In my 13 November post I cheekily put a picture of a 2cv together with the explanation that this was not President Jacques Dermagne’s car. Dermagne, I should recall, the President of the French Economic, Environmental and Social Council, had loaned me his chauffeur and car to get me to the Gare du Nord on time after a Paris meeting ran late. In Valetta, Dermagne came up to me with a mock-serious expression on his face. ‘Dear Martin,’ he said, producing a print-out of my post, ‘I just want you to know that, in fact, I do have a 2cv!’ To great mirth he explained to me that he is the proud owner of a 40 year-old 2cv, recently re-sprayed and still going strong! We had a laugh, as they say.
The chair of my evening meeting was the Secretary General of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development, Joe Montebello. You can see him in this picture. He and his President, Sonny Portelli, really pulled out all the stops for our visit. Joe and I found a few moments yesterday afternoon for a chat, and during this I discovered that Joe’s hobby is cycling. Not only that, but he has written an excellent pocket book setting out 12 routes on the islands of Malta and Gozo. The pocket book gives directions and maps and is illustrated with bplaces of interest. I have vowed to come back with the family and do at least some of these circuits. If you’d like to get a copy of the book, you can contact Joe on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yesterday evening, thanks to the generosity of our Maltese hosts, I was given the opportunity of presenting myself, as new EESC SG, to all the SGs of the national Economic and Social Councils. All went well. This was followed by a delicious meal, offered by our hosts, in the ancient and picturesque city of Mdina. My neighbours at the dinner table were the SGs of the Bulgarian, Dutch, Finnish and Irish Councils and we had a simply fascinating discussion about the very different roles, functions and prerogatives of our respective Councils/Committees. I am at the moment writing a book about the European Economic and Social Committee. I had always intended there to be a chapter about the consultative/advisory function at Member State level, but as I listened to my fascinating neighbours I kept revising upwards the word count for the chapter!
I am in Valetta today (I flew in at midnight yesterday) for a meeting of the Presidents and Secretaries-General of all the national Economic and Social Councils in the European Union. We meet up twice a year, with the Councils taking it in turn to preside and host the meetings. I am the new kid on the block and I have a big speech to make this afternoon. But it is not a daunting occasion by any means, for we are all involved, in one way or another, in the consultative function, advising political or governmental authorities from the point of view of organised civil society, and so we’re kindred spirits. On our agenda are some important themes: the current economic crisis and its consequences will be high up on the agenda, but we’ll also be discussing the impact of legal and illegal immigration on the labour marets and the implementation of the services directive. Plenty of meat, in other words. I like Malta and I like the Maltese. I find their language, with its mixture of Arabic, English and Italian fascinating and redolently symbolic of the way this island has historically stood between two continents. This morning I sneaked in a quick visit to the Co-Cathedral of St John’s to gaze on the two Caravaggio masterpieces there; the beheading of St John the Baptist and St Jerome. Both are truly extraordinary, but the beheading scene, with the apparent indifference of the onlookers and the sense of haste, as if the executioner had been asked to wring a favourite chicken’s neck and get it over and done with quickly, is so very cleverly done. You really do get the impression that all that will be left in a few minutes’ time is a drying blood stain in the dirt and a couple of ne’er do wells gazing aimlessly out of a window at the street.
On the flight out to Malta I finished Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark. In the Guardian in February this year, Gilbert Adair wrote about the ‘Fallacy of Retentive Admiration’, which he described as being ‘a reluctance to “drop” some artist in whom one has formerly invested a measure of faith and esteem.’ As a young man, I certainly fell prey to this fallacy with regard to The Beatles; because it, whatever it was, was by The Beatles it had to be good, even though part of me knew, deep down, that sometimes it wasn’t. I was even capable of arguing that Blue Jay Way was a literary and musical masterpiece (I defy anyone now to post a comment stating that it is). I therefore finished Man in the Dark with immense sentiments of irritation, frustration and just a little admiration. The basic conceit, of a character who lives in parallel versions of America, themselves inventions of an author’s mind, is a characteristically clever one, rich in potential. In one of those parallel worlds civil war has broken out in the US (again), and the book’s basic theme is summed up in one short paragraph, on page 111, when a character states ‘America’s at war, all right. We’re just not fighting it here. Not yet, anyway.’ I read on loyally, but never stopped feeling that the basic conceit, of a post 9/11 dual dystopian vision, could – should – have amounted to a (very) good short story. Instead, the book seems, to this reader, to have been padded out with a mish-mash of sentimental musings and notebook fragments, expertly melded together though they may have been. Believe me, it doesn’t come easy to do this to one of my heroes, but though surely inadvertent, the use of a deep well as a port between alternative realities strongly echoes Murakami (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle); no less than seven pages (15-22) are devoted to plot summaries of three films (The Bicycle Thief, Grand Illusion and The World of Apu); the chief protagonist, Owen Brick, ‘leaves the world in silence, with no chance to say a last word or think a last thought’ on page 118, with 62 pages still to go (Mein Gott); 180 pages is in any case slim, even for a novella; and there are so many infelicities of one sort or another that this manuscript would surely have been shredded by even the gentlest members of my writers’ circle. I suppose we’re all entitled to an occasional Blue Jay Way. But, Paul, please, let’s not make this a habit, OK?
Yesterday afternoon and evening it snowed in Brussels. It was funny to see the excitement this caused, as reflected in many Facebook entries. Clearly, snow in Brussels has become a rare occurence. When I got back home from the office in the evening, I had a snowball fight in the garden with my wife and son (my daughter wisely stayed indoors). The snow was of a perfect consistency for making snowballs that held together during their trajectories and shattered satisfyingly on impact. Great fun! Inevitably, the experience triggered childhood memories and, tracing these back, I realised that snowball fights had become rarer and rarer as snow became an increasingly rare phenomenon in London. When I first came to Belgium, in 1980, there were cross-country ski stations dotted throughout the Ardennes. Now, you have to look very hard to find such a place. As weather patterns come and go, so do industries.
I took my daughter and a friend to see a local amateur production of Fiddler on the Roof. The company, the British Light Opera Company (or ‘BLOC’, as they call themselves) are regular providers of excellent fare (they last put on a wonderful Mikado) and we were not disappointed on this occasion. In particular, Tony Lowe gave a wonderful performance as Tevye. The songs and the scenes stay in the memory, and though the plot is mostly light-hearted the underlying theme – persecution of the Jews in Tsarist Russia – is horribly serious. As I left I suddenly remembered a family holiday in the southern Czech Republic, in Bohemia, somewhere in the mid-1990s. We came across an abandoned Jewish cemetery in the middle of nowhere. Such haunting places are dotted all over central and eastern Europe (where they haven’t disappeared altogether). This one, with its shattered stones among giant trees, was sadly beautiful. Looking at the stones, I noticed that the name Löwy was repeated frequently. We had a friend, half-Danish, half-English, with the surname Lowy. Thinking it a coincidence, I took photographs of the gravestones to show her when next we were in London. She looked through them, getting sadder and sadder. ‘That was my grandparents’ village,’ she said. ‘They were all chased out.’ Until that moment, I had not known of my friend’s Jewish ancestry, but suddenly I understood the immense pain shared throughout the diaspora.
This morning began with another rite of passage for the EESC – greeting the newcomers. The Committee organises a two-day seminar for all of its new officials and the Secretary General is expected to greet them and give an overall presentation of the Committee. I always enjoy such first encounters and, of course, as the Union enlarges, so the number of nationalities in the room naturally increases. Beethoven’s Ninth is the EU’s informal anthem but, as my kids know, I think the modern European anthem should be Kraftwerk‘s ‘Europe Endless’ from the album Trans-Europe Express. Its deceptively simple lyrics – ‘Europe, endless’ – come back to me on such occasions.
Later, I set off for Liège, to the Walloon Economic and Social Council where, at the kind invitation of its Secretary General, Jean-Pierre Dawance, I delivered a lunchtime talk about the European Economic and Social Comittee. This was preceded by a guided tour of the Council’s Headquarters, a historic building known as Vertbois, a former foundlings’ home and hospital. My guide was Pierre Gilissen, who is permanent secretary of the Walloon Region’s Royal Commission for Monuments, Sites and Excavations. The building’s history is fascinating and the guided tour was a privilege and a pleasure. The Wallon Council is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary (the EESC is this year celebrating its 50th!) and it was good to meet with the Council’s members, its administration and members of the public who had come for the talk. Clearly, the consultative function and advisory role can be played at all levels, from the local to the European.
One of our members, Yves Somville, is living proof of this, since he is a member both of the EESC and of the Wallon Economic and Social Council!
Yesterday was filled with just two long meetings. Today, on the other hand, was a much more varied affair. In the morning we had a short coordination meeting with our President, Mario Sepi, who wishes to use the time created by next year’s electoral hiatus (the European Parliament elections will take place in June) in order to galavanise the Committee into adopting a set of own-initiative opinions that will set out the EESC’s vision of future priorities and questions from the point of view of organised civil society. It is an excellent idea and will, I am sure, generate much interest. Later, I had lunch with a Romanian Committee member, Marius Opran. He is one of our more active members and a great expert on the aeronautics and defence industries. During the day I also met with an Italian Professor, Umberto Triulzi, from the Sapienza University (Rome) and Ana Aguardo, the Brussels-based representative of the European University Institute , and later was interviewed by a journalist for the European Parliament’s newsletter. But the icing on the cake came in the early evening, when the President and I hosted a reception for all new officials and those retiring. It is a tradition in the Committee for the Secretary General to say a few words about each retiring official before the President hands them a commemorative platter and a certificate. I always find it an immensely touching moment. Some of our retiring officials had worked for 37 years. I imagine myself in their place and realise both what a massive commitment this represents and the huge step they are taking.
Most of today was taken up with two coordination meetings, one at administrative and one at political level. The administrative meeting was the usual Monday morning Directors’ meeting. The afternoon meeting, though, was a less routine affair. The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions share several services, including translation and logistics. The simple logic is to realise economies of scale. A framework cooperation agreement sets out the rules of the game. A coordination committee meets regularly at high administrative level, but the general working of the agreement is overseen at political level by a political monitoring group (PMG) composed of members of both Committees. It was this political monitoring group that met this afternoon. I believe that the cooperation agreement between the two Committees is a revolutionary and pioneering arrangement. It is not always easy to manage, but it does work and, on the whole, work well. Proof of this came with this afternoon’s PMG meeting, which went smoothly and ended with a round of applause.