The annual staff reports exercise is slowly but surely coming to an end and shortly the subsequent promotions exercise will start. The staff reports exercise has been particularly heavy for me this year. In addition to my direct reports, I have had to act as assessor for colleagues in the two directorates for which I am currently acting director and for some colleagues in our ‘joint services’ (so called because they are shared and pooled with our sister institution, the Committee of the Regions). In short, I had forty-five staff reports to draft. That meant roughly forty-five interviews, followed by forty-five drafting exercises. But my role was not yet over. I am also the appeal assessor and I therefore have spent quite a bit of time this week in hearings with nine assessors and nine appellants. And now, today, the procedure is at last over and I am free! But don’t misunderstand me. In the good old bad old days there was no obligation on assessors to hold interviews with their staff and there was no real obligation on staff to sit down and talk through their performance, their objectives and their future. The new procedure therefore represents considerable progress and I welcome it. It was just a little bit heavy for me this year…
In October last year the EESC adopted an own-initiative opinion (rapporteur: Jane Morrice – that’s her in the picture) on the role of the EU in the Northern Ireland peace process (read the opinion here). The debate at the time was very moving, involving speakers from all parts of the ‘island of Ireland’ but it was also very revealing, for the EU clearly played a far more important role in Northern Ireland than is commonly recognised. This was confirmed yesterday in an article (‘Northern Ireland’s European Peace’) written by Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, on E!Sharp magazine’s website. Powell writes: ‘The border between Ireland and the UK just came to mean much less once we were both in the EU. This was particularly brought home to me when Ian Paisley, the fire-breathing DUP leader, came to see Tony Blair in the midst of the 2005 Foot and Mouth crisis in the UK and in an attempt to take advantage of the looser restrictions on movement of cattle in the south than in the north said, “Our people may be British but our cows are Irish”.’ I can just imagine the scene.
This morning I was busy practising the Secretary General’s essential art of being in two places at once. In the first place, I helped greet Felipe Gonzalez, now chairman of the reflection group on the future of Europe, who was the guest speaker at an extraordinary meeting of the Bureau. I consider Gonzalez to be a historic figure, and it was a privilege to meet him and talk briefly. I was reminded of just how far back his history goes when he explained that he had first met our President, Mario Sepi, at a trades union conference in Florence over thirty-five years ago, when Franco was still in power in Spain. I then had to dash to the Berlaymont for my first meeting together with the Secretaries-General of the EU institutions. Three of us were new (Klaus Welle, from the EP, Eduardo Ruis-Garzia from the Court of Auditors, and me), and there was a sense of a new term (or of new pupils in the classroom), but we were made very welcome and everybody settled immediately into the discussions. Afterwards (the meeting lasted an hour-and-a-half) I dashed back to the Jacques Delors building and caught the tail end of the Bureau discussion. One of Gonzalez’s telling points was that, although the iron curtain fast fell and Europe seemed to adapt rapidly to the new world order, it was only now truly adjusting to all of the consequences of those heady years of peaceful revolution, democratisation and enlargement.
I was ‘up’ at the writers’ group last night. The protagonist in my ‘saga’ has survived atrocities in his home village and the fall of Namur and Antwerp, and has ended up at the quayside in Ostend, just as really happened to so many refugees back in 1914 (see the image). The submission got a light going-over – entirely deserved. At the moment, though, I consider it a minor miracle that I have managed to get my protagonist – and my story – so far.
If I have been quiet about sport for a while now, it’s because there have been so many fine sporting occasions in the recent past. Think back, for example, to the cliffhanger of a match between Wales and Ireland that brought the six nations to a thrilling close with a 15-17 scoreline, leaving Ireland deserving their Triple Crown and Grand Slam (their first since 1948). It may not always have been the best of rugby, but it was a magnificent sporting occasion. In the Champions League there have been some excellent matches, but the one that surely takes the biscuit (so far, at least) was the 4-4 draw between Chelsea and Liverpool. Talk about a goal fest! (I shall refrain from mentioning Liverpool’s 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid – OK, then, I won’t refrain.) Just this Saturday, when I saw the UK Premier League half time scores on the internet, I consoled my Liverpool-supporting daughter that, with Man Utd 0-2 down against Spurs, Liverpool would be top of the table again. I spoke too soon. When I looked at the full time scores, Man Utd had won 5-2 – yes, that’s right; 5-2. Extraordinary stuff. And yet…. and yet… could this be Barça’s year? They have been beautiful to watch and surely have the most silkily dangerous front three… I am certainly looking forward to Tuesday and Wednesday evening.
Somehow I managed to read one-and-a-half books this weekend. The first, My Swordhand is Singing, by Marcus Sedgwick, was warmly recommended to me by my son and it is indeed a cracking good read. I won’t give too much away by saying that it’s all about nosferati and ‘hostages’ in Romania. Not recommended for the younger reader. I followed this up with half of Free Agent, by Jeremy Duns. This is exciting for two reasons. The first is that it is, quite simply, a cracking good read, set in the deepest recesses of the Cold War. The second, though, is that Jeremy was, until a few years ago, a member of my writers’ group. Like my (3 April) post about Edith, here was another project which I had seen evolving and maturing into a published work. Jeremy, who won a three-book deal, has already finished the second and researched the third. There’s hope for us all yet!
A while back now, the Guardian newspaper published an article with the title ‘Our guilty secrets: the books we only say we’ve read.‘ This immediately reminded me of the scene in David Lodge’s Changing Places, where two academics play a game called ‘Humiliation’. An obnoxious American professor of English literature wins the game by admitting he hasn’t read Hamlet, but because of that loses his job. But the article also reminded me of my own not-so-guilty secret. One of my A level set texts in English literature was Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Well, here’s my secret; I read virtually every book by Thomas Hardy except Tess. In rapid succession I read Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Wessex Tales and Jude the Obscure. My intention was entirely noble; I had wanted to read around the set text. But by the time I had read that little lot I had severely overdosed on Hardy and just couldn’t face yet another weighty tome. It took me another ten years before I finally managed to read Tess, but it didn’t matter. I passed the exam with flying colours – probably because I was able to lard my script with quotations from so many other works by the great Wessex author.
There is a witty piece in Tony Barber’s FT blog this morning about the use of the euro. He points out that, despite official frowning on unilateral adoption of the euro, Montenegro and Kosovo unilaterally adopted it on 1 January 2002, thus providing some protection from the financial crisis. But the chief economist at Montenegro’s central bank does not recommend unilateral adoption of the euro by the Baltic states, no matter how much they might suffer. So, as Barber summarises: ‘a country that is outside the EU and outside the eurozone but uses the euro, is telling countries that are inside the EU but outside the eurozone not to use the euro, while the EU and eurozone let countries that are outside themselves use the euro but won’t extend the privilege to countries inside the EU but outside the eurozone.’ Got that?
In Italy, the telefonino reigns supreme. It doesn’t matter how important the meeting, nor how exclusive; some, if not all, of the participants will have their mobile phones switched on, they will receive calls (and they will answer them) and their ring tones will be loud. In Ligetti’s ‘anti-opera’, Le Grand Macabre (see 29 March post), the conductor used car horns. As I sat in the Palazzo San Giacomo, listening to the conference participants frequently interspersed with ring tones, it suddenly occurred to me that if Ligeti were still alive he would write mobile phone ring tones into his music.
Some time back (22 February) I posted an entry about a study on the institutional consequences of enlargement. One clear consequence, the study found, has been a steady increase in the size of the EU institutions’ traditional decision-making bodies. In the case of the EESC, its Bureau now stands at 39 members. As one Bureau member put it, the Bureau can tend to function more as an assembly than as an executive body – and most if not all EU institutions have seen similar developments. A second strong consequence, therefore, has been the development of smaller, informal bodies within the formal ones. These new bodies act as filtering and preparatory bodies and provide strategic impetus. In the EESC’s case, the body concerned is known as the ‘enlarged Presidency’. It consists of the President, the two Vice-Presidents, the three Group Presidents and the Secretary General. Twice a year, the enlarged Presidency holds a seminar, traditionally away from the distractions of Brussels, and that is what took us to Naples. Thus, the formal agenda consisted of such strategic discussion points as the follow-up to the Programme for Europe; the Committee’s role and contribution to the forthcoming Employment Summit in Prague (6-7 May); preparations for the debate in next week’s extraordinary Bureau meeting with Felipe Gonzalez, President of a high-level Reflection Group on the Future of the EU; and the Committee’s relationship with and administrative arrangements for the national economic and social councils, the Committee’s Liaison Group with European-level civil society organisations, and the International Association of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions (known by its French acronym, AICESIS). And that’s how we spent Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. As is par for the course, a lot of informal business was conducted ‘in the margins’ of the meeting. There was some culture in there also. We had two interpreters to ‘whisper’ in the ears of those of our participants who couldn’t understand French or English. One of them was the daughter of an archeologist who throughout her childhood had been the Head of the French Archeological Society’s Naples Office, and so she had known various places of antiquity – Pompei, Herculaneum, Paestum – as they were uncovered. It was fascinating listening to her childhood recollections over the breakfast table. After a quick buffet lunch, it was back to the airport and Brussels and an evening’s work with the files. Infuriatingly, the weather had been fine in the north.