If you want to earn easy money, sign an English-language contract with the regional government of Wallonia, the French-speaking socialist southern part of Belgium. The Walloon Socialist politicians do not understand English. As a consequence, you can get them to sign anything, even an obligation to pay you 14 million euros a year.
Two years ago the Parti Socialiste (PS), the largest party in Wallonia, threatened to bring the Belgian government down if the ban on tobacco advertising was not modified. Tobacco advertising had just been banned at the request of the Greens and… the Socialists, when the new government bill was read by Bernie Ecclestone, the British owner of Formula One Holdings and the organiser of the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix in Spa-Francorchamps (Wallonia). Ecclestone said he would abolish the annual race if tobacco companies were no longer allowed to sponsor teams in the Belgian Grand Prix.
The PS did not rest until the law was altered: tobacco advertising remained banned except during the Formula One Grand Prix. At the same time, in October 2003, the Walloon authorities signed a contract with Ecclestone. In return for the British businessman’s guarantee that the Grand Prix would remain in Wallonia until 2010, the regional government agreed to subsidise the Grand Prix with 14 million euros (indexed by 5 per cent) annually.
Two weeks ago the Walloon regional government asked the federal Belgian government to help it out because it does not have the money to pay Mr Ecclestone. Discontinuing the race is impossible, it turns out, because in the same 2003 contract the Walloon authorities agreed to pay Formula One Holdings an indemnity of 14 million euros (indexed by 5 per cent) for every year the championship is missed. Moreover, the contract stipulates that Mr Ecclestone is unilaterally entitled to extend the commitment (including Wallonia’s obligation to pay him) until 2015. In addition all legal disputes emanating from the contract must be dealt with by British courts.
The contract was signed on behalf of the Walloon authorities by the Socialist politician Jean-Marie Happart. When asked why he had signed such a disadvantageous contract Mr Happart replied that he had not read the clauses of the contract as these were written in English, while he speaks only French.
The Walloon authorities have a reputation for being generous with tax money. Next month the Belgian judiciary is questioning two executives of the Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair. The carrier, which has the Walloon government-owned airport of Charleroi (“Brussels South”) as its European hub, has been granted extremely favourable conditions by the Walloon authorities, as a result of which passengers can fly for virtually nothing. The European Union is questioning the legality of the subsidies and the Belgian judiciary has opened a fraud investigation.