In the evening, the President hosted a working dinner to discuss how the Committee could further build on its Programme for Europe. The Committee is already hard at work on a follow-up to the Programme in the form of a contribution to the preparations for the Copenhagen climate change summit. This follow-up resolution will be debated and adopted in our 4-5 November plenary session. But beyond this there is a larger window of opportunity beckoning for the Committee. The newly re-appointed President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, already set out his political guidelines on 3 September. These include broad strategic goals such as making a successful exit from the current crisis, leading on climate change, developing new sources of sustainable growth, advancing a ‘people’s Europe’ and opening a new era for a ‘Global Europe’. In the coming months, Barroso and his new team will have to translate these broad goals into policy proposals for the Commission’s five-year mandate and also for each year’s work programme. Now, then, is the moment for the Committee to make its voice heard. Where does organised civil society see the priorities in all of this? And that is what President Sepi had invited members and staff to discuss. It was a long day but a very productive one.
The plenary also debated and adopted an exploratory opinion drafted by Jillian van Turnhout (Irish, Various Interests Group) on alcohol-related harm in European society. An ‘initiative’ opinion, like Lars Nyberg’s (see previous post) is one that the Committee adopts of its own initiative because it feels strongly that civil society organisations have something to say on a matter. An exploratory opinion, on the other hand, is an opinion asked of the Committee by another institution or the Presidency – in this case, the Swedish Presidency – because there is a possibility of legislation and the institution/Presidency wants to know what civil society organisations think on the matter before going further. Van Turnhout’s opinion made for sobering reading (pardon the pun). Harmful alcohol use is the third biggest cause of early illness and death in the EU. Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for approximately 195,000 deaths a year due to accidents, liver diseases, cancers and the like. Van Turnhout, who is Chief Executive of the Irish Childrens’ Rights Alliance, placed particular emphasis on protecting children. Research shows that almost 9 million children in the EU are adversely affected in some way by alcohol. Because of this, the opinion calls for a reduction in the exposure of children to alcohol marketing as well as more effective regulation of the availability and distribution of alcohol, as self regulation in this area is not enough. And if you go into most corner shops in the EU you’ll see the truth of that.
As well as set-piece debates with guest speakers, the plenary session also saw the debate and adoption of a number of significant opinions. One of these was an ‘initiative’ opinion drafted by a Swedish Employees’ Group member, Lars Nyberg, on the Larosière Group’s recommendations (on the future of European regulation and supervision of financial markets). The Committee’s opinion endorses Larosière’s main recommendations but widens the analysis from a relatively technical angle to include all of the economy and makes additional recommendations in that context. For example, the Committee argues that membership of the three spearate authorities for banks, investment funds and securities markets should not be limited to bankers but should include representatives from broader civil society, from consumers (customers) through to trades unions. It wants new financial products to be assessed by a monetary authority before they are marketed. It argues that auditors should play a more important role; in particular, effective auditing could have curtailed the spread of risky instruments. Perhaps most controversially, the Committee’s opinion opts for a Tobin-type tax on financial transactions, with proceeds going to development aid.
In the afternoon the EESC’s plenary session got under way with a visit from José Manuel Barroso, newly confirmed as the next Commission President and also fresh back from Pittsburgh. He had come to participate in a debate about employment and vocational training in the context of the current economic crisis. Other guests for the debate included Eva Uddén Sonnegard, the Swedish Secretary of State for Employment, Bruno Coquet, President of the European Committee on Employment, and the Directors of the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Aviana Maria Bulgarelli), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Jorma Karppinen) and the OECD’s Director for Employment, John Martin. The conclusions from Pittsburgh were clear; recovery is going to take a few years yet. From the EU’s point of view, we must do what we can to maintain employment but, at the same time, we must think, in Barroso’s words, about ‘what sort of Europe we want to have when we come out of the end of the tunnel.’ Clearly, the Lisbon Strategy and its successor remain key foundations for such a vision. All speakers in the debate underlined the importance of mutual solidarity. Said Barroso; ‘we must work together or we’ll be navigating in a sea where the EU is marginalized.’ One observation that caught my ear, as it were, was made by Peter Clever (a German EESC member from the Employers’ Group) during the debate. Underlining the EU’s relative maturity this time around, he pointed out how what would previously have been a debate on the theme of ‘what are we going to do about unemployment?’ had become a debate on the theme ‘what are we going to do to stop people losing their jobs?’ Or, as Minister Sonnegard put it, ‘Social Europe begins with a job.’
I had a long chat this week with Jane Morrice, one of our Northern Irish members. We spoke about all manner of things but we also spoke about coincidences, and the meaning of these. Jane, a former journalist, kindly shared with me a written account of an extraordinary set of coincidences that she had experienced. I recounted to her one or two similar sequences that I had experienced. Indeed, so strongly did I feel about these experiences at the time that I was thinking of trying to bring out an edited collection of such accounts. That was before Paul Auster published his (disappointing, to my mind) The Red Notebook (1995). Jane’s account is so beautifully written that it has reawoken the idea in me. What makes these accounts so interesting is, first of all, that there is not one coincidence but several. Secondly, the persons concerned effectively make the chain of coincidences ‘work’ by following on from one to another where maybe somebody else would not have made associations or gone any further. Third, there are perceived meanings to these coincidence sequences or, at the least, we read meanings into them. In my own case, for example, I was instrumental, through a series of coincidences, in bringing a Canadian family back into contact with the grave of their aviator brother, who had died during the Second World War. Until I came along, the exact whereabouts of his grave had been unknown, but I couldn’t have known that. The meaning of all this, I later realised, was that I had never visited my late brother’s grave since his burial. By bringing other siblings back together I was then able to rediscover my own brother’s grave and hence confront all of the grief that had been salted away. If any of you out there have stories about significant sequences of coincidences, I’d be glad to hear about them. They are a profoundly human experience.
This morning I gave a talk to a group of managers, journalists, diplomats, civil servants and NGO representatives coming from France, Belgium, the UK, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Venezuela. The visit had been organised by the European Centre for Public Affairs as part of an overall course on ‘public affairs in the New Europe’. I confess, as I set off for the engagement I did wonder what had possessed me to do such a thing on quite such a busy day in quite such a busy period. Very soon, though, I remembered. We denizens of ‘Brussels’ run the constant risk of losing touch with the ‘real world’ on whose behalf we are working. I have always believed that the best way for people like me to keep in touch with the ‘real world’ is … to keep in touch with it! Such speaking engagements are an easy way to enter into dialogue with people and practitioners and the questions I had to field at the end of my talk did not disappoint in that context. Indeed, I think all denizens of ‘Brussels’ should be obliged to speak to the real world on a fairly regular basis.
No matter how busy my life has become, I have always attached great importance to such activities as parent-teachers’ meetings. I may turn up late, but generally I manage to get there. This evening, however, it was simply impossible. I was still sitting beside my President in the Bureau long after the PT meetings had begun. It wasn’t serious in the sense that my better half was there but, still, it was a price to pay and took the gloss just a little off of my feeling of satisfaction about the way the Bureau meeting went.
We had the Bureau meeting all afternoon and because of a heavy agenda, late into the evening. Despite the length and some passionate discussions, the meeting went well. From my point of view as SG it went particularly well because the Bureau appointed by a large majority a new Director for the new Directorate of Consultative Works in the new establishment plan for the Committee. Little-by-little, we are moving to a full implementation of that new establishment plan (I had always promised to implement it gradually). The new Director, Alan Hick, is somebody who knows the Committee and its consultative function like the back of his hand and he can clearly play an important role in reinforcing that consultative function in the context of the new Parliament, the new Commission and – who knows? – maybe a new Treaty…
Today, my Committee of the Regions counterpart, Gerhard Stahl, and myself were able proudly to put out a general announcement to all of our staff and members. Our two institutions, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, have just been awarded the ‘Ecodynamic Enterprise’ Label, together with the maximum three stars accompanying the label, putting us in the top category in terms of environmental performance (only 14 of the 124 organisations awarded the label have achieved three stars). The labelling scheme was launched by the Brussels Region Environment Agency in 1999 to encourage good environmental practices in the private and public sectors. The judges were impressed by our waste sorting and recycling policies, our mobility and public transport policy, our energy efficient buildings and our energy savings, our use of unbleached, recycled paper, the organic products available in our cafeteria, the energy savings we have achieved so far, and so on. Of course, we can – and will – do better, but this was a proud moment.
Yesterday evening and this morning I attended the Budgets Committee of the European Parliament. The Committee was voting on the first reading amendments to the 2010 budget. I went just in case there were questions (one never knows) and out of respect for this arm of the budgetary authority. But I must say it is also a pleasure to return to my old stamping ground and an institution for which I’ll always have a soft spot as well as much academic interest. In the end, a series of helpful amendments, tabled by the rapporteur, Mr Manka, went through with a very large majority. Equally, a series of unhelpful amendments, not tabled by the rapporteur (let’s just leave it at that) were rejected by the same very large majority. All-in-all, it was a good result for the Committee. But it was an enjoyable experience for more than that reason. Alain Lamassoure, the chairman of the CoBu (the Committee’s French acronym) is a really fun chairman to watch at work. He is witty, professional, good-natured and efficient, all at the same time. A good chairman changes the whole atmosphere of such Committees which, because of the nature of their work, can seem very technocratic. His website is here, by-the-way.