political dynamics) correctly noticed (see here), public discussion focused on the border reintroduction question as a last-resort measure (and still does, see here a strong piece by Justyna of Reuters). This approach disregarded the actual solutions to the problem (strengthening of Frontex, creating a European Asylum System, cooperation with third countries and strengthening the application of Schengen rules – well detailed in the Barroso letter to President Sarkozy and PM Berlusconi and in the 9 June Council conclusions). The problem with the limited approach is its total spin on the doomsday-scenario of putting back internal borders, without mentioning that this should be a very last resort. And there are several options beforehand. 

So let’s talk about a mostly forgotten aspect of the comprehensive solution to the migration issue: the March European Council tasked us to broker an agreement on the strengthening of Warsaw-based Frontex agency. As part of our super Wednesday yesterday (post coming up), we eceived approval from the member states on our trialogue deal with the European Parliament – see our press release of this morning here

This agreement creates European Border Guard Teams with legally binding commitments on Member States who pledge border guards to the Frontex agency. It allows Frontex to purchase or lease its own assets, thus boosting its capabilities. The agreement also empowers Frontex to process personal data obtained during missions and use it in the fight against criminality (while increasing the guarantees on the respect of human rights). This should make Frontex a capable force to help out those members states whose border is under extreme pressure. (Let’s not forget that border control is primarily a national responsibility.)

For more details see the Financial Times’s blog post here from yesterday (as usual, the FT is one of the best informed Brussels media, coming out with the article shortly after the agreement). 

What remains to be seen of course, is whether we put our money where our mouth is on Frontex and in its next budget the agency will receive the financial resources necessary to use these enhanced powers.

23 June 2011

Presidency goes like mad

Right now the best and brightest minds of Brussels are focused on Greece and the economy because of Thursday night’s European Council dinner. The Presidency will have to report on the delivery of two key elements of the comprehensive response to the economic crisis, namely the European Semester and the Economic Governance package. PM Orban will have nothing to be ashamed of there, quite the opposite – we have pushed through the first ever semester exercise without any delay, and we have narrowed down the differences between the co-legislators (European Parliament and the Council) from over 2000 to 1 (hands up if you don't know what rQMV is).

What goes largely unnoticed however is the work on the nuts and bolts of the single market, the nitty-gritty details underpinning the (relatively) free flow of goods and services among 27 member states with very different regulatory traditions. This rightly pisses out our friends in Coreper I, who aim to completely clear the table before the Polish Presidency, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in several second reading dossiers that would have otherwise gone into conciliation (and we know quite a lot about conciliation, dont we)

The pace of legislative action is really mind bogling. Yesterday, we managed to hammer out a deal on food labelling, providing a higher level of consumer protection in the future. Apart from the new rules on more transparent and readable information on ingredients, Kovács will benefit from the ability to spot allergens, such as lactose or gluten, on the packaging of food. Also, we can only cheer on the idea that a cheese will have to be called a cheese and a cheese-like substance not made of milk cannot be called a cheese.

Also yesterday we closed the dossier on the cross border information exchange for traffic offences. In short: the German police can catch you if you zip through the country on your way to Italy. Or anywhere else. We lined up the 27 Member States unanimously behind the final compromise and we hope the EP approves it at the next plenary. Once enacted and implemented, central authorities of Member States will be able to exchange information in the case of 4 „deadly” traffic offences: speeding, DUI, not using your safety belt, crossing on red. It also covers using your mobile phone while driving, driving in reserved lanes and not wearing a safety helmet on a motorbike. 

Then there was the Frontex deal, which forms part of the comprehensive response not to the economic crisis, but the comprehensive solution to the migration issue. (There’s an awful lot of similarity between the Euro and Schengen, isn’t there?) 

Finally, as a bonus, just today the EP plenary adopted the deal on the Consumer Rights Directive. If you are reading this blog, chances are you have already ordered something on-line, or at least planning to, and then this agreement is good news for you. (Also if you are like my mother and love to order stuff from the now-defunct Otto mail order store. It doesn’t apply to mail order brides though.) In a nutshell, online and distant sellers will have to be more transparent with their conditions and prices, they will have to take back their wares in a longer period and generally make your shopping safer.

The Presidency is not over yet, with quite a lot to be done in just one week, but our colleagues can already start to feel good about what they have done so far.

15 May 2011

Sunday music -Eurovision Pidgin English

UPDATE (17/05/2011)

We have received a few comments regarding voting patterns at Eurovision. Is this a good tool to map likes and dislikes between Europen countries? Not, because of the voting system (see here), the non-representative selection and the lack of clear patterns in the majority of the countries.

(Fellow blogger and Eurovision "expert" Anjci is giving some interesting explanations on nationa l voting habits - see here) However, what we can do is a limited conclusion of some regional groups of countries that tend to vote for each other.

Here is a good map showing the regional voting preference blocks between 2001-2005:

Even though the voting rules have been changed since, if you look at this year's voting results (see here), you can find the above patterns repeating themselves. Slovenian TV has produced an interesting map, that you can reach here (Thanks for @DraganBrBr for the link - for those few who don't speak Slovenian look at the video around the middle of the page). Through @anamariadutceac we found that Spiegel online has also published an interesting take on the cultural significance of Eurovision - see here.

Sunday Music - Eurovision Pidgin English (15/05/2011)

Where is the soul of Gainsbourg? - So, this weekend has been about Eurovision. 130 million viewers in 40+ countries, 3 hours of music of very much varying quality and the usual impossibility to predict the outcome even with some accuracy. And now, here's our take:

The first great thing about Eurovision is that it represents a rare point of agreement in the longstanding language argument between Kováts and Kovács (1, 2, 3), or even to some extent a role reversal. While Kováts keeps arguing for multilingualism (aka affirmative action for French) in Brussels, and Kovács embraces monolingualism (code for not having been able to properly learn French), we both agree that contest songs should be in (one of) the national language(s) of the contestant’s country. In fact, Kovács feels much stronger about it, and would have preferred a Gaelic entry from Ireland.

We have tweeted about it before and were criticised by @spignal of the Financial Times for meddling with things that are not related to the EU. Well, the Eurovision is more closely related to the EU than many would think. It brings understanding between coutnries through sharing their culture. Started in 1956, as a project of Western European unity, it has soon become a weapon in the cold war and to the repressed people of the Communist bloc it has brought a taste of the free world through the airwaves (even if Communist authorities did their best to disturb those waves). After the fall of the iron curtain, the coutnries of Central Europe not only started negotiating their acession to NATO and the EU, but they also joined the Eurovision Song Contest as a symbol of their European identity.

Here is a nice documentary on the importance of Eurovision in the cold war (in German).

According to the original rules, songs had to be sung in the national language (an exception was made between 1973 to 1977, which resulted in the success of ABBA with Waterloo and of Teach-In with Ding-A-Dong ). This requirement has been lifted in 1999, which now created a situation where the majority of the songs are in some form of simplified English. We wonder, how can performers share their country's culture by singing in simplistic English?

We are probably irreparably old fashioned, but Gainsbourg’s song performed by France Gall in French (which won forLuxembourg in ’65!!) remains the best thing that ever came out of Eurovision for us (see here). Whether you like it or not, it represents a long-lasting contribution to European culture. Even though it has been translated into many languages could you imagine Gainsbourg-Gall in English? Well, this is exactly the point.

Originality Second, we were both baffled by the degree to which songs have, well, “showed similarity” to earlier works. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, the first 15 or so seconds of the Swedish song is sampled 100% from Boney M’s “Night flight to Venus” (at 0:34). But in many other cases, even our musically illiterate ears picked up very strong similarities with other hit songs. Hat-tip to Serbia - Third, the favourites. It was of course with great sadness that we saw the Hungarian entry linger in the lower ranks all through the voting, even though many in Hungary and some even outside it predicted it to be among the top songs. (A good example of distorted Hungarian domestic debate is that some commentators blame the Fidesz Gorvernment for the lack of success in this year's Eurovision) It was no consolation either that the first 13 places went to English language songs (excusable from our perspective only for Ireland and the UK) with Serbia coming in at place 14 with a Serbian song – goes to show that going all English is probably a rational strategy for contestants.

Finally, the voting. A subject of considerable debate and even some serious looking research, this is one of the highlights of the contest. We wouldn’t like to comment on possible voting patterns, suffice it to say that people’s preferences, as usual, are more difficult to predict (read: impossible) than a few rules of thumb would suggest. In the end, the winner did not disappoint, even though it wasn’t the favourite of either of us, and thus it’s time to congratulate Azerbaijan and wish Baku the best for hosting next year’s contest – they will have large shoes to fill.

11 May 2011

Survival guide for spokespeople III. – on lessons learned in presidency communications

Following our post on gaffes by spokespeople (see here) and part two on communication dilemmas in Brussels (see here), we present our first take on lessons learned with only two months left to go in the presidency. This is a rather theoretical piece, to be followed with a post on practical arrangements of presidency communications.

1. Expectations management

Over one year since Lisbon entered into force, people still misunderstand the role of the rotating presidency, falsely comparing it to the pre-Lisbon reality in their minds (those who knew the pre-Lisbon reality, at all). International media as well as our domestic audience expects the same visibility from a presidency as before the permanent President of the European Council and the High Representative was spun off from the Council. This is obvious from the common mistake of talking about the “EU Presidency” (Van Rompuy cabinet member Richard Corbett is on a constant crusade against its usage.)

Unrealistic expectations about what the rotating presidency can and cannot do pose a challenge, manifesting itself in the most surprising questions: Why was the presidency not invited to the Paris Summit on Libya? Why did the presidency decide to organize a summit on energy? Why was the Eastern Partnership summit postponed? And these questions came from people working in EU affairs…imagine the level of confusion in citizens’ heads about the role of the rotating presidency.

Our advice to future presidencies is to exercise the virtues of humility and patience, use every opportunity to educate people about the post-Lisbon reality and never take it personally.

2. Know your environment
The folly of talking about an “EU Presidency” becomes evident if we look at all the other players around it. Although we talk about Presidency Priorities, in reality a rotating presidency can hardly influence more than a small fraction of its agenda. The rest is either inherited from previous presidencies (who would have often inherited them from even earlier, such as the patent dossier) or comes from new proposals by the Commission, from a report adopted in Parliament, from European Council conclusions, or simply from external events. It is justified to talk about presidency priorities, but they must be understood in their context: the presidency’s ultimate priority is to make the best possible effort on all files, but we can indicate those where we are planning to pay special attention.

We have been asked why did we decide to push for closing accession negotiations with Croatia, adopting a Roma Framework Strategy and furthering the Schengen Accession of Romania and Bulgaria. - While not denying that these subjects are specially dear to us, we did not put them on the agenda, we could not have.

As a result, presidency communication on individual issues is often surrounded by communication on the same issue by other players. They will further their own image and often “forget” to mention the presidency (except if it comes to the blame game – see here).

There is nothing malicious in this as all institutions have their own agenda, creating Brussels’ version of checks and balances. But in practice it can be frustrating for spokespeople, especially as presidencies are handicapped in this game. Presidencies come and go, thus press staff from other institutions usually look at presidency communicators as the weakest link. Plus ‘permanent’ institutions usually have more firepower – just think of the Commission’s 27 spokespeople and their support staff, or the EP which has 700+ spokespeople…

So what can a presidency do?

- First, take it easy and keep it fair and reasonable. Don’t pick fights on small issues. If you are a troublemaker, you lose influence.

- Be open and courteous. We hold the cabinet of the President of the European Council and the press people at the European Parliament and the Commission in high regard and we never kept that opinion to ourselves - they proved to be very cooperative in different ways.

- Rely on the Council General Secretariat – they are professional, non-political, know their way around and dedicated to help the presidencies. At the beginning of the presidency regular coordination with them helped us a lot and it still does.

3. Stereotypes
As fellow blogger Europasionaria put it, being a new member state in Brussels is like being a woman at work. You have to work twice as hard and you will never win full approval from your male colleagues. (We take her word for what it must feel like.) A presidency from a new member state is double the pain. If one looks simply at the number of files advanced substantially or closed during the Slovenian or Czech presidencies, they were clearly among the best presidencies lately. Still, collective memory in Brussels has practically forgotten the Slovenian Presidency and remembers the Czech Presidency as a failure, which is infuriating.

The strategy to cope with this is simple: do work twice as hard, learn the rules of the game, be assertive to a point but don’t be judgmental or bitter about it, and don’t be shy about your achievements.

4. The unbearable lightness of temporariness
All other presidencies are permanent (meaning they last at least 2,5 years), it is only the rotating presidency that changes every 6-months. This has an effect on practical communications:

- The rotating presidency works harder than others. It is a frantic 6-months, with people working 6 days a week and 12 hours a day (or more). Initially for example we were surprised that some other spokespersons were not in the office by 07:30 am and would not be available after 8 pm. Also, there were several important events where other spokespeople simply did not show up to our surprise – which by the way means we have the first-hand experience of the events, which can be used (by tweeting, quick phone calls, background discussions, etc.) Since the others don’t need to prove themselves in a mere 6 months and such frantic pace obviously cannot be sustained permanently, we had to learn to tolerate normal people working at other institutions. After all, it was us, not them, who at the end of last year said goodbye to our families, who accepted that we would leave home in the mornings before they wake up and arrive after they have gone to bed. (The upside is that our kids can hardly tell if we are in Brussels or Strasbourg…if that’s an upside…)

- The institutional bureaucracy tends to follow the permanent president, not the temporary one, which will be gone in a few months’ time. The only way for presidency spokespeople to deal with this is to team up with future and previous presidencies and come to common understandings vis-à-vis the permanent presidencies and the bureaucracies.

- Steep learning curve. By the time you would get used to it, the presidency is over, so you have to get used to it quicker. Try and prepare a lot, but also remember that you cannot “out-prepare” life and the more you prepare the less flexible you are...

5. Know your value
Finally, with all the challenges, this is why we think we are still important: the rotating presidency is the only institution that is not completely Brussels based, and the one with which EU citizens, nationals of the different Member States, can identify with. If we really want to bring the EU closer to the citizens, then long-live the rotating presidency with all its shortcomings!

9 May 2011

Europe Day’s three degrees of separation from Humphrey Bogart

Six degrees of separation refers to the idea that everyone on Earth is on average approximately six connections away from any other person on Earth. The notion has been invented by a Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy and first introduced in his short story titled Chain-links (“Láncszemek”, see an excerpt here in Hungarian.)

It has been popularized by the Bacon-number (how many degrees away an actor is from Kevin Bacon) and by the Erdős-number (how many degrees away a mathematician is from the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, who published more papers than anyone in mathematics and who worked with hundreds of collaborators.) For the select few, having acted in a film and written a science paper, there is even a Bacon-Erdős Number (e.g. Natalie Portman or Stephen Hawking).

But how does Humphrey Bogart relate to Europe Day? Well, loosely interpreting the six degrees of separation theory, everything is connected on Earth to everything, you just have to find the links.

So let's see a thought experiment Although everyone connects in their minds Europe Day to Robert Schumann and his declaration, the original idea actually comes from someone else. It was an Austro-Hungarian-Japanese count, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who proposed to organize a Europe Day. Of course, the originally proposed day was not the 9th of May, but the 21st of March, the day of the Spring equinox. (He addressed a letter to the Council of Europe to suggest this solution in 1955.)

But how to get from Coudenhove-Kalergi to Bogart? We, Kalergi was the model for the resistance hero, Victor Laszlo in the movie Casablanca (played by actor Paul Henreid ).

So it’s easy: Europe Day was invented by Coudenhove-Kalergi, who served as the model for Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart. That makes three degrees of separation in our opinion.

Now we may start working on the Kovács & Kováts number in Brussels... this will deserve another post. But for the time being, Happy Europe Day to all!

3 May 2011

Survival guide for spokespeople II. – on Brussels communication dilemmas

Following on our previous post on communication gaffes, we want to make good on our promise of sharing with you some of our dilemmas and lessons learned as spokespeople for the presidency of the Council of the European Union. We have learnt some of these from friendly advisers (journalists and other spokespeople), and some through the hard way, through gaffs if you will.

Presidency hat or Member State hat?
The first lesson we learned already before the start of the Presidency was that the media does not differentiate between the Presidency and the Member State holding it. At the same time, we are bound by rules that make a very clear difference. We speak on behalf of the Council, so we had to forget any national positions on-the-record. By now, we have managed to more or less separate the Presidency from domestic debates, at least in our direct communication. (This does not mean taking any position in those debates – simply a Presidency is aimed at building compromise between 27 member states, while domestic political debates are rarely about compromise.)

Still, as a Council insider told us before the start of our Presidency, politicians cannot change hats just because they are speaking in Brussels. We think, this may be true for politicians, but not for civil servants and diplomats, who have a job to do.

Anyhow, this problem will continue to exist and haunt future presidencies. We have to speak as Presidency and respecting the limits inherent in the post, while we cannot reject the fact that we are identified with a particular country.

Just look at the case of the FYROM. Or are we allowed to utter the word “Macedonia”? In bilateral relations Hungary (like a 100 other countries) does refer to this country as Macedonia, and in the Hungarian language we only have this word for this country, but we are talking on behalf of the Council of the EU, where it is referred to as FYROM. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did use the word Macedonia at this press conference in the Council, for which he was criticized. But at the same time, he was also asked about the Hungarian constitution while on the podium, which has nothing to do with the presidency… so how does it work?

EU speaking with one voice?
Presidency and the EU - We are seen as one, as “Europe” (which is wrong, but unavoidable) both by our own public and by our global partners, still we communicate in a cacophony. From the British tabloid press talking about “EU chiefs” plotting against the UK (see a classic piece here), to US or Chinese diplomats, it is almost impossible to explain the intricacies of EU institutional infighting decision-making. (Through Euramerican we learned that the EU Delegation in Washington has published a good explanation, see here. But we wonder how many people inside the Beltway would know the difference.)

We have been struggling with this repeatedly and tried our best to show a brave face to communication slaps from other institutions and not to hit back. For an example, when we did find it important to advertise our position, see our post here. We maintain that this cacophony in communications does hurt the EU

Brussels journalists, a special species?
We must talk about the Brussels press corps with appreciation. They were not only very helpful with us, but showed slightly different attitudes than the national press. Brussels journalists are non-political, but very subject oriented (most of the time). A fellow spokesman has hit the nail on its head by claiming that ministers coming to Brussels must be shocked by questions like “in article 3, paragraph 4, an extra word has been added, does this mean that…”. We always call the attention of colleagues from home that journalists in Brussels have an incredible institutional memory, sometimes working here for decades and knowing the files on the table better than some experts. This is a challenge for spokespeople, but it also improves our performance. Not only do they keep us on our toes non-stop, but we often learn things from the journalists themselves.

Also, as with everything in life, relationships do matter. Not because journalists would be biased if they knew you, but a good working relationship builds trust and allows for some maneuvering room. We would be disappointed if any of our fellow journalist colleagues would spare us form criticism or praise us without a reason. But we do certainly appreciate the occasional early warning, the friendly double-checking, once or twice a strategically placed question in a press conference, and the friendly mood in discussions. Spokespeople are humans, too 

What makes a good spokesperson?
The in-depth knowledge of journalists and the importance of relationships bring up the evergreen question of what makes a good spokesperson: is it more in-depth knowledge of the subject (aka credibility) or a longer experience in communications and media? (Don’t get us wrong, both are needed, but to a varying degree.) The answer obviously depends on the nature of the job: being a spokesperson for a nuclear power plant requires a good understanding of the complex processes, thus professional background is required, while the example of BP shows that a good expert may not be the best spokesperson in a crisis situation.

In case of EU spokespeople we feel a stronger emphasis on understanding the very complex EU institutional structure and the policies as compared to an extensive experience with the media.

On- or off-the-record?
The Brussels media scene is different from many national ones in the extensive use of off-the-record briefings. There is a complex web of unwritten arrangements of how the information given to journalists can be used: deep background, EU-sources only, presidency sources, etc. The reason for this is the complex nature of EU negotiations, where the most valuable information usually cannot be attributed to its source, and nobody has an information monopoly. In the Council, there are at least 27 national delegations that the journalists can contact for information, creating a unique information exchange – see our post ‘Under the buttonwood tree in Brussels’ for more on this.

In line with the above, the main dilemma is that the Brussels communication atmosphere is rather unorthodox. Most communication experts for example would advise against speaking freely with journalists or going off-the-record. Still, life in Brussels would probably stop without off-the-record briefings and without the trust between journalists and diplomats that enables such a system to function. This has been a challenge in the beginning – our diplomats were not necessarily used to speaking to the press at all, and we were only progressing very carefully in pushing them and ourselves towards more openness, testing the environment and the reactions. In the end, we found that these discussions are extremely subject oriented and will very rarely develop a political twist.

We tried to list our questions in this post in a very honest way (maybe too honest?). As you could see, we do not have a definite answer to most of these dilemmas, even though we did succeed in dealing with them in our daily routine.

But we do have some definite answers and recommendations based on lessons learned, which we will present in our next post on this issue.

1 May 2011

Survival guide for spokespeople I. – famous gaffes

The daily routine of people facing the press and publicity can be rather grueling and unspectacular – but what everyone remembers are the gaffes. This is unfair, but that is how communication works.

Politicians make gaffes (think of Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman”), businessmen make gaffes (Tony Hayward of BP made a few) and even media professionals make gaffes (CNN editor Octavia Nasr’s tweet and Helen Thomas’s comments on Jews come to our mind).

For spokespeople, such mishaps are the more painful as the ‘raison d’être’ for us is to avoid erroneous communication and protect our employer. (Think of the correct reaction of the Czech President’s spokesperson following the affair with the pen in Chile.)

Still, even professional spokespeople make mistakes. Here are three examples from people far more experienced than Kovács & Kováts.

A classic example is the spokesman of the Czech Prime Minister, Jiří Potužník, who started the Czech Presidency in 2009 by stating that Israel’s action in Gaza was defensive, not offensive. (The exact quote according to our research was: "At the moment, from the perspective of the last days, we understand this step as a defensive, not offensive, action") A “flying pig’s moment” for some commentators, outrageous for others. The spokesman quickly corrected and offered his resignation, but it has inspired euroblogger Jon Worth to adapt the Joe Biden Gaffe-o-Meter into a Czech Presidency Gaffe-o-Meter and later the Praise-o-Meter. (Just like many of his readers, we disagree with Jon on this issue, as we remember the Czech Presidency as one of the best ones. But this is not the point here.)

In March 2011, the US State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley resigned following his comments on treatment of Bradley Manning.

Also in March this year, a less reported, but from our perspective remarkable case has happened, involving a member from HR Ashton’s press team. Today it is water under the bridge but at the March 11th extraordinary European Council the question of a no-fly-zone in Libya has been highly debated. It was in this heated atmosphere that the press corps were busy playing the waiting game, when, according to reports, a “rogue briefing” by a member of Catherine Ashton’s staff took place. The event is described in detail in the Guardian’s blog. And Laura Shields has an interesting opinion on the issue.

We do not want to judge fellow spokespeople, rather to defend them by highlighting in our next post on this issue some of the dilemmas we are facing and the lessons we have learned in EU communications.

In a sign of how much ahead of the curve we are, after having posted this yesterday (Sunday) on famous gaffes, the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces has brought an avalanche of Obama-Osama gaffes today (which already has quite a history, see below.)

1. Wishful thinking? Fox News anchor announcing "President Obama is in fact dead, it was a US led strategic..."

Btw, this was not the first time Fox News mixed up knocking off Osama and Obama http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjYpkvcmog0

2. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesperson tweeting today "@RegSprecher #Kanzlerin: Obama verantwortlich für Tod tausender Unschuldiger, hat Grundwerte des Islam und aller Religionen verhöhnt." (Obama responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, derided the basic values of Islam and other religions. Incidentally, another possible translation instead of deride, according to the dictionary, would be "barracked".) This was of course quickly corrected, and then both the original tweet and the correction deleted.

This complements the long line of Obama-Osama blunders. Here are a few:

3. Mitt Romney back in 2007, going off on the wrong track after getting it almost right at the start “Actually, just look at what Osam — uh — Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. That is the central place, he said. Come join us under one banner.”

Talking about spokespeople, we especally like the explanation given by his spokesman afterwards.

4. AP's Dean Singleton standing right next to Obama, asking him about troop deployments given that "Obama bin Laden is still at large". Obama (the real one) handles it quite well... http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=4651743

5. NBC running a story on Obama's campaign with a picture of bin Laden briefly flashed on the screen and CNN reporting that "Barack Obama's campaign has been dogged by false rumors, among them that Osama is a Muslim, Obama rather." http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/politics/5553902.html

These were of course all innocent gaffes (we woudl like to belive) but they go to show how hard it can be to speak in public about important issues under pressure...

29 April 2011

Kovács & Kováts are back – with one eye on the wedding

After a silence of a few weeks, we are back with regular articles on this blog. The first one is coming tonight.
That is after we settled our argument on whether to watch the wedding or not. (According to Reuters, 22% of British people were definitely planning to watch the event, while 23% were definitely not.)
Kováts has been following with awe the communication work surrounding the wedding. It was a masterpiece, almost perfect. How to keep the press on its toes for weeks by keeping information back and letting it out drop by drop? How to keep the fairy tale atmosphere, while keeping a low profile in times of austerity? (Kováts has been impressed by the lack of decoration on cars, the modest trees in Westminster Abbey and the shuttles (!!) driving the royal family members. No horse drawn carriages, a very different setting then he expected.)
At the same time, Kovács had been overwhelmed by his republican feelings and was wondering about fallible human nature. This has led to a lively discussion between us about the perfect form of government. Kováts was quoting David Frost’s opinion about the advantages of a constitutional monarchy, while Kovács has been firing back with the US Constitution as a perfect replacement for an unelected ceremonial head of state...
... we will try to sort this out and will be back with our next post tonight.

11 April 2011

The interpreter who started a war (...well, almost)

Photo: EP
We have been blogging repeatedly on the Brussels language regime and we can’t stop ourselves from continuing it. Even though the event described in this post happened in Strasbourg at the plenary session of the European Parliament, for the sake of the actors involved, we can make it part of our Brussels Pidgin English series (see the first, second and third post)

Last Wednesday (6th of April), Zsolt Németh, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs has replaced High Representative Ashton in the European Parliament’s debate on Bahrain, Syria and Yemen (see the EbS recording here and the EP recording here – please note that these are not official versions). As all EU geeks know, at political discussions (vis-à-vis third countries or the European Parliament) the High Representative can only be replaced by other politicians, which means someone from the presidency. Considering the heavy agenda of the High Representative lately, Hungarian politicians spend considerable time standing in for her. This was one of those events.

Our minister of state spoke in English and all went fine and smooth, a very measured language on the situation in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain. Then the members of parliament spoke and asked several questions. At the end of the debate, our minister of state rose again to react to the issues raised. Being a Hungarian politician, he switched into Hungarian this time.

This is when the story became interesting. (If you are watching the recording on EbS, watch from the 57th minute.) In the humble translation of Kovács and Kováts, our minister of state said: “But I think, that these countries cannot be put in the same basket: there are countries where military intervention was unavoidable due to the civil war [meaning Libya and Ivory Coast], and there are countries that we are discussing about now [meaning Yemen, Syria, Bahrain].*” He made a very clear distinction between the countries being the subject of the debate on the one hand and Libya and Ivory Coast on the other hand.

However the English interpretation started to wonder into a surprising direction by translating his words as follows: “But we should not throw all of these countries into the same boat. I think, because of the civil war intervention had to take place.” People listening to the debate in English must have been very confused, about who wants to intervene where.

Then Mr Németh continued with the same, measured message in Hungarian: “These authoritarian and repressive countries are dancing around and playing with the use of force, as well.**” This was the moment where the interpretation totally deviated from the meaning and translated his words as follows: “We have been discussing these three countries now, where there are authoritarian regimes which are also playing with fire and where there is a risk of intervention.” Those listening in English must have thought that they understand the meaning: the EU wants to intervene in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen!! (This is what was translated, but this was not what the minister said in Hungarian.)

The watchful Andrew Rettman of EUObserver, was listening to the debate in English and picked up what seemed to be a story. (It is not his fault that he does not speak Hungarian, so he could not realize that he was quoting the interpreter, but not the minister!) We have received a few questions on the issue and our diplomats have put out a few fires by explaining what was said in reality.We like to think that it was only our quick reaction that avoided a bigger diplomatic crisis.
Having listened to the French and the German language interpretation in the recording, we have a feeling that the text was first interpreted from Hungarian into German and the English interpreter picked it up from the German. This better explains the extreme distortion of the message. (The FR and DE versions are erroneous too, but slightly closer to reality.)

Don’t get us wrong. We know that the interpreters have a hell of a job translating in 23 languages and theirs is a remarkable achievement. They are the silent mechanics who make the EU machine function. But this raises the question, whether languages are really equal. It seems that speaking a small language will put you in a disadvantageous situation. Will such interpretation problems make politicians/diplomats less likely to use their official language? We hope not, but this is another good reason to carry on with our Brussels Pidgin English series...

*HU original: De azt gondolom, hogy nem keverhetőek össze ezek az országok, ahol elkerülhetetlenné vált a polgárháborús helyzet miatt a katonai beavatkozás, azokkal az országokkal, amelyekről most tárgyalunk.

** HU original: Noha, ezek a represszív országok, ezek az autoriter, represszív országok, ezek táncolnak és játszanak az erőszak alkalmazásával is.

8 April 2011

How the eurogroup/ECOFIN statement was finalised....

We only had the draft version at hand, so we had to update it with all the changes of the final version. And a friendly cameraman immortalized the process of "finalising the eurogroup/ECOFIN statement"..... (What did you think when you clicked on the title? That will follow later... :))

6 April 2011

Kovács & Kováts at 10,000 - we're learning to fly (but we ain't got wings...)

Today, we have reached 10,000 pageviews since the start of this blog in early February. In two months this is not a big achievement in comparison to certain fashion blogs raking in so much in one day, but not bad if you consider that we’re both wet behind the ear with a full time presidency job and we are blogging on EU issues, which most find rather naff. (We find it sexy, but we accept that this is far from the mainstream view.)
So, first of all, we would like to thank all of our faithful and occasional visitors, and share a few mid-term observations. We promised at the beginning to be transparent, so we share information and personal thoughts that most bloggers normally don’t. In exchange we only ask for strong words and harsh criticism.
  1. Challenge/Workload: Blogging is a lot of fun. We write our articles in the early morning hours, as we start in the office around 07:00 and finish close to midnight. (The support from our families during the Presidency, should be the subject of another post – which will be difficult because they wish to remain anonymous.) We have no time to write during the day, still the blogging has helped us develop a kind of “situational awareness” not to let pass by the events of a day/week but consciously make a story out of them. This helps us to see the Hungarian Presidency from a reporter’s point of view, which helps us to keep journalists better informed. We wonder how do “professional” bloggers pick their subjects and how do they work?
  2. Feedback / added-value: we receive a lot of feedback mostly from journalists and diplomats in Brussels that they read us on a regular basis. What is interesting is that these positive feedbacks we receive informally usually concern our least popular articles, while the most popular articles are rarely mentioned in personal discussions. A few examples: the Sunday Music post on ‘Dalida and Egypt’, the ‘Book that everyone should read before the European Council’ and the ‘Visual messages at summit meetings’ have been commended repeatedly at meetings/receptions, while their readership has been relatively low. At the same time, the Brussels Pidgin English series (especially the opening post and the last one, on a ‘Lingua franca for Europe’) has received some of the most hits.
  3. Two posts appear as exceptions, where both the pageviews and the personal feedback are very positive: obviously our April foolery, the ‘Hungarian Presidency extended’ and the ‘Tweet that moved the Euro’. These give us hope that we can find the right EU subjects and the right angle that are both popular and interesting from a professional point of view. The ultimate aim, as many have stated before, is to help connecting the Brussels blogging bubble with the national blogospheres and thus bring the EU closer to the Member States.
  4. Presenting everyday life in the Presidency: We are convinced that the rotating presidency is the last link that connects the Brussels Ivory Tower to the reality in the Member States. In this regard the Lisbon Treaty has made communication with the citizens more difficult by creating even more institutional players, who are all based in Brussels (while admitting all the diplomatic and practical arguments for creating the new bodies). We are doing our best to strengthen the cooperation between the rotating presidencies by meeting regularly the Polish and Danish colleagues to have joint projects and to share with them the our experiences and ideas.
  5. Copyright: What we knew „in theory” became painfully evident - copyright sucks (in its current form). It is a pain to try to locate media that’s completely safe to use. Even though we are not making any money on this, and you could argue we are bringing a tiny amount of extra public interest to the works we use, we must be careful with copyright. Sad. Any suggestions?
  6. Traffic 1: We have recieved traffic from very suprising locations (if google stats are anything to go by): we advertised it to our circle of friends around the world, but didnt expect to have thousands of visitors for example from the US. We are wondering who our readers are. Anyone willing to share how you ended up reading us?*
  7. Traffic 2: a lot of traffic seems to come from directly forwarded links, at least we dont see a match between all traffic and referral sites. In general, it would be nice to know more in depth our traffic stats than what google provides. Can anyone suggest something?
  8. Comments: we havent been able to get you to comment. We expected that part of our „payout” would be to engage with people in discussions. Maybe we are not provocative enough? But even our „stellar posts” (Pidgin English series and April’s foolery) didn’t attract much comment. We would have loved to read arguments for or against French, or people saying that it is a Hungarian trait not to be able to let go of a presidency, but it didnt happen. (It did happen in email to a limited extent, but that keeps them hidden from the wider public.) What’s the secret to get you to comment?
* a few statistics