Going South

I spent my week in the aseptic concrete blocks of the European Commission. All the buildings are identical, and when you walk down the corridors and see the name plates on the doors, it reminds you of some strange version of the old Jeux Sans Frontieres game.

The games were designed to bring Europeans together, much like the Eurovision Song Contest. The latter event endures, unlike the former, which was knocked out long ago. Eurovision, something politicians are sadly lacking, was and is an extraordinary affair. Back in the days of Portugal’s Salazar, my father explained to his young son that countries with shared woes always voted lavishly for each other.

Franco’s Spain was always kind to whatever desultory offering Portugal produced, and the favor was returned. The Scandinavians were always sweet to each other, and the French and the Belgians always found it in their hearts to boost the Chanson Française—after all, they were the only ones who understood what it meant, apart from one guy from Luxembourg.

The Luxemburgers have had their day at the races this week, with a British parliamentary enquiry on corporate tax avoidance by three heavy hitters: Google, Amazon, and Starbucks, all of which pay trivial amounts of tax in the U.K. The Google executive was lambasted by Margaret Hodge, the British Member of Parliament who chairs the committee: she seized on the famous ‘don’t be evil’ motto and hurled it back in disgust at the internet giant.

Google pays its taxes in Ireland, taking advantage of rates that are half of the 24% U.K. levy. I’ve never understood why similar incentives can’t be granted by other nations such as Portugal. It’s one of the few ways small countries can attract big business. The Dutch, Irish, and yes, the Luxemburgers, understand this all too well.

When Atmos Fear was published, Amazon apologetically explained that the book would be subject to an additional tax of 3%. That’s the Value Added Tax in Luxembourg, by comparison to 20%  in Britain and and 23% in Portugal. Last year, Amazon’s U.K. operation reportedly paid zero tax on sales of over five billion dollars.

The message is that Europe is hugely diverse, and the assymetric nature of its societies and legislation can become an issue. For Ireland, a low corporate tax rate means that the services Google sells in the U.K. create Irish jobs and support health care and education in the Emerald Isle.

The cathedral at the Grand Place, Brussels. All over Europe are reminders of its path to greatness, but the homeless hiding in the alleys echo tales of a distant past.

The cathedral at the Grand-Place, Brussels. All over Europe are reminders of its path to greatness, but the homeless hiding in the alleys echo tales of a distant past.

It doesn’t take long to flag diversity in the European space. I’m told about a Finnish activist who works in Brussels at one the NGOs—like Washington D.C., the capital of Europe is lobbyist heaven. This fellow refused to do his military service.

I suspect Finland lives with the spectre of the Russian bear, and as such it has a standing conscripted army.

Small countries with large neighbors tend to err on the side of paranoia. That’s the case of Switzerland, which has had a few teutonic nightmares in the past, and of course Israel. One of these days, some genius will bring back conscription in Spain due to some imagined threat, and cut youth unemployment.

In Finland, if you don’t do your army service, you’re compelled to perform community service—Portugal had the same system a couple of decades ago. The Finnish chap refused. If you don’t discharge your civic duties, Finland has a simple solution: it sends you to prison.

So off he went. Apparently he was attending the University of Helsinki at the time. I wondered how that must have impacted his life. Turns out Finland has solved that one too. The protesting Finn continued to attend university, and every evening when he finished class he presented himself at the pearly gates and was jailed for the night. Well, that’s one way to make sure your kids stay out of trouble at college.

Brussels was cold and wet, but it still has the best beer in the world. That’s all those monks ever did. Maybe the European Commission should follow suit.

I headed south. My backpack exploded somewhere between Zaventem and the Grande Place. In my hunt for a substitute, I looked at offerings from a range of manufacturers.

As I explored the zippers and pockets of a potential purchase, a young lady approached with a smile.

“Any Eastpak model has a guarantee of thirty years,” she said helpfully in French.

I wish I did.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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