This was a big day for the President, and for me. It was our second Bureau meeting together. The EESC’s Bureau is the 39-member body that is, basically, the decision-making powerhouse of the Committee. On the agenda were four heavyweight points. Two of these (rules of procedure, budget) will be of limited interest to the layperson but insiders know their potential significance. Two other significant agenda items were the President’s plans to revamp and restructure plenary debates into thematic blocs organised with visiting figures (we have both Commission President Barosso and French European Affairs Minister Jouyet coming to our December plenary session) and a draft convention with an international organisation, AICESIS (The Internatioanl Association of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions). Traditionally, the Bureau meets in the afternoon, but the President quite rightly decided to start in the morning, at 10.30. The meeting closed, four solid debates later, at almost six in the evening, leading the President to miss his early evening flight to Italy. But on all four points the Bureau reached good and satisfying conclusions and we left the meeting room a little tired but very happy. The next big Bureau day is 2 December, when I hope to be able to present a reorganisation of the administration.
In the late evening, as I was doing my penance (see 7 November post), Gerhard Stahl, Secretary General of the Committee of the Regions, dropped in for a chat. It is an advantage of sharing our buildings that we can drop in on each other like that. And it is good to swap notes, for we both face similar challenges and, of course, have shared concerns. The dynamics between the administrations and the members in the consultative bodies are special and particular. The administrations provide continuity, permanence and the interface with ‘Brussels’, whilst the authenticity of our members (and the uniqueness of their role) is derived precisely from the fact that they are not habitual denizens of the ‘Brussels’ policy-making community. A constant learning process, on both sides, is therefore involved. I am told that at the EESC’s four-yearly ‘renewals’ there is about a 30% turnover of our 344 members. Gerhard tells me that in the CoR the turnover figure is 20% per year. So, if I have a big challenge Gerhard has a huge one.
Belgian refugees at Ostende (1914)
It was my turn to be ‘up’ this evening. I had submitted the latest draft of the third chapter of what I intend will be a saga about Europe in the 20th century. War is therefore never far away. The first chapters are set in Belgium in the first days and months of the 1914-18 war, a forgotten period before trenches were dug and when troop movements were still fluid. It was nevertheless a beginning (if not the beginning) of modern warfare, with its emphasis on propaganda, media attention on atrocities and the wholescale involvement of civilian populations. Nobody now remembers, of course, but Europe’s first major refugee crisis was the exodus of Belgians in August/September 1914. I’d say my fellow scribes’ comments were roughly evenly balanced between the positive and the negative (though all, of course, were constructive) and so I felt that, notwithstanding the demands of the ‘day job’ at the moment, this was encouraging. I am being hugely ambitious, but what I want/hope to do is something like what great writers, such as Frank Norris (The Octopus, The Pit) and Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy, The Financier), did; telling the story of how America came into being and how it evolved, using the so-called naturalist method: ‘portraying characters whose value lies not in their moral code, but in their persistence against all obstacles.’ (Wikipedia) It may turn out that I am being hopelessly over-ambitious and, personally, I may well fall flat on my face, but I do hope that such a European literature comes into being. It certainly should.
To the writers’ circle in the evening. One of our number, Sebastian, read out an extraordinarily touching exercise, following on from Barack Obama’s election. His mother had lived through Krystallnacht, and his piece was about overcoming prejudice. I shall try and get a copy and post it.
We went to see the latest Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. The reviews have been so consistently bad that we were, if anything, slightly pleasantly surprised. All the emphasis is on action, to such an extent that the plot becomes largely irrelevant, and the film rattles along alarmingly like an express train on a branch line. The critics say that, by eschewing romance in favour of cynicism, Marc Forster is sawing off the branch he is sitting on, since the Bond franchise has traditionally involved a big dollop of schmalz, but I suspect Ian Fleming would recognise more of his Bond in Daniel Craig than in, say, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan.
To the Palais de Beaux Arts to hear the Bamberger Symphoniker playing Schönberg, Berg, Varèse and Bartok. The Schönberg (Drei Klavierstücke) and the Bartok (Concerto for piano and orchestra N° 1) were played by the ubiquitous Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He seems timeless and I was surprised, on reading the programme notes, to discover that he is the same age as me, 51. There is more than a little of the Sviatoslav Richter about him, with his close attention to the score, expansive repertoire and apparently effortless pianistic pyrotechnics. How does he do it?
A Euro-mandarin contemplates her penance
It’s a Friday evening. A long and busy week is over and people are heading home for a well-deserved weekend, but not yet the Euro-mandarins; oh no. We must stay a while yet and do our penance. One of the members of my writers’ group, Alice Jolly (author of What the Eye Doesn’t See and If Only You Knew), once worked briefly for the European Commission. ‘It was OK,’ she once told me, ‘but I was driven barmy by the signataires.’ What, the layperson might ask, are the signataires? Basically, they are files with a document of some sort inside, usually requiring a decision. On the front is a routing slip, showing the visas of those from whom the document came and everybody who saw it on its way to you. It’s a way of establishing responsibility and hierarchy. There has been all sorts of talk about paperless offices and periodically efforts are made in all the institutions to shorten the lists of names on the routing slips but the signataire is still flourishing, a little like Japanese pond weed. To understand why it is the Euro-mandarins’ penance, you have to understand the rhythm and culture of our administrations. Quite naturally, before people go home they like to get stuff (probably various signataires) off their desks. So off go the files, ending up at the top of whatever tree they’re supposed to climb up, where the decisions have to be made. Moreover, on Friday evenings this phenomenon is compounded by two additional aspects. The first is that everybody wants to get rid of everything before the weekend – again, perfectly understandable. The second is that there are always urgent dossiers for next week (which could be any week, of course). And so, on Friday evenings all over Brussels, Euro-mandarins are settling down in their offices to start their penance.
Over lunch in Paris yesterday, I chatted with Beatrice Ouin (French EESC member/Employees’ Group). She is a trained journalist and communicator and has for many years given communication courses to trades unionists. Recently, she started teaching younger people, around 18-20 years old. As an ice-breaking exercise, she asked her students to list the most important events of the past six months (she then intended to ask them what ‘important’ meant). They all listed the Chinese Olympics, naturally, but not a single student mentioned the Irish referendum result. In the past, we might have said that it’s because of the newspapers; because they don’t cover ‘Europe’ sufficiently. But these young people almost certainly don’t read newspapers on a daily basis. They probably get their information on the hoof, from the web. The internet is a wondrous thing but it raises fresh challenges for communicators. Beatrice recently authored a Committee opinion on the EU’s communication challenge (reconciling the European and the national levels). You can read it here. It’s well worth a read.
Together with our sister consultative body, the Committee of the Regions (with whom we share our buildings and some of our services), we have started to hold ‘Bike Fridays’. The initiative came from our excellent EMAS (Environmental Management and Audit Scheme) coordinator, Silvia. All those coming into work on a bicycle were rewarded with a bio breakfast. Since I come into work every day on a bicycle (yes, I am still sticking to my resolution), I went along for a few minutes to lend my support. A good time was had by all, I sensed.
I was in Paris yesterday for the fourth EU-China Round Table. These events, part of the EESC’s outreach activities (we have something similar with India), bring together representatives of organised civil society from both sides in pretty free and frank discussions on issues of mutual interest. This time a workshop on corporate responsibility was followed by sessions on trade and investment and recycling. I found the whole experience fascinating. The EU is China’s N° 1 trade partner and its primary source of imported technology, and the Chinese participants gave a strong general impression of wanting more structured dialogue in all areas of mutual interest. It was interesting to hear warnings on both sides about the dangers of creeping protectionism and the importance of better regulating the international financial markets. We were all entertained by the Chinese Ambassador to France, Mr Kong Quan, who, speaking in eloquent and witty French, explained how the EU-China relationship had changed fundamentally over the past ten years. The EU had previously dealt with a poor and underdeveloped country but one which was now more prosperous (and, my Economist this week tells me, whose economy will overtake the USA’s by 2030 and become a global military power by 2025). On the other hand, China had previously been dealing with 12 member states and now there were 27 and counting… In other words, it is not just China that is changing. Hence the importance on both sides to maintain a maximum number of structured dialogues.
An informing read
This afternoon I gave a welcoming speech at a conference on capacity building in the new member states in the textile, clothing, garment, footwear, leather and tanning industries. It was the culmination of a year-long project, supported by the European Commission, designed to help establish and consolidate social dialogue. We, the EESC, have a sort of outreach programme whereby we encourage organisations, including the European institutions, to see us as a welcoming host for such events, which can and frequently do greatly enrich the thinking of our own members. I had to sneak away after an hour but I wished I could have stayed. A lot of home truths about the approaching recession were voiced, since these are all, in their different ways, vulnerable sectors. But the basic and very clear message the speakers were getting across was that, whilst this period will be a test for social dialogue, it will also prove the need for such dialogue.
This post gives me a chance to plug an excellent information report published by the EESC’s Consultative Commission on Industrial Change about the future of the European textile, clothing and footwear sectors. You can order it for free or download it here.
I like to think that I coined a phrase at the conference. There were so many Secretaries-General and Directors-General on the top table with me so I began by saying ‘First, but not most’. Geddit? It’s the way I tell them.