In the late afternoon to the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee where the discharge motion for the Committee’s handling of the 2007 accounts was to be discussed. The procedure needs a little explaining. The Parliament grants discharge on the basis of a report it receives from the Court of Auditors, so the discharge motion comes at the end of a relatively long process of monetary and managerial auditing. Hence the two year delay. Since I only became SG in October last year, it means I will (hopefully) be granted discharge on the basis of my predecessor’s work, and I will only be granted (hopefully) discharge for my own managerial work from 2011 onwards (for the handling of this year’s budget). The good news is that the discharge motion went through smoothly (and must now be approved by the Parliament’s plenary). But the resolution contains a number of recommendations and we now have to get cracking and start implementing them.
I took two days off and we scarpered south for a few days near Lake Como. It was intensely cold there but the skies were blue and the sun was promisingly warm. In Domaso we discovered a wonderful osteria that serves lightly pickled and salted fish from the lake. On the Saturday evening at our agritourismo all of the guests were called away from the dinner table to march through the snow and ice to rescue the car of two guests who had taken a wrong turning and driven into an ice trap. The agritourismo itself lies at the top of a vertiginously steep ramp. I suppose it’s OK if you’ve got a 4 x 4 but it is otherwise a terrifying experience. You have to take a long run-up, in first gear, and then hang on like grim death, front wheels spinning. The first time I drove up it, last November, I had no idea where I was going (it was dark and raining to boot) and all that managed to get me to the top was the petrifying idea that I might have to reverse down again for a second attempt. Thereafter, using the weak excuse that the car would be lighter, I left the driving to my better half and walked up with the kids and the bags. This time we had the excuse that there was ice half way up the ramp and left the car at the bottom. But another late arrival on the Saturday night didn’t know that and got stuck half way up. The assembled guests had to push the car and finally they made it, careering away up the hillside once the tires got a grip once again. Molto sportivo. Anyway, this agritourismo is run by an artist, Mariella, who is also a brilliant cook (all home made ingredients) and I recommend the spot – but beware of that ramp. Of course, ice and snow in the mountains in winter is normal. What was not so normal was the snow and ice that fell on Palermo last week – but that’s another story.
We had a meeting of the SG’s team first thing this morning and it was, in part, a bitter-sweet occasion, for we had to say farewell to our in-house trainee, Henrike. To soften the blow, Jonna laid on a Danish breakfast. This involved delicious sausage and bread and cheese and jam but it also involved Gammel Dansk. My predecessor had warned me about this occasional challenge, for I am not in the habit of knocking back spirits – no matter how laced with supposedly healthy herbs – at nine in the morning. Still, I must confess that they (no getting out of a re-fill) went down very easily (it’s got to be ‘down-in-one’, apparently) and had no consequences on my effectiveness throughout the day – but, then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
To the Leaders Club, an association of top managers from the EU institutions organised by the European Administrative School, to listen to Tim Smit, the founder of the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project. His speech – one-and-a-half hours without notes and without the slightest sense of boredom among his audience – was a fascinating tour de force. It also provided much food for thought. To read my scribbled notes go to ‘more’ below. Smit is clearly a one-off social entrepreneur whose sheer energy levels have forced through a great deal of good work. He spoke eloquently about the need for a new sort of collective consciousness and growth in the idea of sustainable living as good citizenship. The example that inspired me was his simply pointing out that suburban streets do not need forty lawnmowers. I have vowed to write to all of my neighbours offering the loan of my lawnmower whenever they need it!
A neighbour celebrated her 90th birthday recently. At her birthday party – a surprisingly lively affair – I discovered an extraordinary story about quiet heroism in our street. I wrote it up and read it out as an exercise at my writers’ group this evening. You can read the story by clicking on ‘read the rest of this entry’.
This evening we went to see an amateur production of Road, by Jim Cartwright. It was performed by the Senior Group of Theatre in English Youth Theatre, Brussels, and directed by Stephen Challens. We went primarily because some of our daughter’s friends and classmates were among the cast. The performance was actually rather good, and some of the cast, who have already decided to continue with acting as a vocation, are clearly destined for greater things. The play was first produced in 1986. It explores the lives of the people in a deprived, working class area of Lancashire during the early 1980s, a time of very high unemployment in the north of England. The language is decidedly blue, and the cast clearly had fun at times in spitting out words they normally have to use out of the earshot of authority. But as the evening went on, the utter ghastliness and desperation of peoples’ lives at the time came across very well and switched my mood to one of glum reflection – for are we not now headed for another such period of desperation and despondency?
It was Bike Day again this morning, this time in the Belliard 68 building (one of six buildings housing our officials). It’s always a pleasure to lend moral support to the cyclists’ cause. Many of our translators are housed in the Belliard 68 buidling and on this occasion the fun was enhanced by a multilingual quiz about bicycle-linked colloquialisms in various languages. the chap next to me in the photograph, Gonzalo, is the Director of the Translation Directorate. He is a Committee of the Regions official, it being part of the two Committees’ revolutionary resource-sharing arrangement that they also share the two ‘joint services’ Directorates. Oh, and the orange juice was good as well!
The translation directorate (composed of officials from both the EESC and the Committee of the Regions) has decided to publish an internal newsletter as a way of enhancing internal information. For their first edition of the newsletter, entitled ‘Dixit’, they invited me to be their very first interviewee, which was both flattering and exciting. So this morning two bright young things, Anna (Swedish) and Paul-Elgar (Maltese), came to my office and quizzed me. There was a sort of ‘Desert Island Discs’ aspect to it, which I liked a lot. The result can be read here.
To the launch of a book co-authored by Henri Malosse, the President of the EESC’s Employers’ Group. Henri invited me to say a few introductory words, which I was very glad to do. The other author is Bruno Vever who was, for a long time, a very active member of the Committee. ‘Il Faut Sauver le Citoyen Européen’ is a timely book and an important one. In a nutshell, Plan A (the Constitutional Treaty) and Plan B (the Lisbon Treaty) haven’t worked. Even if Lisbon is duly ratified and implemented, it won’t work properly without much fuller involvement of the European citizen – a ‘Plan C’. Henri and Bruno, both militant Europeans, set out various proposals to encourage the European citizen back into a process that has become too technocratic and administrative. In effect, the EU needs a soul. This book doesn’t claim to have all the answers but it certainly raises all the right questions.
At lunchtime I went to The Centre (‘Brussels’ first think do tank’) to deliver a UACES (University Association for Contemporary European Studies) lecture with the title ‘Fleshing out the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on participatory democracy.’ The seminar, expertly chaired by a young German official from the Committee of the Regions (and fellow European University Institute doctorate holder), Justus Schonlau, was surprisingly well attended. You can ‘read’ my powerpoint presentation on my EESC webpages here. The good attendance has encouraged me to think about writing up the presentation into an article. If I did so, the title would be ‘an inconvenient question’ since, in my opinion, we don’t need the Lisbon Treaty to implement its provisions on a structured dialogue with civil society. So why aren’t we already doing it? Or are we? Whoops; that’s two inconvenient questions.