There was a lot in today’s newspapers about the British poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who was the first laureate to agree to a fixed term of ten years, rather than a lifetime appointment. His time is now up, and it will clearly be a great liberation for him. In the Guardian newspaper today they published a previously unpublished poem by Motion, Passing On, about the death of his father. It is a beautiful poem, the experience it describes immediately recognisable to all those who have had that sad experience. Please go and read it, here. The nation may be losing a laureate (with much speculation about who’ll be next) but clearly it will be regaining fully a poet at the height of his powers.
In the evening to the second music and literature evening (see 6 December 2008 post). This time we had Telemann (a flute solo), Brahms (the trio in E flat for piano, violin and horn), Mozart (andante in C for flute and piano), Bozza (a wonderful flute solo). Many thanks to our hosts, Stella and hubbie, and the musicians, including Kristine Coreil on horn, from across the Pond, and the dazzling Dirk Herten from La Monnaie. Thanks also to the writers; on this occasion John Boyle, Sebastian Remoy, Leila Rasheed, Jeannette Cook, Tonnie Walls and yours truly. All day my family had, quite rightly, been teasing me because my first published poem had arrived. It’s in a volume called ‘Awakening Inspiration’ (I know – about time!), published by Poetry Now at the Forward Press (ISBN: 978-184418-483-5; don’t all rush at once). It nestles at the bottom of page 80, crushed below a mightier poem, and all the 70-odd poems are in small font. Still, it is an edited and selected (select, maybe?) anthology and I can now risk calling myself a – ahem – published poet.
In the evening to the Librairie Quartiers Latins for the vernissage for my better half’s latest exhibition, ‘l’oeil est un voyageur inculte’. This time there are words as well as images (a favourite frontier for the artist in question) and the works have been hung cleverly to interact in an organic fashion with the books and shelves of the bookshop around them. There was a good turnout of friends and acquaintances and, it seemed to me, a fair amount of artistic networking. All-in-all, a pleasant evening.
To the EESC’s Communication Group to listen to a presentation by Francesca Ratti, Director General for Information in the European Parliament, about the information campaign that has been commissioned for this June’s European elections. The Parliament’s administration always finds itself in a strange and potentially awkward situation in election years. Parliamentary and governmental administrations may of course publicise election dates and encourage people to register to vote (where that is necessary) and they may also encourage people to use their vote. But, to quote the old adage, people don’t vote for parliaments and the EP’s specificity provides additional challenges in that regard: no government stands or falls on the results; it is difficult to imagine pan-European Obama’s materialising; and campaigns take place in numerous languages. This year, as Ratti explained, the Parliament has turned to a Berlin-based advertising agency which has come up with an ingenius approach. The Financial Times recently ran an article which describes the campaign in some detail (link here), but basically the campaign’s strongest theme is that there is a genuine choice involved and that votes in the European elections do have consquences. The campaign’s cleverness is in getting that message across without entering into partisan distinctions. A strong European Parliament, legitimised through high turnout, is the best guarantee of the European Union’s democratic future. So, if you have a vote please use it!
In the evening to the beuatifully refurbished Flagey complex to listen to the Ictus Ensemble and the Neue Vocalsolisten from Stuttgart performing ‘Matra‘, a mixture of pieces derived from tantrique chants and madrigals and using the human voice as instrument alongside other instruments. Intriguing and beautiful and brilliantly performed.
When, during the Delors years, I was in the European Commission’s Secretariat General there was a recurring debate within the Commission about its relationship with national parliaments. At one stage, Delors wanted to nominate a Commission member with specific responsibility for relations with national parliaments, but he was soon convinced otherwise. The constant refrain we heard at the time was that the European Commission could only deal with ‘European level’ institutions – in other words, the European Parliament and the Council. To deal with national parliaments would be to interfere in national politics, so the argument went. It’s all water under the bridge now. The role of national parliaments is already enshrined in the Treaties but would be consolidated by the Lisbon Treaty’s implementation. I write all of this because today I was visited by Evelyne Pichenot, a member of the EESC but also of the French Economic, Environmental and Social Council. She is currently drafting an opinion for the French Council about the EU’s consultative process. She wants to stress the importance of proper and structured consultation of civil society organisations. She thinks that maybe national economic and social councils could also be involved in European Union-level consultative processes via the European Economic and Social Committee. I think you’ll see the parallel. All too frequently there is a fallacious distinction between the ‘European’ and the ‘national’. In reality, it’s all one seamless whole.
The EESC’s Budget Group met in parallel with the President’s conference and I had to perform that most difficult of tricks – being in two places at one time. Fortunately, the meetings were in adjacent rooms. I darted back several times during the day but I was happily with the Budget Group when it unanimously approved the draft 2010 budget. Readers of this blog will know that I have been trying to put in place a new procedure for the establishment of the Committee’s draft budgets and also a new relationship between the administration and the EESC’s members. In that context, the Budget Group’s decision today was of great symbolic importance. ‘You’re on the right track,’ was the basic message.
Yesterday (Monday) evening I met with a young German ethnologist, Jan Linhart, who was in the audience when I gave my Centre/UACES lecture about fleshing out the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on participatory democracy (see previous post) and had asked to see me to discuss his project. He and a few like-minded friends have been developing a sort of electronic agora or, as they describe it, an inter-active, on-line platform; a non-profit, open source, Web 02 project. The project, dubbed ‘ECHO’, is still embryonic, but it, or something like it, could be revolutionary. I was brought up to believe in parliamentary democracy and the importance of political parties as aggregators. Over the past ten years I have come to recognise the potential of participatory democracy and, in particular, the value of structured dialogue (‘civil dialogue’) with civil society as important complements to representative democracy. The Lisbon Treaty would also, in the form of the citizens’ initiative, introduce an element of direct democracy. But the web and the internet have opened up vast new possibilities for the aggregation and expression of the popular will that our establishments have not even really begun to address properly. I sometimes wonder if we are not shoring up a democratic house on shifting technical sands. As Jan Linhart put it, ‘If it’s not our project then it will be somebody else’s.’ By coincidence, in the next day’s edition of the Guardian newspaper, there was an article about a new Fabian Society pamphlet regarding online campaigning. In the pamphlet, Nick Anstead and Will Straw explain that ‘In the networked society citizens do not require the institutional scaffolding offered by parties to engage in political activity. Anyone can set up a simple campaigning group on an issue with a few clicks of a mouse.’ Under Jan Linhart’s model, citizens would not need to be partisan at all, but simply have and express views. Food for thought.
Today the Committee hosted a major conference on the current economic crisis (the full title was ‘Let’s climb out of this crisis together and opt for progress!’). The European Commission’s President was, alongside our own President, Mario Sepi, the opening speaker. Two other Commission members, Vladimir Spidla and Joaquin Almunia, bolstered the proceedings. The debates were impassioned, the contributions rich and we have never had more television cameras or journalists in the house. Among the participants were the Presidents and Secretaries General of national economic and social councils, giving accounts of how the national implementation of the recovery plan looks to them. President Barroso reiterated the importance he attaches to the 7 May Prague employment summit and the contribution he has invited the EESC to make to it. Just one Barroso soundbite, translated from the French (where it works better); ‘we need more action and less gesticulation’. There’s a full account of the proceedings, speeches, press release, etc at the EESC’s website here. This was easily one of the Committee’s most successful conferences. It is just a shame that it was on such a sad topic.
Our President received a letter (dated 13 March) today from the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. The letter explains that the Commission President would not only want the Committee to be involved in the preparation for the 7 May Employment Summit but would like the EESC to make a contribution to it. ‘I would find it particularly interesting,’ writes Barroso, ‘if the Committee could put at out disposal all of its experience as an intermediary between the European institutions and European civil society.’