This is my last day in the office. Everybody was sent home a little earlier this afternoon and the building feels very empty. Theoretically, things should have been winding down in gentle fashion, but the problem is that we have an extremely busy first week back in January, and so I have been working down to the wire to make sure that the various documents and briefings for the Budget Group and the Directors’ Commitee and the Audit Committee and the Presidency Seminar, etc, etc, are all ready. But now just about everything is done and I can shut up shop.
This will almost certainly be my last post of the year. For those of you who visit from time to time, I wish you a joyous festive period and a happy, healthy and peaceful new year.
The staff Christmas party was preceded by a short but very solemn event. Duncan (a colleague, on the right in the picture – note how we are all looking suitably serious) and I are pork scratchings enthusiasts. Miguel, a Spanish colleague, said Spanish scratchings (called cortezas) were better. So we had to have a tasting. Only, Miguel exaggerated a bit because not only did he bring three different packets of the stuff, but he also brought a glass jar of his cousin’s home made scratchings. Duncan, meanwhile, had brought a ‘family pack’ of Mr Porky pork scratchings (hardly in the same league, you have to admit). We washed all of this down with a couple of bottles of Old Hooky ale. My conclusion was that we would have to compare with the Italian version, ciccioli, and then Jonna said the Danes do something similar….
We concluded that pork scratchings deserve a Europe-wide survey, possibly in book or pamphlet form. I’d be grateful if fellow scratchings enthusiasts could let me know about their local variety. In the meantime, take a look at Miguel’s cousin’s home made version. I mean! You can feel the lard making a beeline for your arteries before the scratching is half way down your throat.
The EESC Staff Committee’s annual Christmas Party is an extraordinary event, surely unique among the EU’s institutions, and to my mind graphically illustrates all that is best about the Committee’s staff. Once a year, in the run-up to Christmas, an army of volunteers turns two floors of the Committee building into a Christmas fair with countless stalls groaning under the weight of local and regional produce, most of it home made. You have to see it to believe it. The basic idea is to ply the guests (largely fellow staff members and their families, but also a good number of our members) with food and drink, entertain them (many of the ‘acts’ are also ‘homegrown’) and then to dance the night away.
This year, I brought the family and they were duly impressed, not just by the abundance of delicious food, but also by the wonderful atmosphere of goodwill and generous hospitality. No sooner had I walked in than Stavros, one of the trades unionists who had faced me across the conciliation table the evening before, gave me a thimble glass of very special ouzo, made by his father, and that gesture sums up the spirit of the event. In the pictures are part – just part – of the Czech table. Look at the artistry of those biscuits! Its Kraftwerk again – ‘Europe, endless.’
This was a long day and I got home pretty late but in an excellent mood after a series of back-to-back but very productive meetings. I’m generally in before eight and I start every morning at eight forty-five with a preparatory meeting with Eleonora, the head of my secretariat. From there it was into a meeting about how better to prioritise the Committee’s opinions (one hour). Next was a talk to the colleagues in the consultative works directorates to inform them about the philosophy behind the Committee’s new establishment plan (one hour and fifteen minutes). I did the same for another hour-and-a-quarter with the colleagues from the general affairs directorate. Then it was into a meeting with the President’s private office and various colleagues to coordinate the preparation of the President’s forthcoming ‘white paper’ (ninety minutes). No time for lunch (compensation for the previous day!) but into another coordination meeting about the organisation of the Committee’s civil society prize (one hour – watch this space for the prize). That was followed by a one-hour interview of a candidate for the position of head of the EESC’s press unit, and that was followed by a thirty minute chat with Philippe De Buck, Secretary General of BusinessEurope. There was then just time for a quick coordination meeting with Gerhard Stahl, Secretary General of the Committee of the Regions, and then we both went into an almost three-hour long conciliation meeting with the trades union representatives on the issue of flexi-time. In all of these meetings the atmosphere was good and a lot of positive progress was made, so it was a really good day.
Today began what promises to be both a hellishly busy and a very enjoyable week. Every day is choc-a-bloc full of meetings, many of them on important political or administrative issues. But in between, like a delicious jam filling in an otherwise fairly dry sponge cake, are a whole series of very pleasant end-of-year-related activities. I took my team out to lunch today. Jean (top left in the picture) gave me a knot to undo. I had five minutes and failed miserably. He then handed it over to my IT coordinator, Bernard (not in the picture, alas), who undid it within thirty seconds. There is a moral somewhere in that little episode, but I don’t think I want to know it! To my left is Jonna. On the other side are Eleonora, Anna and Henrike. Danny and Zoltan are also out of this particular picture.
By chance, I had to speak consecutively one day this week for some four hours, split up between different groups of different sizes on different themes. Each meeting overran and so I had very little time to gather my thoughts as I walked from one meeting room to another. I used to lecture for four hour stretches at Bruges, but that was split up into two-hour blocs, with breaks after one hour and the students making presentations. Apart from giving me a sore throat, this week’s experience gave me a small insight into the challenge facing candidates on the stump. How US Presidential candidates keep it up I just do not know. From that simple angle Barrack Obama’s ability to continue to wow the crowds over the months was extraordinary but it must also be said that 72 year-old John McCain’s sheer physical stamina was remarkable.
This evening I was the guest at an event organised by my father-in-law, Jacques Vandamme, at the Belgian Fondation Universitaire, to celebrate my appointment as EESC Secretary General. The event was designed to bring together representatives of Belgian politics and civil society organisations as well as Belgian friends more generally. It was a lovely evening. My father-in-law belonged to the first, pioneering generation of EU civil servants (you can read about him in this book), and among the guests were a number of his contemporaries. Their names probably don’t trip off the tongue any more, but people like Jacques-Réné Rabier (who created Eurobarometre) and Jacqueline Lastenouse (who created the Jean Monnet chairs programme) are among the unsung heros and heroines of the European construction process. Thinking back to David Bearfield’s presentation (8 December post), those who forwent a national career as a diplomat or civil servant in the early 1960s in order to join the European institutions were taking a big risk, since nobody could be certain that things would work out well. But, then, since they had known the war, they were determined that things would have to work out well. In the picture is my father-in-law and EESC President Mario Sepi, who kindly said a few words.
In this morning’s Directors’ meeting we had a guest speaker, David Bearfield, Director of the European Communities Personnel Selection Office (known by its acronym as ‘EPSO’). Appointed last summer, Bearfield has brought great dynamism and a strategic overview to the institutions’ personnel management. The challenge to recruit not only the brightest and the best but also the most appropriate is faced by all of the EU’s institutions. Since his arrival Bearfield has not just shaken up selection methodology but has woken up the institutions to the fact that, impending recession notwithstanding, we are in a ‘global war for talent’ in which young, motivated individuals are simply not interested in jobs for life. What they want are interesting challenges and rewarding work. Of course, that is what working in the EU is about, but we won’t convince potential recruits by making them sit exams and asking them questions such as ‘who was the first female Green MEP’ (true story, apparently).
This evening some of the members of my writers’ group came together with three musicians to give us a session of music, interspersed with poetry and other literary readings. The idea, launched by a friend, Nigel Clarke, a Brussels-based composer, is to perform chamber music in the setting for which it was written – small rooms. Not for nothing is it known as ‘the music of friends’. To complete the feast, a guest artist hung her work on the living room walls. It all went together very well and left us all thinking that this was an experience to repeat. That’s Jeannette, John, Leila and Martin in the pictures.
It’s the end of a big weekfor me: a successful Bureau and Plenary Session; the new establishment plan unanimously approved; Barroso and French European Affairs Minister, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, participating in important plenary debates. There have been some very long days in there and a number of meetings are still bubbling away this afternoon, but I sense that quite soon I’ll be able to get back to my desk and to all the paperwork and e-mails that have been patiently waiting for me…