Today I finished Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I talk About Running. For those, like me, who adore his writing, it doesn’t disappoint (and Philip Gabriel’s translation is generally good). Indeed, it is as much about his writing as it is about his running for, as he eloquently describes, in his case the two go together; indeed his running, he argues, is a metaphor for his writing. It is full of bons mots and aphorisms. Here’s one that struck a particularly loud chord with me: ‘The older you get, the busier you become.’ Read it – especially if you are a runner.
Over the past four days the EESC has held two Bureau meetings and one plenary session. It has changed or renewed all of its office holders, from the new President, Mario Sepi, down to the Section Presidents. On Wednesday afternoon, after Mario Sepi’s inaugural address, it held an important and intellectually stimulating round table on the theme of ‘globalisation guided by rights and solidarity’. It adopted a number of important opinions, including a major opinion on the CAP Health Check, a timely own-initiative opinion on ‘the ethical and social dimension of European financial institutions’ and a deeply moving and encouraging information report on the European Union’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process. To find out more about all of this, please visit the EESC’s webpages. From my point of view, the most satisfying thing is that it all worked (these were my first Bureau meetings and my first plenary session).
At the end of a long, rich and eventful week, I was interviewed by the BBC’s Shirin Wheeler. You can see the results here. I’d be interested to know what you think. Most of the questions were tough but the interview and, just as importantly, the editing, were scrupulously fair.
In the evening I made a welcoming speech at an exhibition on the Committee’s premises about Europe’s forests. The statistics are impressive; depending on the definition used, up to 30% of Europe’s landmass is covered in forest of one sort or another (but it used to be 80%!). One of the exhibits is a five-metre square block of wood (supposed to be solid). It represents the extent by which Europe’s trees grow every minute. A simple, but very effective way of getting the message across. A number of the EESC’s members are active representatives of Europe’s forestry. One of our two new Vice-Presidents, Seppo Kallio (Finland, Various Interests Group), is one of these (forests cover 72% of Finland’s land). He has been the author of a number of Committee on forestry-related issues. You can read them here.
In my previous guise as a Director of Consultative Work I had the pleasure of working closely with Edgardo Iozia (Italian/Employees’ Group), a very active and committed EESC member, on what we liked to call the bio-fuels dossier. This was an opinion (you can read it here) where the Committee had something distinctive to say, particularly with regard to the European Commission’s confidence in the benefits of the first generation of bio-fuels. Other voices soon joined the clamour of those asking the Commission to re-think, but the Committee was among the first. We’ve remained friends since that first experience.
In a chat during the plenary session Edgardo came out with a pearl of a metaphor. I was going on a bit about all the distractions that had occurred before I even took up my mandate (all right; I was whingeing). ‘I’m a sailor,’ Edgardo told me. ‘And let me tell you, when you are in port all sorts of nonsense goes on. But once you put to sea you have to forget about everything that went on in port and concentrate on the voyage ahead of you; the wind, the stars, the map, the sails, your destination.’ Brilliant. I have stopped whingeing.
Sitting up on a podium for two longs days, as I did this week, means that you get pretty familar with your surroundings. So it was that I discovered the smiley doors (see picture). Jacques Tati would have been proud. For those not in the know, in Tati’s Modern Times, the round windows of a modern house become eyes, and the heads of people walking behind the windows become eyeballs, so that the house itself becomes an animated face. At times, with people walking behind the doors, it really did look as though the eyes were following people around… Thanks to Paula for the photograph.
It has been a quietly emotional – and long – morning. It started at eight with a Presidency breakfast (the President, Vice-Presidents and Group Presidents, meeting together with the SG to discuss any problematic issues on the agendas of the forthcoming Bureau and Plenary Session meetings). Both the outgoing (Dimitris Dimitriadis) and the incoming (Mario Sepi) Presidents were present, and there was a gentle sense of the baton being passed. Dimitris called me in afterwards to give me a good luck present, a beautiful pen. I was deeply touched. Our Greek members have been very attentive to me. The incoming Vice-President Irini Pari, for example, gave me a good luck charm of a pomegranite badge. Clearly, the beginnings of things are very important to them, and I am touched by their supportive attentiveness. I keep the charm in my wallet and flash it at Irini whenever I have to participate in important meetings. This morning I was flashing it like Billyo because I had my first Bureau meeting. I had to take a solemn oath and then help the President as he chaired the meeting. Occasionally I took the floor but, in truth, the meeting passed off well and peaceably. As I write, the three Groups are meeting to prepare their lists of candidates for election to the various offices and bodies of the Committee. Tomorrow morning the ‘renewal’ plenary session will meet to elect the Committee’s office holders and then the new Bureau meets. It’s a hectic and exciting period in the Committee’s lifecycle. Watch this spot!
So there was I, chatting to Leila (see previous post) and I asked her what she thought of my blog. ‘It’s great,’ she said, ‘but I still don’t know what you do.’ OK, Leila, point taken. Below is what the job ad said. In addition, I would say that, like SGs to all representative bodies, I have to act as the go-between between our members and the administration. This is a delicate balancing act.
The secretary-general (M/F) manages the Secretariat of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) at the highest level. These duties are performed under the authority of the EESC president, representing the EESC bureau, and entail:
- ensuring that decisions taken by the EESC assembly, bureau or president under the terms of the EESC Rules of Procedure are implemented correctly;
- submitting to the bureau an organisational plan for the Secretariat that enables the bureau to ensure that the EESC and its internal bodies operate smoothly and help the members to carry out their duties, particularly when organising meetings and drawing up opinions;
- leading and supervising the various directorates and other units which make up the Secretariat, particularly as regards administrative or organisational problems and staff-related issues;
- ensuring that the cooperation agreement with the Committee of the Regions is implemented and operates smoothly, and resolving with the secretary-general of the aforementioned Committee service issues relating to the implementation of the said agreement;
- exercising the powers granted by the Staff Regulations of the European Communities to the appointing authority in accordance with Article 72 of the EESC Rules of Procedure;
- assisting the EESC president in relations with the institutions and other bodies of the European Union and with civil society organisations;
- preparing the draft estimates of EESC revenue and expenditure in accordance with Article 74 of the EESC Rules of Procedure; and
- using the powers granted to him by the EESC president to ensure that the EESC budget is implemented correctly.
I was writer-sitting this Saturday. Jackie Kay, is a prolific poet, novelist and short-story writer. She was in town for work with the British School and the European Schools, and a mutual friend asked me to look after her on the Saturday afternoon and evening. She is, quite simply, a lovely lady and great company. My writers group friend and children’s author Leila Rasheed (she wrote this and this) organised a signing session at the local branch of Waterstones, and then very kindly Jackie joined me and Leila and the rest of the writers group back home for a working session. This was great fun. She read from The Adoption Papers and Off Colour, and then we all read extracts from our work. Afterwards, spouses and companions and children joined us for a big meal. A wonderful evening was capped off by Leila’s boyfriend, Rene Morgensen (a composer and gifted saxophonist), playing jazz riffs into the small hours. A special occasion.
This evening I went to the Rose Blanche in the Grand Place to deliver a speech at a ‘causerie‘ for the students of the Strasbourg campus of Syracuse University. My good friend, Kjell Torbiorn, is a professor of European politics there and, indeed, has written a first-rate book about Europe’s economic and political evolution (and not just about the European Union). He and I met at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 1985, when I was a new, young official and he was in charge of the Agriculture Committee. He’s now Head of the Private Office of the President but, like me, persists in believing that we should write and teach about what we do and why. Unlike me, he is also a singer and a songwriter and was a star in his native Sweden in his early twenties. His pet project at the moment is ‘songs that Elvis could have sung’. You can hear him at www.gracelandking.com. As to the students, when I first started giving these causeries some fifteen years ago (most of the students are American), I spoke about the avoidance of war but now I am increasingly convinced that European integration is a successful model that can and should be imitated elsewhere in the world.