Saturday, 25 July 2009

Naked Fiddlers in the Swedish Mountains

The final press conference of the EU environment and energy ministers meeting in Åre, Sweden has just concluded, and I'm now on the bus that will bring me across the border to Norway. This was my first time covering an EU ministerial, and overall it was a really interesting experience. I made lots of contacts and got a few decent stories, but perhaps the most valuable aspect of the trip was observing the interaction between the Brussels press corps and EU officials.

I was rather surprised by the high level of security at the meeting. After all, these are only energy and environment ministers, and we're out in the middle of nowhere in Åre, a ski resort deep in the center of the country, seven hours by train from Stockholm. There were security guards everywhere, and even the accredited journalists were very restricted in where we could and couldn't go. Are environment ministers really prime targets for destabilising elements? I mean, I don't even know who most of them are, and I cover this area!

Sweden holds the rotating EU presidency at the moment, which means it heads the Council of the EU. The council is made up of the chief ministers from each of the member states, and its makeup varies according to what's being discussed. This was a combined council meeting, with the energy ministers from all the various countries meeting on Thursday, and the environment ministers meeting on Friday/Saturday. Almost all EU legislation requires the approval of the council, so it's a very important body. This was an informal meeting, meaning the views expressed by the ministers weren't legally or politically official, it was rather just a forum to exchange ideas.

The journalists were put up in a ski lodge that was a bit of a hike up the hill, and clearly not meant for business purposes, as the rooms had no phone, no internet, and no iron (I was all wrinkly!). It was a little annoying as there were clearly rooms available in the Holiday Club, the location of the meeting, but they didn't want to put us in the same hotel as the ministers and delegates for fear that we would harass them (to be fair, probably a legitimate concern!).

Our access to the ministers and delegates was fairly limited. There was a large and well-apportioned media centre with work stations, printers, and a constant supply of food (I think I basically ate my way through this meeting), and there was also a press conference room and a journalist lounge. But we weren't allowed to go into any other areas of the meeting. We could book appointments to meet with ministers or delegates, or we could corner them during some of the excursions when journalists were able to go with the ministers on nature walks. For instance on Thursday we went for a walk in the mountains with the energy ministers. Maybe I'm just not at the appropriate level of journalistic obnoxiousness yet, but I just couldn't bring myself to barge up to the ministers and start haranguing them about this or that policy while they were just trying to enjoy their nature walk. And to be honest I wasn't sure which people on the walk were ministers and which weren't, and I didn't very well want to have to ask people, "Excuse me, are you a minister by any chance?"

One of the more amusing minister-journalist interactions was when they took the environment ministers to a waterfall deep in the mountains, an excursion which the journalists were invited along to. The journos showed up at the falls first, and as we got closer I could see that there was a naked person sitting on a rock at the top of the falls. Knowing how much the Swedes treasure their naked time, I figured it was just a random bather (who I felt sorry for as he was about to find himself surrounded by photo-snapping journalists!). 

But as we got closer I could see he was actually wearing a pagan wreath around his head and playing a fiddle. Our guide gave a sly smirk and said this was a character from Swedish folklore who played the fiddle at water falls naked and made lustful women dive into the water and drown, much like the sirens of Greek mythology. It was actually a demonstration set up by the Swedish presidency for the visiting ministers! Now I know the Swedes love to be naked, but I didn't know it was so important to them that they would feature it as a demonstration of their culture for visiting dignitaries. The journalists then got to watch, chuckling, as the ministers arrived at the scene to find the naked man fiddling away. The visiting dignitary from South Africa, who was there to speak to EU ministers about the perspective of the developing world, almost fell over laughing. Many of the Eastern European ministers seemed quite confused by it all. I have to say, they weren't alone!

At the falls, I got to have a nice talk with UK environment minister Ed Milliband, who actually came over to us and introduced himself. He's a nice guy, I had never spoken to him before. We talked a bit about what he expects to come out of the Copenhagen summit in December (he's quite optimistic) and about how the new US administration has changed the game when it comes to climate change negotiations. He was also asking my Swedish colleague some questions about local politics, during which time he showed a remarkably detailed knowledge of Swedish politics (I was completely lost during this conversation). No doubt about it, this guy is a policy wonk.

It was great to meet more Brussels journalists, and much like the press tour in Holland last month, it made me excited for my eventual move to Brussels. This is really so much different from my previous job covering private equity, which I never had much enthusiasm for. I just love the energy, the politics, the intrigue. And all of this stuff I'm covering is of huge significance to the world, especially in the run-up to Copenhagen. I can really see my career going on the right track now.

In terms of the outcome of the meeting, there was nothing too earth-shattering. I filed three stories. One was on the continued talks over whether to make energy efficiency targets binding. Another was on the the disagreement between the council and the parliament over the energy performance of buildings directive. The Swedish energy minister told me many of the ministers are still very wary of the amendments proposed by the parliament, but after discussions on Thursday they are a bit closer to where the parliament stands. I also wrote about the continued disagreement between Germany and France over the idea, proposed by France, to impose punitive import tariffs on products from countries that refuse to cooperate in the Copenhagen talks. Nearly everyone I spoke to was dead set against the idea - The Swedish energy minister, Commissioner Dimas, the German environment minister - so it looks like France stands alone in this fight and there's no way it's going to come to pass. The Swedish energy minister called it "green protectionism" and the german state secretary for environment went even further, calling it "eco-imperialism".

I'm now on my way to Trondheim, where I'll spend the weekend. It's a holiday of sorts, I'm going there on my own dime. I had to fly out of Trondheim back to London anyway, so I figured while I'm there I might as well explore a bit. There's not too much there but there's a very important cathedral in the town, the most important medieval church in Scandinavia which was a huge pilgrimage destination for centuries, dating from the 11th century. It's a university town so I've heard the nightlife isn't half bad, but since it's the summer I imagine all the students will be gone so the bars will be deadski. Other than that I'm not sure what I'll do, if the weather's nice tomorrow (unlikely) I might rent a bike and ride out to the fjords. Trondheim harbour is also supposed to be quite nice.

I return to London tomorrow night and am there for the workweek, but on Friday I'm meeting my dad and my brother in Dublin and we're going to spend the weekend traveling around Ireland. Believe it or not I've never been to Ireland, and I've been to busy to prepare at all for that trip, so I'll have to spend this week researching what to do there. My dad is quite excited about it, what with his Irish heritage. All of his relatives are always asking me if I've been to Ireland (it seems to be the only country in Europe they know), so now I can finally answer yes.

Ah, we've arrived in Trondheim. Off I go to live the viking life.


Torsten said...

Looks like a beautiful place.

n.shabbir said...

Excellent post! Nice and pedagogical with a dash of Miliband and Irish heritage