Napoleonic (Traffic) Code vs. Common Law, Common Sense

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 01/06/10

Today I longed for the America of Mayberry NC, that imaginary Sixties town where even as brainless a citizen as the butt of the town’s ridicule “Gomer Pyle” could shout “Citizen’s Arrest!” at law breakers and hope that justice would be served. Even though the Andy Griffith Show is long over, apparently the notion of citizens reporting traffic violations continues in Rockville, Maryland, a Washington D.C. suburb where we once lived. There, citizens – hopefully public-spirited and not mean-spirited – can W.R.I.T.E. (Witness Report in Traffic Enforcement) their local police, filling out an online form, which covers everything from excessive speed to reckless driving.

Reckless driving – I guess that’s what you might call my encounter this morning while walking back home from the bakery. On a busy two-lane Brussels street, I chose my crossing point judiciously. A “zebra” crossing, where, in Belgium, the simple placement of a foot from sidewalk to pavement is supposed to result in traffic coming to a halt to let the pedestrian cross. In this case, it was even better: a city bus had stopped to pick up passengers immediately before the crosswalk. I needn’t even look left – the bus was in that lane – and the car in the other lane was slowing down.

But skeptic that I am, I did look left, and lo and behold, a big black 4 X 4 with two testosterone-laden young men out to prove that they can pass a stopped bus – a violation – and run down (almost) a pedestrian in a crosswalk – another violation – is bearing down on me. Luckily, they weren’t willfully homicidal, and they did stop at the sight of a bespectacled fifty-something holding up his hands in what – a Gomer Pyle gesture? I noted down the license plate, the place, the time, and proceeded to walk home.

Now, I realize that I am in the land of 7 parliaments, 3 geographic “regions” overlaid with 3 linguistic “communities,” with 10 provinces and their governors and 589 communes with their bourgmestres, and that English common law and its notion of “citizen’s arrest” carries no weight. But I wasn’t prepared for the answer to my phone call to the local police station.

“No, monsieur, only a policeman can report an infraction of the traffic code.” Oh, I see. What if I had been run over? How about the bus and tram drivers, who daily witness multiple “incivilities” that run the gamut from blocking their route to running red lights? “No, only police can note violations.” As the lady said, just shoot me.

Napoleon and his Code did rule Belgium before it became Belgium, but even in France, the authorities appear to encourage local initiatives for road safety. Not here: my police station call desk person wasn’t even interested in knowing about a major intersection where just posting a cop would result in daily or hourly or minute-ly red light-running tickets.

Aren’t they even interested in a little revenue generation?

Question for readers: is this a pipe dream of someone who lived too long in the US? Would citizens or residents in your home country be able to signal dangerous driving behaviour to the police?

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This post first appeared in Avuncular American.

Mordant Glimpses of Ceausescu’s Romania

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 09/02/10
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Tales from the Golden Age

And the Conducator* said his was a “Golden Age…”

Monty Python’s weaponized “killer joke” may have been used for offensive purposes, but under the Ceausescu regime humour was mainly in self-defense:

Humour is what kept Romanians alive, and TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE aims to re-capture that mood, portraying the survival of a nation having to face every day the twisted logic of a dictatorship.

So go the notes to the official English-language site of Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, where he scripted the work of four separate directors in a very cohesive and funny parable on life in the last years under Nicolae Ceausescu (the dictator was executed in December 1989). These were Mungiu’s formative years, and they’ve left their mark.

We just saw Tales From the Golden Age on the wide screen, but if you happen to see it at home, rustle up some Eastern European-type snacks while you enjoy this cultural history morsel. Some sausage, pickles, dark bread, brandy or vodka. Get into the mood. Food, as you’ll see – its scarcity, its centrality to the struggle for survival, its civilizing influence (sometimes) – is a recurring theme in Tales.

Oh yes, the Tales, or urban legends:

  • The Legend of the Official Visit
  • The Legend of the Greedy Policeman
  • The Legend of the Party Photographer
  • The Legend of the Air Sellers

Each of the urban legends rings true, whether it’s the depiction of party apparatchiks vying for favor, or the advantages of using your position vs. the inherent risks of playing in the black market.

Though I’ve only spent short periods in former East bloc countries, the “legends” brought back memories from the absurdities of life in other autocracies: the tar macadam still steaming from a road paved within hours of a ministerial inspection; the octogenarian president’s trademark scarf heroically – magically, in the absence of any wind – billowing in the daily front page photo; the array of telephones (whether they functioned or not) on an official’s desk as an indication of his relative importance…

Mungiu has plenty of material from which to choose:

Newspapers were required “to mention his name 40 times on every page” and “factory workers spent months rehearsing dance routines for huge shows at which thousands of citizens were lined up to form the words Nicolae Ceausescu with their bodies”

So writes Alina Stefanescu in Romania Revealed, in an excellent blog post on the importance of humor in Romania and other Communist bloc countries during the Cold War.

Tales from the Golden Age is definitely not a Romanian version of Germany’s “ostalgie.” Far from it. Indeed it is criticism at its best – through black humor, which is not far-fetched, just absurdly real. Too bad you can’t watch it on an old pirated VHS tape, just like in the film…

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*”Conducator” (the Leader) was the title Ceausescu chose for himself, equivalent to il Duce, Caudillo, Führer… You get the picture.

Gerald Loftus first published this in Avuncular American.

US, EU, and Mideast Cannot Afford a Time-out

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 02/02/10
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When Israel-Palestine merits not a word from a president, you know the United States is turning inward.

Roger Cohen, New York Times, 28 January 2010, “Exit America

The same Cohen op-ed indicates that only nine minutes were devoted to international affairs in President Obama’s first State of the Union message last month. And now we hear about how intra-EU wrangling over which of its several “Présidents” will shake Obama’s hand first at the US-EU Summit may mean that none of them will get to do so – if the US President doesn’t attend.

Sorry, folks, this just won’t do. Adult leadership is required on both sides of the Atlantic if the warring parties on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean are ever to be encouraged to make peace.

It’s not a problem that needs more time – Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its siege of Gaza have lasted the better part of a half century, and 90 years ago this month, in February 1920, the “powers” were meeting in the Conference of London – one of a series of conclaves to divvy up the defunct Ottoman Empire – and we know how that turned out.

Last month, a few days before the “SOTU” speech that ignored the Israel-Palestine situation, I chaired a panel in Brussels that looked at the unsatisfactory state of Western efforts to bring about a lasting peace. Despite the hope this time last year (Inauguration of Obama, his appointment of George Mitchell), the anniversary of the Israel campaign against Gaza reminds us how little has changed, except that Israel now has a government bent on expanding its settlements throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem. But in our conference, what was clear was that both sides of the pond needed to keep each other engaged.

The United States remains Israel’s primary security guarantor, and the European Union’s financial assistance allows the Palestinian Authority to remain in business. It would appear that the US and the EU have many things to talk about, and might want to better coordinate their use of what should be considerable leverage with both parties to the conflict.

What better way than to end the “egotistical wrangling” over lining up to shake hands? And for the US, to use the EU-US Summit to show Europe that his Administration is not going to “go local.”

Gerald Loftus also publishes “Avuncular American,” a blog devoted to international affairs.

European Defence: Democratic Deficit?

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 13/01/10
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Jan Dirk Blaauw

Jan Dirk Blaauw

Europeans interested in civilian control of the military and in democratic oversight of the EU’s foreign affairs (to include defence) would do well to consider the opinion of Jan Dirk Blaauw, former Netherlands MP and former President of the WEU Assembly. The Assembly of the WEU (an institution that many casual observers had thought long defunct), has been renamed the European Security and Defence Assembly, and is still very much in existence. Blaauw spoke in Brussels on Monday in a conference organised by IERI (Insitut Européen des Relations Internationales).

Perhaps the existence of the European Parliament and its Security and Defence (SEDE) Subcommittee reassures those who want their elected officials to have a firm command of matters military. But as Blaauw is fond of saying, “who pays, decides.” And it is the national parliaments of the 27 member states who pay for defence, or at least allocate their citizens’ tax monies to defence and other national priorities. Stress on national. For as much as we will be hearing about European foreign and security affairs, now that we have Lady Ashton in charge of both, the European part of defence is rather circumscribed, and defence remains resolutely intergovernmental in nature.

Which brings us back to the WEU/ESDA. This grouping of national deputies, specialists in defence matters, is what Blaauw believes needs to have closer ties with the European Parliament, encouraging the creation of an interparliamentary body which is envisaged by the Treaty on European Union. Given the unique nature of defence policy, this extra measure of democratic oversight would appear to be worth the trouble. After all, when European citizens – in this case, soldiers – are put in harm’s way, better to have their elected representatives (national and European) fully cognizant of the issues. A way to remedy the “democratic deficit” that Blaauw sees in parliamentary oversight of this sometimes-forgotten area of European cooperation.


Gerald Loftus publishes another blog on international affairs, Avuncular American.

It’s 2010, and “Blasphemy” returns to Europe

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 04/01/10
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When I was a kid going to Catholic school in Pennsylvania, we used to tell puerile religion jokes:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?


John who?

John the Baptist.

At which point you’d get a squirt from a real or imaginary water pistol. Get it?

Clean, innocent fun, like the one about God’s phone number, which you can only “get” if you (1) had been an altar boy (no girls then, sorry) prior to the demise of the Latin mass and/or (2) remember when phone numbers in the States went like “Quincy 53-220.”

Fun at the expense of religion got a bit more racy in the Seventies, with the likes of Life of Brian (official site, where you can procure the “Immaculate Edition“) – an alternative manger tale, so to speak, about a boy named Brian – and one that still shocks the stilted:

Brian: I am NOT the Messiah!
Arthur: I say you are Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.

One of the 1979 film’s memorable quotes from IMDB. Believers with a sense of humour can enjoy the film too. As they could R. Crumb’s cartoon “Genesis.” God knows there’s plenty of material in the Old Testament (“and they proceeded to take their daughters as wives for themselves…”) for ridicule. Sorry for taking the Lord’s name in vain in the previous sentence – now you can’t even take the Pope’s name in vain, according to the Vatican.

Lighten up: religion can be funny too

A sense of humour, apparently, is what is missing somewhere in the following news items from our brand new 2010:

  • 1 January: Ireland promulgates new anti-blasphemy law, and Atheist Ireland publishes a list of 25 blasphemous quotes, from Life of Brian to Pope Benedict XVI, in protest;
  • New Year’s Day in Denmark: police shoot an intruder bent on assassinating one of the cartoonists whose drawings in 2005 sparked violent protests among Muslims.

Humour, difficult enough to export across linguistic lines (my attempts at humour at NATO luncheons often fell flat among southern Europeans but were a hit with the Ango-Saxons and Scandinavians), is sometimes deadly when it touches the sensitive boundaries of belief. Theocratic Ireland now is pitted against a citizenry with a wicked sense of humour.

On the US Comedy Central network, Stephen Colbert’s God Machine (Deus ex Machina) should be whirring into overdrive this week, and blogger Steve Benen’s This Week In God needs a post-Christmas wrapup. But it’s harder and harder to poke fun into this all-too-human activity called religion. What if I want to make fun of some weird cult out there which believes that we’re all in a matrix, disembodied thetans or some such gibberish which is more at home in a science fiction film than in a “church?” But wait a minute: they already exist…

So, youngsters in Dublin telling those silly “jokes” about Scientology, watch out. According to the new Irish law, you might be guilty of

publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion

Come to think of it, so could I, bejeezus.

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This first appeared in my other blog, Avuncular American.

Downwind of Copenhagen, Downstream from Brussels

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 21/12/09
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Whatever just happened in Copenhagen – and I reserve judgment ’til I’ve read a comprehensive debrief – the underlying problem of carbon overproduction hasn’t gone away.

One thing is for sure: this post and millions like it, and the millions of emails and spam mails sent daily, will add their share of greenhouse gases to our planet’s already full atmosphere. I read somewhere that the spam sent to Hotmail accounts alone consumed the equivalent of the production of 5 nuclear power plants. Only they’re more likely to be coal-fired plants…

It’s like we’re in one big airplane, folks, Earth Airlines, breathing in that stale air constantly recirculated around us. The flight never ends, and fresh air is a relative concept. So am I going to cease blogging? Hardly. I’m already using public transport for most movement throughout Brussels, and I try to climb the staircase vice using the elevator in my building a good half of the time. But I still am dependent on electricity coming – in the case for Belgium and France – from a mix of nuclear and coal-fired power plants. I”m in the grid.

For Brussels and its surrounding countryside, the solid waste equivalent of the closed circuit effect was illustrated this past week with odoriferous obviousness. The private sector contractor in charge of the city’s main waste treatment facility decided, apparently without consulting the city (capital region) authorities, to shut down the facility and dump Brussels’ untreated effluent into the rivers flowing through and out of the capital.

Into someone’s back yard, that is. The backyard being the Flanders region, already prickly about the presence of the million Francophones, expatriates, and immigrants who make up Brussels, in their midst (Brussels is entirely surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders). Every time I flushed the toilet, I felt like saying “excuseer mevrouw en meneer” or some such thing.

The Francophone Brussels environment minister even had to scurry home from Copenhagen to handle the PR mess, since all she could do about the other mess was to frustratedly order the contractor to re-open the plant, which will be done – eventually.

The affair shows, with visual and nasal effect, how no man is an island, or how “down the drain” doesn’t end when you flush the toilet. Homeowners with septic tanks know that the honey-dipper must come or the system backs up; for those with municipal sewerage systems, it gets more complicated. But someone else always lives downstream.

Maybe politicians weren’t the right people to send to Copenhagen. How about some HVAC technicians to explain that polluted recirculated air remains polluted unless filtered? Better yet, stop polluting the air in the first place. Or plumbers, who know that garbage in will result in garbage out, unless purified to an acceptable level.

When it comes down to it, perhaps even in the hearts of the most die hard climate change deniers, it should be common sense and a sense of self-preservation that forces us to do the right thing. But as last week’s ballyhoo in Brussels over solid waste flowing downstream should show us, governments cannot count on their contractors to do the right thing or even the most basic of civic-minded actions. Not without controls, oversight, rules and regulations. The job of governments, and the people who elect them.

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This first appeared in my other blog, Avuncular American.

The Burgs Who Can Show Copenhagen The Way

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 09/12/09

Strasbourg Noel We recently spent an extended weekend in beautiful bourgs within easy driving distance of Brussels: Freiburg, Germany; Strasbourg, France; and Luxembourg (capital and country of same name). For climate change negotiators in Copenhagen, a visit to these three cities near the Rhine and the Moselle rivers could help point the way to a post-carbon future.

None are car or carbon-free, and all are just as over-the-top Christmas-decorated as any typical Germanic town this season (photo: Strasbourg’s Place Kleber and its 100 foot-high century-old pine tree). But their approach to public transportation specifically and urban planning in general would be worth cloning worldwide.

Strasbourg, a city on the Rhine and the object of French and German invasions, occupations, and liberations before a united Europe put an end to all such turf-battling, is built on and between canals, rivers, and water courses of all sorts. Which didn’t keep city authorities from building a beautiful ultra-modern tram system that links downtown with its outlying suburbs. If only Strasbourg could lick its problem of New Year’s Eve car burnings (the young hoods who set fire to their neighbours’ cars are not motivated by any extreme green politics; they’re just hoods out to attract attention thanks to eager TV cameras)…

Across the Rhine, Freiburg im Breisgau (official website; not to be confused with nearby Fribourg in Switzerland) is a Green Mecca. Predictably, its mayor is a Green Party member. Not so predictably, he rules with a conservative CDU deputy. Environmentalists from the world over flock to Freiburg to see its Vauban neighbourhood, which is known for its sensible use of alternative energy sources and low-carbon footprint. The city nestles in the foothills of the Black Forest, and with vineyards close by, has an almost perfect setting for a mixed economy that points the way to a sustainable future.

Back to reality in Brussels, where we watched an evening devoted to Copenhagen on French TV (France 2). One of the documentaries showed Adelaide and its surrounding region, with drought-induced water shortages changing the lifestyles of urban and rural Australians alike. And yet, in today’s Washington Post, you can read about “”A Lingering Pool of Disbelief,” Blaine Harden’s report on climate change denial in one of the countries hardest hit: “despite a decade of record drought, Australian farmers refuse to buy into climate change.”

Maybe they are taken in by the Saudi skeptics, the “ClimateGate” conspiracy theorists, and the Bush dead enders who think it’s all in our fervid imaginations. Tell that to the Alpine or Himalayan mountain guides who hike through dried scree where there used to be glaciers thirty years ago, or to the Bangladeshi families who have had to move yearly to escape the rising rivers downstream. Maybe the deniers have their own aquifers, their own micro-climates, maybe their own survivalist militias with limitless cans of pork and beans for when climate refugees start to head north. Maybe it’s all in their imaginations – the pipe dream that somehow they can escape from the wages of their profligacy.

For those of us who have a firmer footing in reality, heed the burgs – Freiburg and Strasbourg – that are set to thrive in a post-carbon future.

Swiss Steeples, But No Minarets. Is Muslim Money Welcome?

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 30/11/09
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Swiss Flag

Swiss Flag

Muslim communities say the decision will spread deep concern and worry. The Swiss government and businesses are worried too – about whether this controversial but democratic ballot will provoke an international backlash.

Alan Fisher, Al Jazeera English, “Swiss brace for minaret backlash”

What if that backlash were to include a disinvestment or divestment wave among Muslim countries, selling off Swiss franc securities, withdrawing hidden billions (trillions?) from Swiss bank accounts? It’s not up to me to call for any such thing. After all, the hundreds of thousands of Muslim residents (and probably a certain number of Muslim Swiss citizens) have gotten along somehow with a minimum of minarets all these years – apparently there may be as few as four (4) in all of Switzerland! – while toiling away to help develop the Swiss economy.

But this has as much to do with minarets as the debate over the veil has to do with women’s fashion. The latter may have undercurrents of concern about women’s rights, whereas the Swiss “Oui/Ja” campaign has all to do with Islamophobia. Can the Swiss relax a bit and think of their new neighbours as something other than a threat? The experience of a Swiss Family Robinson (actually Swiss Family Diplomatic is more like it) is instructive.

These friends of ours, a Suisse-Romand from Lausanne and his wife from Bern, returned a few years ago to their capital city after a quarter century roaming the world under the Swiss flag. Settling back into life in their native country, they were immediately taken aback by their neighbours’ attitude. Introducing oneself to the man next door – something our friends did naturally in Africa or Latin America – was greeted with suspicion and worse. “I have been waiting for years to tell you about that bothersome window…” one next-door neighbour helpfully greeted their knock on the door.

When the native Bern wife went to the local post office and spoke a rusty form of the patois, her ignorance of the latest procedures was met with incredulous suspicion – how can you have reached your fifth decade of life and not know these rudimentary rules? The fact that she had spent the better part of the previous three decades helping her husband give Switzerland a good name in diplomatic circles around the world was lost on the local burghers. They just didn’t fit in.

If the above can happen to French-German-Italian speaking Christian native Swiss, then the minaret ban is probably the least of the worries for the poor Muslim Swiss. And they know that.

The question is: do the “Yes” voters on the minaret ban know what they’ve done? Financial flows may begin to tell us in the very near future. And how about all those unofficial, storefront or storage locker mosques, without minarets? Will they make the Swiss feel more secure than a properly constituted, publicly visible mosque with a trained Imam? Who will be leading prayers in the underground mosques, and what will they be preaching?

India at one point had a Ministry of Disinvestment. How long will it be before we see Muslim finance ministers examine their Swiss holdings?

Copenhagen: Can Obama Deliver His Countrymen?

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 29/11/09
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I certainly hope so, since I played a small part in helping the man get elected last year. But a recent trip to the US makes me pause. This appeared first in my other blog, Avuncular American.


Les culottes à l’air, or airing the Unmentionables

Cheapskate that I am, I am milking the Financial Times that they gave me on the airplane last weekend for all it’s worth. My favorite piece: “A woman’s fight to air her dirty laundry,” by Matthew Engel:

Carin Froehlich of Perkasie [PA] has been warned not to dry her laundry on a clothesline outside, following two complaints from neighbours. “They said it made the place look like trailer trash. They said they did not want to look at my unmentionables.”

I grew up a few miles away from Perkasie Pennsylvania, which was not known at the time as a hoity-toity high-rent town. Like my mother, I’d say lots of 1950s and ’60s Perkasie mommies dried their clean laundry in the breezy Bucks County air, and it was brought in smelling a whole lot fresher than today’s stuff, hot out of the clothes dryer. The combination of puritan disdain for public display of underwear is combined with a new snobbery which sweeps the untidiness of life behind the idiot buttons of modern machinery.

A wide screen TV in every room

Last weekend’s conference in Boston was in a high-rise chain hotel, and my room was a standard-issue high energy use model: air conditioning only (windows do not open), down duvets to keep you warm (see AC, set at Arctic default), and wide screen HDTVs – I mean really wide, like 50 inches – in every one of their thousand plus rooms.

My point is this: my fellow Americans are hooked, in ways that they can’t even begin to appreciate, on a high energy lifestyle, one that almost unquestioningly accepts new “musts” that are ever more gluttonous of CO2 producing energy.

When hotels feel that they must offer ever bigger screens for the business traveler to watch 10 minutes of news, or when municipalities prohibit citizens from using wind energy to dry their laundry, it’s simply an illustration of American gas guzzling that goes way beyond the size of SUV in your garage (I take that back; few Americans can park their cars in the garage, it being taken up by the overflow of junk from their MacMansions, or their ordinary suburban split levels). Is there any hope for a Copenhagen conversion to a more reasonable lifestyle?

Engels of the FT (who brought his non-electric outdoor “Hills Hoist” clothes dryer to the States) mentions Project Laundry List, those of The Right To Dry. Simply drying your clothes outside or on a rack (ours, pictured above, is the French model, called a “Tancarville,” after the Seine bridge of similar shape) could save the United States some six percent of its electricity consumption. Think of all the savings to households, let alone the dent that would make in our Saudi oil import bill. And the millions of carbon tons not spewed into the atmosphere. Clothes would actually smell better too, and whites would remain white instead of turning clothes dryer gray.

Before Cheney made conservation a dirty word

Until the Boy Scouts of America dumped it for more esoteric disciplines, they used to have the “Conservation” Merit Badge. That was before former VP Dick Cheney, leading the secret energy policy task force upon taking office in 2001, ridiculed the notion of conservation and pushed production – and consumption.

Cheney is gone, but his climate change denial is still with us: this week we learned that among Republicans, the percentage of those “who believe that climate change is happening is down sharply — 76 to 54 percent,” according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

I write this on “Black Friday,” the new American feast day to the God of Consumption. It’s enough to make Smokey Bear – and this old Boy Scout – cry.

Conservation Merit Badge

Conservation Merit Badge

A Pledging Czar For Dead Beat Donors

Posted by Gerald Loftus on 25/11/09
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Large sums promised to developing countries to help them tackle climate change cannot be accounted for, a BBC investigation has found. Rich countries pledged $410m (£247m) a year in a 2001 declaration – but it is now unclear whether the money was paid. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has accused industrialised countries of failing to keep their promise. The EU says the money was paid out in bilateral deals, but admits it cannot provide data to prove it.

BBC News, 25 November 2009

I’ve said it before: these international conferences where billions are pledged but little accounting is

performed, are perfect for countries and leaders who are notorious for not putting their money where their mouths are. Unless the UN or the BBC tries to add up the pledges and match them with actual bank transfers, no one is keeping tabs on converting the high rhetoric into ready cash.

So why not create not one, but two “Pledging Czars?” Ever since Russia gave up its czars and czarinas, it’s the US that has created generations of them: drug czars, war-on-terror czars, bailout czars. George W. Bush even had a “reading czar” (check out Wikipedia for a full list).

The industrialised countries need to have one, but so that he or she does not fall under the sway of the deadbeat pledgers, let’s create another czarina from among the recipient nations. Checks and balances.

The BBC-UN report on shortfalls in climate change funding for developing nations is extremely timely, coming as it has weeks before Copenhagen. No point in pious pronouncements prior to Christmas if previous Christmas prezzies have gone undelivered.

Brussels-based Gerald Loftus also publishes the blog Avuncular American.