Force-fed in Chalkidiki: life at an EU summit
This week's Letter from Prague actually comes from a bit further afield: the Chalkidiki peninsula in northern Greece to be precise. And no, I haven't resorted to reading my holiday postcards on the radio: I recently got back from the Greek holiday resort of Porto Karras, where 25 heads of state and government gathered last weekend for the EU Summit.
I was privileged to travel to Greece with the official Czech government delegation, boarding one of the handful of aging but still respectable Tupolevs that grace the tarmac of Prague's Old Ruzyne Airport. Travelling with the Prime Minister is a joy for anyone who despairs of the stress and inconvenience of modern air travel: there's no passport control, no tickets and no excess baggage. There are no screaming kids or drunk football fans. You get a row of seats all to yourself, and the cutlery is stainless steel, not plastic. Sitting in the cockpit is an air force pilot, something that gives you a sense of reassurance but also a mild thrill of excitement: each thrust and turn of the aircraft is somehow more daring than on a regular scheduled flight.
And it was with a sudden sweeping dip into the clouds that we descended over Thessaloniki, passing low over rows of sun-bleached houses before bouncing softly onto the tarmac of Makedonia Airport. As we rolled to a halt in front of the terminal building, Greek Army helicopters hovered and rose into the ominous-looking clouds above us, the dirty yellow sunlight giving the whole scene a rather sinister air. The Prime Minister was ushered into a limousine - we mortals were shown to waiting buses and taxis.
The journey to Porto Karras, a luxury resort around 120 km from Thessaloniki, was slow and boring. As the sky darkened and the rain set in, the bored-looking policemen lining the road at 100-metre intervals donned bright green anoraks: some sought shelter under the olive trees. It was a rather pathetic sight, and certainly not one to strike fear into the hearts of terrorists or demonstrators. "Security?" sneered my taxi driver, dismissing a bedraggled policeman with a wave of his hand. "Greek police no security." But once we arrived at the conference centre, the security was real enough: police with submachine guns and dogs, and the ever-present army helicopters buzzing overhead.
The summit itself was a run-of-the-mill affair: no blazing rows or walkouts, just endless press conferences and photo opportunities, and piles upon piles of food. The Greek government - as all governments do when it's their turn to sit in the EU's big chair - had clearly decided that a way to a journalist's heart was through his stomach. We were force-fed trays of grilled lamb, mountains of creamy moussaka and slabs of succulent feta cheese. If that wasn't enough, the precarious journey back to our laptops was littered with obstacles: freezer cabinets bulging with ice-cream, fridges groaning with soft drinks and beer. Even the coffee came with chalva - little Greek cakes studded with nuts and oozing honey.
With so much eating to do it's a surprise that anyone did any work, but we did - at the end of the day the press centre was a sea of crumpled press releases and discarded newspapers. After three days it was all over, and we were heading back to the airport: the helicopters still buzzing overhead.
Back on the Tupolev, we compared suntans and souvenirs, exchanged gossip overheard outside conference rooms. Just as we started our final descent to Prague, the curtain twitched and the Prime Minister appeared, and began walking down the aisle towards us. He needs the toilet, I thought: but no, he was coming for a chat. And so we spent a bizarre twenty minutes making political small-talk. All the things I've ever wanted to ask a Prime Minister immediately left my head. Finally I thought of something: Do you actually enjoy all this? I asked. Flying off to Greece for the weekend, rubbing shoulders with Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, buzzing round in helicopters? He scratched his nose and looked out of the window for a moment, gazing at the sun setting under a blanket of clouds. "Not really," he said. "To be honest there isn't time."