More prosaically, I spent part of my afternoon chairing a meeting of the Committee’s IT Steering Committee. A lot of IT projects require long lead times and major investment, and because of that and a lack of governance structures, organisations quite frequently find themselves out of kilter with their IT services or confronted with what seem to be faits accomplis. The Steering Committee is there to provide that necessary level of governance and ensure that we have shared priorities and goals. Our IT applications are a major interface between the administration and our members and it was gratifying to see how major progress is being made across the board.
The FT magazine carried an interesting article last Saturday about the comparative importance and scale of the European Union. One in seven of the world’s 193 countries is in the EU. Its member states account for more than one-fifth of the world’s economic output and two-fifths of its exports. The EU’s combined gross domestic product is slightly more than that of the United States, double China’s and a little over three times that of Japan. Exports from the EU are respectively 40 per cent and 80 per cent greater than those from the US and China. The EU is also responsible for one quarter of the world’s R & D spending. But yesterday our Head of Communication gave an example of one interesting opposite trend which must be of concern to all European democrats. In the recent past ‘Brussels’ used to like to boast about how, with over 1,200 accredited journalists, it had the biggest concentration of journalists in the world (that is, bigger than Washington’s, of course). However, that figure now stands at 850. Most newspapers have been going through a protracted crisis, in part brought upon themselves by the free provision of web-based products. I suppose, additionally, it could be argued that so much information is now available on the web that Brussels-based journalists are not as necessary as they once might have been. However, it remains a great irony and a worry for democrats that on the eve of the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty the Brussels-based press corps is shrinking.
I am at Sofia airport on my way back to Brussels after a successful meeting (an annual affair) of the Presidents and Secretaries-General of the Economic and Social Councils in the Member States and the European Economic and Social Committee. The theme of the discussions was the current crisis and possible measures to alleviate the impact. Our hosts, the Bulgarian Economic and Social Council, were not only the epitome of hospitality but also the acme of industriousness. They tabled a rich analytical paper based on contributions from all of their fellow Councils as to what was happening in their respective Member States. At the end of the conference they unanimously adopted a declaration (to see it, click on ‘read more’). This cannot be binding on the Councils and Committee but accurately sums the conclusions of the participants in the meeting. The meeting, and the work behind it, was an excellent example of the good work such networks can do.
After the Bureau I attended the opening of an exhibition at the Committee entitled ‘I culori d’umani’, an event jointly organised, at the initiative of Henri Malosse, President of the Employers’ Group, by the Committee and the Association for a Corsican Foundation. The exhibition is composed of paintings and sculptures by artists promoting intercultural dialogue (the sub-title of the exhibition’s theme is ‘my country needs yours’). The President of the AFC is Jean-François Bernardini who is perhaps better known as the lead singer of the Corsican group I Muvrini. The group first made its name through the distinctive polyphonic vocals characteristic of their beautiful island though, it has to be said, more and more electronica (I suppose I mean electric guitars and synthesisers) has crept in over the years. Bernardini spoke poetically about the cause – intercultural understanding – he had come to promote and used a metaphor about the European integration process that I rather liked. The poor old industrious bumble bee’s scientific impossibility of flying has been done to death. Nevertheless, the European Union is a little like that; maybe it shouldn’t fly, but it does.
Normally the Committee’s Bureau meets on the eve of its plenary sessions. But twice a year it holds so-called ‘extraordinary meetings’, sometimes in Brussels, sometimes elsewhere (when linked to an event). This year the Committee will have held three such meetings, for in October, just a few days after the Irish people voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, President Mario Sepi convoked an additional extraordinary meeting of the Bureau to debate how the Committee should respond to the challenges and potential of the Treaty. This afternoon’s Bureau meeting followed up on that debate, basing its deliberations on a series of concrete proposals tabled by the President. More generally, the Bureau’s meeting was entirely devoted to forward-looking themes, with additional documents being debated and approved on the incoming European Commission’s five-year workplan and the Gonzalez’ reflection group on the Union’s medium-term future. As a headline, ‘consensus broke out’ would never sell newspapers but, nevertheless, gratifyingly, that’s what happened this afternoon.
In the evening we gorged on a musical feast. The Saint-Petersbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, under the skillful baton of Youri Termirkanov, played Lyadov, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. The Tchaikovsky in question was his concerto for violin and orchestra (opus 35), played by the extraordinary Julia Fischer. It was a memorable performance. She has a lot of physical presence and, when the occasion calls for it, is energetic in her bowing, but it’s all so very lyrical and fluid, and she proved in her encore, Bach’s Sarabande, that she can play as sweetly and as gently and as romantically as the best. Behind all of that lies brilliant technique and I was interested to learn that she also plays the piano to concert standard and that whenever she learns a violin part she learns it first on the piano.
In the afternoon we held a farewell ceremony for a number of colleagues leaving for well-earned retirements. These are always bitter-sweet occasions. It can never be an entirely happy occasion to lose good and much-appreciated colleagues. On the other hand, it can never be an entirely sad occasion to know that such colleagues are going off to enjoy themselves. One spritely lady, for example, has taken up scuba diving. (Instead of gazing at grey and blue files, she now gazes at many-coloured corrals!) I am always impressed on such occasions by the longevity of some colleagues’ careers. This time we said goodbye to two people who began work in the European institutions in 1975. 1975!