MMD Shipping: state aid investigation as a Brexit battleground?

It is not often that Portsmouth, a former home town of mine, is mentioned in the Brussels bubble, but recently it was reported that MMD Shipping, a cargo handling company owned since 2008 by Portsmouth City Council, is being investigated by the Commission for alleged breaches of EU state aid rules. The company – which handles, amongst other things, vast quantities of bananas – was taken over by the council when it was on the verge of failing and is said to have subsequently received financial assistance that could have given it an unfair advantage over competitors. Unsurprisingly, reporting has focused on the fact that this is the first competition investigation launched by the Commission since the UK referendum in June and may not be concluded before the UK exits the EU.

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How has MMD Shipping fared in the eight years since it came into the ownership of the council? Not especially well, it appears. Portsmouth’s local newspaper reported in 2009 that the company was continuing to make losses. Although it seems to have broken even in 2010, employees were the subject of two major criminal investigations in subsequent years and in 2016 it has been dogged by industrial disputes. A local blogger has been highlighting a perceived lack of transparency in the council’s ownership of the company and asking some difficult questions. Portsmouth City Council’s stated intention when it bought MMD, to secure local jobs and infrastructure, was worthy, but it doesn’t seem to have made a great success of this unusual move.

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Book review: Europe, Anyone? The ‘Communication Deficit’ of the European Union Revisited

[this review has also been published on the blog of the Library of the Council of the EU]

What is the best way to share information about the European Union’s institutions and activities with a diverse, diffuse and often uninterested public? This question, regularly posed over the past few decades, has in recent years come to be asked with ever increasing desperation. Bernd Spanier’s study, Europe, Anyone? The ‘Communication Deficit’ of the European Union Revisited, was published in 2012 and is based on a dissertation submitted in 2010, but many of the observations it makes are still highly relevant, perhaps even more so, in 2016.

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(image from amazon.com)

Not that the EU’s problems began this year, of course. The wide-ranging chapter that follows the introduction to this work is a excellent summary of the major setbacks that beset the Union between the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the global financial problems of the late 2000s. The account of the Greek debt crisis can follow events only as far as 2011, but Spanier’s description of how referenda in the Netherlands and France stood in the way of the European Constitution’s ratification in 2005 is very instructive. This section includes some trenchant remarks on the unsuitability of popular votes in individual countries for deciding wider European issues, and his conclusion in passing that such votes ‘can be problematic when member states which usually adhere to a representative model of democracy suddenly resort to direct, plebiscitary models whenever fundamental decisions about Europe are to be taken’ (p. 31) looks all too appropriate today.

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Anglophone = monolingual?

In the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, there has been much debate about the consequences for how Europeans communicate. Will calls for English to cease to be an official EU language be heeded? If so, would native speakers of other languages feel less disadvantaged?  Does Boris Johnson’s ability to read a speech in French make up for everything else?eu-1473958_1280

However the next few months and years play out, the status of English as a common language in the institutions – and outside them, of course – is likely to endure. The erosion of the once all-powerful position of French, which began as the Union expanded north and east in the 1990s and 2000s, will not be reversed. This could ultimately mean that English, despite often being seen as the de facto working language of the EU (although in practice this varies), will not be the first official language of any of its member states.

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Book review – Tales from the Fast Trains

I liked the idea of Tales from the Fast Trains. It’s an exploration of how far you can get from London in a weekend (or not much longer) by train. It covers a range of interesting western European cities and it’s by an established travel journalist who appears to have quite a lot of experience of writing about rail journeys. That said, by the end of it I was struggling not to conclude that the succession of local tourist offices and their staff that appear in the acknowledgements had been a key factor in shaping this book.

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(Photo from amazon.com)

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Thalys, toilets and translations

I try not to spend too much time in train toilets (though I’m less squeamish than in the past, which is fortunate as SNCF still haven’t replied to my letter of July 1996 expressing horror that the ones on their Calais-Avignon Motorail service emptied directly onto the tracks) but, on a recent trip between Belgium and Germany on a Thalys train, my attention was drawn to a map on the back of the toilet door. This less than perfect photo (you try taking one in an ill-lit bathroom at 300km/h) shows a map of the Thalys network, including its seasonal south of France destinations. IMG_20160710_1628488952

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Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

This post was originally published as a guest post on my friend Chris Kendall’s blog.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

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DG MOVE – the user experience (part 1)

On this blog I’m aiming to look at travel and transport communications in the broadest possible sense, including relevant institutional communications. I am after all based in Brussels and so today, in the first of two linked posts, I will focus on the online presence of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport. What kind of user experience does it offer the average EU citizen? Let’s begin by searching Google for ‘DG MOVE’, the name by which it’s generally known.

The Google Places listing is accurate, if incomplete – the reader is invited to ‘Add phone number’ and ‘Add business hours’. I realize that DG MOVE isn’t a pizza restaurant, but a partial listing arguably looks worse than no listing. Also, Google Maps has automatically generated a very ugly picture to match – although it is transport-themed! While the key information is there and the search results themselves all lead straight to the DG MOVE website, ‘claiming this business’ on Google would result in a better first impression. But what about the website itself?

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