It became evident as the pre-session meeting went through the draft Bureau and plenary session agenda that we have a heavy but also rich few days ahead of us. At the end of these pre-session meetings I like to invite colleagues to inform everybody about recent important Committee activities. The first to speak was, of course, the Head of the President’s Cabinet, Andrea Pierucci, to inform everybody about Mario Sepi’s trip to China and the Autonomous Region of Tibet (see various posts) and its follow up. We heard about Joensuu and about the Committee’s activities focused around the Pallethouse (see previous posts). Of course, I knew about those, since I had been to both. But we also heard about: a joint panel discussion on employment and the social impact of the crisis in Latvia, co-organised by the Committee’s Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship in Riga (17 September); a public hearing on the working of the internal market that the Committee’s Single Market Observatory had organised in Sofia (18 September); a trade and development workshop that the EESC’s External Relations Section had organised in New Delhi (24 September); and the first meeting of the EESC’s joint consultative committee with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (25 September). When I hear about all of those activities I can’t stop my chest from swelling just a little. It is not just the themes and issues that are being covered, and not just the quality of the work that is undertaken on such occasions, but it is also the sheer professional excellence of the organisation. Few commercial organisations could organise so many different events in so many different locations with so many participants and so few staff and with such excellent results. Well done, everybody!
Where I began
Well, all right, I am exaggerating just slightly. Still, this was a heavy but very productive Monday. Pre-session Mondays are always hectic. The usual Directors’ meeting starts earlier and is followed by what we call a ‘pre-session’ meeting, bringing together all of the services involved in the preparation for the plenary session. As Secretary General, I chair both meetings. In the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where I begun my career, there was one such meeting very early every morning (it was called the ‘morning mass’), and somehow the pre-session always brings back memories of those ‘morning masses’, with the then Secretary General, Sir John Priestman, as the High Priest, murmuring intonations.
We were invited by very near and dear friends to the wedding of their son in a leafy Liège suburb. The weather today has been simply gorgeous; blue sky, warm sun, but fresh air – real Indian summer stuff. Arriving in Liège on the motorway, you get a grandstand view of Santiago Calatrava’s new Liège Guillemins station, a vast swoop of white steel and reinforced glass. I am sure the interior is beautifully spectacular, but from the outside it looks almost too big for its surroundings (note to self: catch train to Liège soon and check out inside). The wedding was very, very nice and hugely touching. The young couple’s friends sang (and sang very well) throughout the ceremony, accompanied by other friends on guitars. So we had Emilie (thank you, Emilie) singing Jacques Brel’s ‘Quand on a que l’amour’ with Christophe on guitar. It’s not the easiest of songs to sing, but Emilie pulled it off brilliantly. We also had Extreme’s ‘More than words’, with excellent harmonies, sung by Pascale and Romain (the latter on guitar) and Cindy Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’, sung by Emilie and Pascale, accompanied by Romain. The readings were well chosen, the parish priest was young and relaxed, and the congregation radiated happiness. Additional poignancy came from the fact that our friends had got married in the very same church just over thirty years ago. Coming back to the Brel, everybody was saying afterwards how it had given them goosebumps or brought tears to their eyes. If it were simply a poem, it would be brilliant (‘Quand on a que l’amour/Pour tracer un chemin/Et forcer le destin/A chaque Carrefour.’). You can hear the original version on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca8D52bF9OU&feature=related). The reception afterwards was in an old converted brick and stone farmhouse set in the rolling countryside around Liège that, with its tree-studded fields, reminded me a little of the English countryside. We got talking to a Belgian couple from Malmédy. Though we were speaking in French, she was a Germanophone. Her husband, from the same village, was a Francophone. Their children spoke German, but studied in French. The sun shone, the champagne sparkled, the happy buzz from the ceremony had been carried over to the reception. It’s on such occasions that I am reminded how pleasant and how interesting it is to live in Belgium.
Earlier this evening I met up with our composer friend, Nigel Clarke. Just before the summer break he asked me if I would like to write a poem to accompany a piece of music he had been commissioned to compose. Having never been ‘commissioned’ to write anything creative, I was deeply flattered and thrilled and set to with great gusto over the summer break. Nigel’s idea was to intersperse his six movements with six stanzas. He has a programme on his computer which enables him to play his compositions. This evening, for the first time, I heard the music that my poetry will accompany. Well, he is a true professional and his composition was great; full of wit and humour. Moreover, the poem and the music married well. The first public performance of both will be on 10th October and Nigel has now asked me whether I would be prepared to read out my poem personally. I am thrilled to bits but also slightly apprehensive. After all, it’s not quite the same territory as giving a talk about the European Union…
After the Metla House in Joensuu (Wednesday) and the ancestral temple from Quzhou at La Monnaie (yesterday) I completed the week with a visit to the Pallethouse at the Quai aux Briques. The Pallethouse was designed by two young Austrian architects, Andreas Claus Schnetzer and Gregor Pils, as an ecological and yet also aesthetical response to the challenge of cheap housing. Their basic idea is to recycle the ubiquitous wooden pallet, which otherwise is so often burnt, particularly in poorer parts of the world. Once properly insulated, using cheap local materials such as straw, the pallets are transformed into malleable building blocks. The European Economic and Social Committee brought the Pallethouse to Brussels as part of its contribution to Save It! week. Today, in a tent beside the Pallethouse, the Committee organised a public debate, centred around the Overshoot campaign (I’ll do separate posts in due course about Save It! and Overshoot!). Afterwards, the President of the EESC’s TEN Section, Janos Toth, introduced me to the architects. You can read more about the Pallethouse at www.pallethouse.at. In three days I have seen three very different wooden constructions in three very different contexts, but the underlying conclusion is clear; we should remember wood and use it more.
It’s Bike Friday again. This time we offered a bio breakfast to our faithful pedallers in our Belliard 68 building. I can sense that these and other associated initiatives are having a steady effect in changing habits. Last week the European Voice carried an article entitled ‘driving cars out of the Commission’. The article stated that the Commission had been ‘outflanked’ by the European Economic and Social Committee, since we have had a subsidy programme for public transport in place for almost one year now. Well, when I introduced the measure it wasn’t with any intention of outflanking other institutions. The article goes on to quote me as saying that the scheme had been a success – and that is the important thing: ‘We have managed to change a lot of people’s habits, and it is good for them, for the institution and also for the environment,’ he said. Indeed I did.
Temple, good nick, one previous owner
To La Monnaie this evening to see a ‘controversial’ production of Handel’s Semele, directed by Shanghai artist Zhang Huan. The undoubted star of the show is a 450 year-old Chinese wooden ancestral temple, bought by the artist from the widow of an executed man in Quzhou, and reconstructed, piece by piece, in the theatre. The production is preceded by a short film of eyewitness accounts from Quzhou, as the temple was dismantled and carried away. This film is touching (the widow sold it, reluctantly, so that she could buy her son a flat) and an almost complete distraction – the first of many in the production, as it transpired. A positive first: the ‘Les Talens Lyriques’ orchestra, under the baton of Christophe Rousset, was excellent and did Handel justice. Alas, some of the voices simply did not carry. And then there were those distractions. Perhaps the biggest was the east meets west aspect of the production, with Semele and June being Asian, if not Chinese, in origin and the characters all dressed in splendid Chinese costumes. In the programme notes Zhang Huan writes about the ‘transmigration’ of east and west, but if we were supposed to be being told something profound this particular punter didn’t get it. We also get one huge mirror, one pair of naked breasts, one pair of sumo wrestlers (Sumo? Isn’t that Japanese, Zhang?), some flying singers, one gigantic fake horse penis, one group of Mongolian singers and musicians, a paper dragon (but no firecrackers) and a gratuitous sex scene performed stoically and not very convincingly by various members of the chorus (one of them with dubious taste in the underwear department). Mmm…. Worse, the poor widow who had to sell the temple turns up as a humble member of the cast, sweeping the stage. What all of this gimmickry smacks of to me is lack of confidence and, indeed, Huan admits as much in the programme notes: ‘In all honesty, I don’t understand opera, but I like to do things out of the ordinary.’ It’s a shame that he didn’t let his set do the talking. Less distractions, more subtle lighting, more suggestion and less graphic depiction, would all have made this a more attractive (as opposed to distractive) production.
One of the reasons I came back from Joensuu was to preside over a working lunch composed of representatives of the administrations of the European Commission and of the EESC. In particular, I was happy to be able to welcome Fernando Frutuoso de Melo, the Director in the Commission’s Secretariat General with responsibility, among other matters, for relations with the European Economic and Social Committee. In general, we enjoy excellent relations with the Commission. A framework for those relations is provided by a cooperation agreement between the two institutions. Whilst both sides are agreed that we are not yet exploiting the full potential of the agreement, we are happy to note the considerable progress that has been made. Such short-but-sweet occasions also give us an opportunity to fine tune (on programming, for example) and to swap political intelligence.
On the flight back from Joensuu I finished Charles Webb’s The Graduate (published 1963). I’d seen the film, of course (who hasn’t?) and can whistle the Simon and Garfunkel tune, but I was encouraged to read the book by Penguin’s decision to re-issue it (I read what will doubtless be the foreward to the new edition, penned by Hanif Kureishi and ‘pre-published’ in the Guardian). If there were an annual prize for funniest first chapter in a book, Charles Webb would have won it in 1963, and it’s all done with dialogue (which is maybe why it translated so well to the big screen). But who has heard of Charles Webb? I have a theory that America turned out so many excellent novelists in the first decades after the second world war that there simply wasn’t space enough for them all in the public consciousness. One of my all-time favourite novels, for example, is Leave Me Alone, by David Karp (1957). David Who, you ask? Look him up and read him. You won’t be disappointed.
Over lunch I chatted with, among others, one of our Estonian members, Meelis Joost (Various Interests Group), about the conflicts this region has known. Joensuu is a sort of Finnish Strasbourg. It was, after all, founded by Czar Nicolas I of Russia. The region of Karelia was one of the major theatres of conflict during Finland’s Winter War. Much of its territory was ceded to Russia when the two sued for peace in 1940. Only some of this was regained when war between the two broke out again in 1941. (Joensuu, incidentally, lost many of its old wooden buildings to bombardments during those conflicts.) That whole period was simply horrible for Finland, a plucky nation stuck between two lumbering elephants. But consider this. Only three European capitals were not occupied during the 1939-45 conflict; London, Moscow and Helsinki. Melis has lived under Russian/Soviet rule, and so certainly knows better than me the sort of arrangements that have to be made when the choice is, to put it brutally, between being crushed or being squeezed. He told me of a rich irony. Under Soviet rule, Estonians had to do their military service. If they were unlucky in the lottery, they could end up in Afghanistan. Now, young Estonians must still do national military service and they could still end up in Afghanistan. The difference is that you have to volunteer to go, but Estonia is still there…