I have written several posts recently about the tragic end to a beautiful curtain of black poplars that were felled, no doubt for good economic reasons, by the landowner. These two images, of before and after, give an impression of what was lost and alos of what can never be recovered.
To round the week off, I went with Janos Toth (Various Interests Group, Hungary), President of the EESC’s Transport and Energy Section, to the European Parliament’s hemicycle to participate in the closing events of Velo-City 2009. The theme of the four-day conference was ‘Re-cycling cities’ and many city mayors were in attendance. On the last day European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas gave prizes for the three best Velo-City 2009 posters and then outlined what the Commission was doing to encourage ‘green travel’ of its officials. Janos Toth followed to say what, at a political level, the EESC was doing (strangely, along with several members of the European Parliament, we were the only other institution to participate). And then it was my turn to say, first of all, what our administration was doing and then, second, to launch our very own European Cycling Lexicon.
There was a very positive atmosphere in the hemicycle and all speakers got generously applauded. The Lexicon is a simple idea. It sets out, in 23 languages (including Gaelic), key terms for cyclists and cycling infrastructure. There are also images to point to, should pronunciation be difficult. It’s designed to help European citizens when cycling abroad to communicate easily in bicycle shops, travel agencies, railway stations, and so on. It’s free and can be ordered or downloaded from our website here. It got very warm applause indeed and afterwards I had to give interviews to several journalists and television teams, including one (gulp) in Italian. You can see general footage of the event at here.
The rest of the day was spent, anticlimactically, in one vast, long, slog to catch up on everything that had been building up during the Bureau, the Plenary and all the week’s other activities. I got home at gone nine in the evening. What a week!
In our garden there is a peony bush that produces the most spectacularly gorgeous flowers. Every year its vivid crimson globes suddenly open to reveal lush and luxurious masses of petals. It is a thing of great beauty and always a joy to behold. But every year it is subject to what I call the iron law of peonies. Its flowers are delicate and the petals are easily dislodged and, sure enough, every year, just after the peony has bloomed, wet and windy weather comes along, ravaging the flower heads and scattering the petals. Today, oily black clouds hovered over the city as if drawn by a cartoonist and when I got back home the bad weather had done its work and the ephemeral beauty of the peonies was over for another year.
I spent most of the afternoon in less comfortable surroundings; defending the Committee’s draft 2010 budget before the Council’s Budget Committee. These annual hearings with the other institutions, chaired by the future Swedish Presidency (since the final budget will be adopted during their mandate), are something of a ritualistic occasion. Normally, Secretaries General would not participate but, in the absence of a Director of Finance, I felt it was more appropriate for this important duty to come up to my level. Throughout our own Budget Group’s drafting process members were insistently aware of the need to submit an appropriately modest and reasonable draft budget, given the current economic crisis and the probability of prolonged recession. But, understandably (given that we have put in for an overall increase of 3.3 % and the projected inflation rate is 2.7%), the efforts we had made were not enough for the member states’ representatives. (Actually, our draft budget was among the more reasonable to be submitted by the institutions but that was neither here nor there.) National treasuries had clearly been given tough instructions. As I sat down I could hear blades being sharpened and blow torches being lit and the occasional thud of a baseball bat in glove. It’s best to be philosophical on these occasions, I thought to myself, as I staggered out some two-and-a-half hours later. It’s not easy for the smaller institutions and maybe particularly difficult for the two consultative committees. They are not big and indispensable like the European Commission and certainly not big enough to undertake major redeployment exercises without prejudicing vital functions. They don’t have a gentlemen’s agreement, as the Council and the Parliament do, not to look into each others’ administrative budgets. Because they are obliged to submit separate draft budgets (as distinct institutions) the scale of the savings they together achieve through their joint services are not as evident as they might be. One delegate referred to a sort of inverted beauty contest, with delegates competing to declare which of the two Committees is the uglier, but the Committees themselves are certainly not competing with each other in this way. The truth, as I told the delegates, is that the Committee’s administrations are smaller than most Commission Directorates-General. Indeed, if you take out the joint services (translation, IT, buildings), they are smaller than all of the Commission’s DGs. And if you add back in the joint services, who service our 688 members, help organise and house over 3,000 meetings per year, translate over half a million pages and help produce some 300 opinions per year, you could argue that the Committees are actually highly efficient organisations – especially if you also remember that the Committees’ members do not receive salaries from the EU. I limped back to my office, comforting myself with these thoughts…
I had lunch with our Czech members. I have had similar lunches with a number of such ‘national’ groupings (our members do not see themselves as belonging to national delegations). It’s my ambition to meet with all 27 of them. It’s a chance to discuss matters freely and amicably and for me to get to know my members better. But I have to admit that the Czech members have a special place in my affections. In 1989 I got to Prague whilst the Velvet Revolution was under way (see 13 March post). Later, when I was managing the Tempus Programme, I began to realise that such higher education exchange programmes were two-way affairs, particularly when it came to the Czech Republic. Last but not least, my younger brother is married to a Czech doctor and I have two Czech nephews and a Czech niece. I remain convinced that we ‘oldies’ (I mean from the EU15 member states) have not yet understood the full consequences of the 2004 and 2007 enlargements. Our new members (if one can still call them that) are full of dynamism and energy and expectations and ideas. It is a privilege and good fun to work with them.
The morning’s plenary session went smoothly. In the European Parliament there are always some Vice-Presidents better at presiding over complicated plenaries and voting sessions, and they are naturally preferred by the administration for those duties. (Complications arise, however, when Vice-Presidents erroneously believe that they are good and insist on chairing. When I was working with the Parliament one VP, who shall remain nameless, was renowned for the chaotic scenes he frequently created.) But the Parliament has 14 Vice-Presidents. We have just two, Irini Pari and Seppo Kallio, but both are very good and so we, as an administration, are very fortunate. This morning, in the absence of our President, Irini chaired and all went well. Among important topics discussed were the combat against deforestation, the impact of legislative barriers on the single market, promoting competitiveness. You can read about the plenary’s work here.
The official day began early, at eight-thirty, with a new round of interviews to recruit a director to one of the Committee’s two consultative works directorates. At midday I ran from there to a meeting of our Employers’ Group, whose President, Henri Malosse, had kindly invited me to participate in a round table discussion on gender equality and equal opportunities. The Chair, Madi Sharma, fiercely limited me to two minutes, but I think I got across my fundamental point, which is that for me, as Secretary General, assuring a better gender balance is not a matter of political correctness but, rather, of rational management. In the first place, a large number of empirical studies now exist to prove that organisations (whether in the public or private sectors) with more women in their higher management perform better. Second, as a representative bureaucracy, the administration of the European Economic and Social Committee has a duty to demonstrate a balanced composition. Last and not least, we are a small institution in competition with many others to recruit the brightest and the best. If we wish to recruit bright and good and ambitious women we must demonstrate to them that it would actually be to their advantage to come to us. From the round table I ran, with Vice-President Irini Pari, to a lunchtime reception organised to thank all of those involved in our visitors programme.
The whole policy is run by just one assistant, a highly conscientious and efficient Finnish colleague, and visitors are received entirely by volunteers, whether our members or our staff. The reception was the institution’s way, through its Vice-President with responsibility for communication, to recognise that work and say thank you. Thereafter, I had a quick lunch with one of our members working on minority rights issues. The Committee has been very active in this field. Its members, like my guest, are deeply concerned by a clear trend towards greater prejudice. I fear the June European elections will graphically underline this trend.
Then it was off to the plenary session (in the Joszef Antall building in the European Parliament), where the European Ombudsman addressed the members and explained to them his work in trying to encourage greater transparency and a more ‘citizen-friendly’ European Union. You can read his speech here. At around six I was called back to the Committee to sign some urgent documents. Whilst there, I was called by a furious member whose suitcase had been inadvertently taken by another member. Fortunately, the member who had taken the suitcase realised his error and returned it, but the understandably furious member had meanwhile lost her flight. I poured what oil I could on the troubled waters. The plenary went on, without major incident, until eight-thirty. I have noted the day down in some detail here because it gives a pretty good idea of the varied activities of the Secretary General.
In the evening I was invited by Vice-President Irini Pari to dinner with the European Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouras, who would be speaking to the Committee’s plenary session the next day. Diamandouras is a highly cultured man, a polyglot former professor whose English still sports a faint New York twang from the days of his studies at Columbia. ‘In the margins’, as they say, of the dinner, I and my counterpart, Ian Harden, dispatched quite a bit of formal business about communication channels, working methods, etc.
I invited the Committee’s previous President, Dimitris Dimitriadis, to lunch. I joined the Committee in 2003 and have worked closely with four Presidents: Roger Briesch, Anne-Marie Sigmund, Dimitris Dimitriadis and now Mario Sepi. I see them as repositories of experience and knowledge about the Committee and am always happy to listen and learn from them. Dimitris explained to me how he had adjusted back to ‘normal’ life after spending so much time on his presidential duties for two years. A businessman and entrepreneur, with a small family firm, it had taken him two months to re-establish the balance that had existed before he became President. I never stop stressing the point that our members are volunteers who receive no payment from the EU for what they do. Here was further evidence of the hidden costs they have to bear in order to carry out their duties. I should stress that he wasn’t complaining but whenever I hear these sorts of anecdotes I think that the Committee ought to be better known, if only because the enthusiastic work of its members provide a perfect antidote to the Euro-cynical view of the EU institutions as one big gravy train.
After the breakfast meeting I had a long chat with a consultant who is working with our Communication Group to devise an updated communication strategy for the Committee and then, a little bit later, I spoke to a group of Irish visitors from the Philanthropy Ireland Affinity Group, visiting the EU and the Committee under the aegis of one of our most active and respected members, Jillian Van Turnhout. My talk was followed by a discussion that I enjoyed very much. The guests expressed healthy scepticism about some of the trends I had described and I was reminded of something Peter Mandelson once said, that Euroscepticism is a misnomer. There is nothing wrong with scepticism, he argued, which just means helthy questioning of things, or an absence of unquestioning acceptance – it is cynicism, with its purely negative and destructive intention, that should be criticised.