Day 59-61 – Berlin (Photo Heavy)

The European Institutions take the Belgian bank holidays, which gave me two days off at the start of November for the celebration of All-Saints and All-Souls Day. Being the humanist that I am, I didn’t feel it necessary to acknowledge these particular festivities and trotted off to Berlin for three days.

The trip itself was eventful. Between Liége and Aachen, the Brussels-Köln ICE-3 broke down. This necessitated 8 carriages of passengers fitting into a two carriage local train which looked like it had been built in the ’50s. I take back everything I’ve ever said about Deutsche Bahn’s efficiency and about ScotRail’s diesel Sprinters being outdated. After a horrendous journey to Aachen and a painfully uncomfortable journey from Aachen to to Köln, I eventually got on to another high speed ICE train. Annoyingly, it wasn’t fast enough to get me to Berlin before 11, but c’est la vie.

In defence of Deutsche Bahn’s record, all four of the ICE trains I was on was faster, roomier and more comfortable then the Intercity trains used by East Coast and the Pendalinos used by Virgin. I was particularly impressed by the standing bar area and cheap prices on the train. The main annoyance was the lack of Wi-fi and power sockets, which is something that East Coast and Virgin definitely win on.

Berlin itself was fantastic. Having spent many years studying German history between 1800 and 1939, I spent a lot of time trying to put the events I’d read about into geographical context. This was considerably harder then I had anticipated, as I simply hadn’t realised how much had been destroyed in the invasion of Berlin and then by both the East and West German Governments. While, as a former history student, I do dispair for the lost of so many historic buildings, I can fully understand why the buildings which were used by the Nazi regime were destroyed rather then repurposed (with a few exceptions).

I did, however, take pictures of various streets in what was the heart of the Nazi Government. These are mainly to show my mother, as she also studied German history but has never visited the city.

This street, for example, was the site of the first Reich Chancellery. Hitler and Speer built the Nazi-era Chancellery on a perpendicular to it. The opposite side of the street housed various ministries.

The site where the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun were bruned, which was once the gardens of Chancellery is now a carpark. This area has a series of signs which explain what went on in each of the buildings which stood there. Some of these can be (rightly) unsettling, such as the sign outside my hotel which explained that the Ministry for Jewish Affairs, one of the main government bodies involved in the Holocaust had soon on the site. I didn’t sleep terribly well knowing that Adolf Eichmann could have signed death warrants meters away from where I was.

There are some remnants of the Third Reich preserved in Berlin.

The German Finance Ministry was the home of Göring’s Aviation Ministry during the Second World War. According to signs outside, many aspects of it’s interior have survived intact (but de-Nazified) and have featured in a number of films since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior to the fall of the Wall, it was used as a command centre by the Soviet military then as a government building by the DDR. It was also the site of a major uprising in 1953.

The Finance Ministry features a DDR-era mural, in a particularly soviet style. During the Second World War, this wall held a massive bronze casting featuring marching soldiers. It disappeared in the confusion of the invasion of Berlin and I suspect it was probably ceased by the Soviet Union to be melted down.

Nearby these relics of the Third Reich is on of the best memorials to those who suffered at the hands of Nazis. The Topography of Terror is an open museum built on the site of the SS, SA and Gestapo headquarters. The outdoor section contains photos of the area before, during and after the Second World War, along with pieces of the foundations of several of the buildings. There are also the remains of prison cells which were used by the SS and the foundations of a canteen which was just metres from interrogation cells and a prison yard.

There is little I can say to convey the full horror which overcomes you as you walk around this site, knowing what happened here.

There is also a very large exhibition on the Nazi reign of terror and the Holocaust in the visitor centre at the Topography of Terror. It’s one of the best curated museums I’ve ever been to and I highly recommend visiting it. Entry is free and it has very long opening hours. There are also temporary exhibitions and the longest surviving portion of the Berlin Wall at the site.

In addition to visiting various sites related to WWII and the Holocaust, I also did some more light hearted exploring. Amongst other things, I visited the Berlin TV Tower and the DDR Museum (which featured some amazing mock-ups).

I also treated my inner-child by visiting the world’s largest model railway, which was very, very cool. It has dozens of cameos, including a rave, a movie being filmed, a fire being put out and even Angela Merkel greeting Barack Obama as he steps off Airforce One.

I managed to pack in quite a lot (even managing to take some pictures of the German President). You can check my flickr pages for day 1, day 2 and day 3 for more images of the various things I saw and did. Most of them haven’t been captioned yet and some are unfocussed and need to be deleted, but most of them are pretty good.

I will have to visit Berlin again. Next time, I’ll be certain to give myself more time, because it does actually take quite a while to get between things in the city. There are also a host of attractions nearby which I couldn’t contemplate going to because of travel time required. I’ll also try and take someone with me next time I go, because being in a strange city on holiday from another strange city can be a bit lonely and I was dying for an in-depth conversation by the time I got back (my German is reasonably good, but doesn’t stretch too far). Still, it was a fun holiday, the food was great and so was the beer.

Day 40 – Fiscal Issues

First of all, thank you to everyone on Facebook and Twitter who offered to wire or loan me money. Thankfully, my mother was able to wire me some money via Western Union, allowing me to survive until I got back to Scotland. The most difficult part of this process was probably negotiating the arcane queuing system used by the Belgian post office.

I’ve also found out from the Bank that the payments were made to two companies which own online gambling websites (something which I wouldn’t use, since other then very occasional bets on the horses and the odd lottery ticket, I don’t gamble). Both of these are based in Gibraltar and I’m not entirely convinced that either of them are actually genuine companies, since there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of corporate websites for either of them.

I did try to contact one of them by phone (having gotten their phone number from a WHOIS request). After being shunted around a few people, I was told that there was no-one from the accounting department in the office and given an email address to contact. The other company didn’t have a phone number online that I could find. You can see why I’m suspicious about these companies.

The inconvenient news is that a week later, the payments haven’t been taken from my bank account. My money is now in a limbo condition, where it’s still in my account but it’s unavailable. HBOS can’t apparently do anything about this as fraud investigations can only be initiated once money has left the account in question. Which is a tad annoying.

Hopefully this will all get sorted out soon.

Day 38 – Account Hacked

Lets cut to the chase: if you notice anything at all suspicious in your bank records, phone the bank! Don’t give up on the hold queue because you have other things to do, which is exactly what I did on Friday.

Apparently, sometime in the last few weeks, someone got ahold of either the card-numbers for my debit card or the account numbers for the bank account it’s linked to. I’m not 100% sure how this happened, because I haven’t used my card to pay for anything in a shop since I got to Belgium. I’ve only used it online and at cash machines, which narrows the cause  down to malware, a hacked website or a card-cloning device attached to an ATM.

I only use three different ATM machines here, because not all of the banks will deal with my debit card. One of the machines is in the Parliament itself while the other two are in the city centre and near my flat. While I know what I card cloner looks like in the UK, I probably wouldn’t notice one here because most of the cash machines look completely different from the ones at home.

What I find more likely is that my numbers were stolen via an online transaction. In the last few weeks, I’ve made purchases from the Steam service, iTunes, the EU’s publisher and RyanAir. My iTunes and RyanAir purchases were made on my Mac from home, using a wired connection. I’ve seen no evidence of malware or other exploits on my computer or that any of the other services which I use (such as my email account) have been hacked.

The Steam purchase should have been pretty secure, since it uses a dedicated client and encrypted security. It’s also a large and reputable service. However, I did make it from the Windows 7 installation on my computer, which probably isn’t as secure as it should be (mostly due to the fact that I only use it for playing videogames on).

The purchase which I’m most suspicious of is the one from the EU publisher. I made it in work, on a Windows XP based machine. The Parliament does have security in place, but it’s not unknown for large institutions to be targeted by cyber-criminals. I’m also not sure that the payment details for the book I bought (The Consolidated Treaties of the EU since you asked) were sent through a fully encrypted channel, which means they could have been intercepted.

There are a hundred and one other methods which could have been used. Anything from a hardware key-logger to someone pilfering details from a company which I’ve bought from. Whoever it was and however it was done, I suspect that Bank of Scotland’s fraud office won’t be able to catch them. With luck, they’ll at least be able to get my money back.

The immediate problem for me is that I have no money to get to Charleroi so I can fly back to Scotland on Tuesday. I’ll also be rather hungry by the time the plane lands on Tuesday night, since I was planning to go shopping today.  The bank have sent a new card to my home address, but that’s in Scotland and won’t arrive for a few days. So, I’ll be paying a visit to the British Consulate in the hope of getting a crisis loan. The downside to this is that it requires surrendering my passport in exchange for emergency travel papers until the loan is repaid, which could cause issues when I try to get back into Belgium.

We’ll see what happens though. C’est la Vie.

Day 37 – Mini-Plenary Retrospective

Most of the plenary sessions of the European Parliament are held in Strasbourg. This dates back to the treaties which founded the European Coal and Steel Community in the ’50s. It was intended to ensure the French retained more power in the ECSC then the Germans did. Since then, various treaties have come and gone and the French Government have vigorously fought for Parliament sittings to remain in Strasbourg despite MEPs being based in Brussels, where committee and group meetings are held. The exception to this are Mini-Plenary sessions, which only last two days, compared to the full Plenaries which last four.

This week was my first Mini-Plenary. It wasn’t originally expected to be too stressful, expect that following an Environment (ENVI) committee vote the previous week, the vote on Thursday was to include a motion calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in EU waters. While this wouldn’t have been binding on the members states, it would have led to a communication to the Commission and Council suggesting that they impose a legally binding moratorium through the Council of Ministers.

Understandably, this meant this it was all hands on deck in SNP quarters: a ban on oil drilling would potential devastate Scotland’s economy and jobs market, as well as cutting the UK treasury’s revenue. Initially, we believed that they moratorium would pass so we prepared damage controls and started to think ahead to what could be done to persuade the Council and Commission that Scotland’s rigs were safe.

When it came down to the vote, the motion which contained the resolution passed, but an amendment which removed the moratorium from it also passed. This makes it more unlikely that the Council of Ministers will seek a moratorium, even though the Commissioner for the Environment is quite enthusiastic about one.

What will happen now is that the EU will look at coming up with collective response strategies for oil accidents as well as looking at increasing the safety standards on rigs. The UK rigs already have very high standards of safety thanks to the Cullen Inquiry on the Piper Alpha Disaster, which put stringent regimes in place. These were tightened by the Health and Safety Executive (a Quango which is essential) in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon accident.

For much of this week, it was just Alyn and I in the office. It was an interesting experience dealing with this without Laura. I’m not sure I did as well as I could have done, but Alyn seemed happy enough with how I coped. Admittedly, by the time he left at 2 on Thursday, I was just about ready to pass out from stress, cold symptoms and exhaustions, but it was great fun. It was also something extremely important and it felt daunting to know that I was lending a hand to a current issue that might affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Next week will be more relaxed. I’m heading back to Scotland on Tuesday for the SNP conference. This years conference is in Perth (as normal) and runs from Thursday to Sunday. After that, I’m take a week off Europe to sort out some stuff for Uni and to visit my Grandfather, who is very probably dying (of old age rather than anything specific, but he’s being very well looked after in a carehome near where he grew up). I may well write a bit about him over the next week, because without him I wouldn’t be sitting in Brussels or heading to the SNP conference next week.

Day 34 – Green Nuclear War

It’s not unusual to arrive at the European Parliament to find a swarm of police cars sitting in the vicinity and various roads closed off. It’s understandable really – the Parliament does get a lot of dignatories who need an escort (in the last fortnight, these have included Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, and José Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste).

What you don’t expect to see is a swarm of police looking on as people shimmy up the flagpoles.

This was a protest by Greenpeace against nuclear power use in the EU. They targeted the flag-poles of the 16 EU member states which have large amounts of nuclear waste. The signs they put up read “Nuclear Waste, No Solution” in various languages.

They also brought along samples of contaminated material taken from various sites which are either in the EU or used by EU powers during nuclear fuel refinement process. One of the samples is taken from a beach near Stellafield reprocessing facility in North of England. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise they had these samples when I went past and only found out when I was emailed a press release about the protest. Had I realised what the barrels were, I’d have got some clear photos of them. As such, I was only able to grab a few shots of protestors handcuffed together around the sample containers (which were both lead and concrete lined).

I didn’t get a chance to ask Alyn about his opinion of the protests due to the rush surrounding the votes on Thursday morning. The line from the Greens-European Free Alliance group, which the SNP is a member of, is very much in support of the protest and a reduction in the use of nuclear power.

Day 33 – Malta Week

This week is apparently Malta Week in Brussels. I’m not sure why or to what extent, but there is a large pavilion serving food and drinks outside. Some of the tents are selling examples of Maltese gilded clocks, glassware and pottery.

Given it’s heavily sponsored by HSBC and various hotels, I presume it’s an attempt to encourage tourists and investors to visit Malta. Unfortunately, it’s also in-between four of the wings of the European Parliament and features a very loud PA and lots of live music. It does not make it terribly easy to work at times.

The Maltese Pavilion taken from the Office