Today I had the privilege of paying a final tribute to Jan Olaf Hausotter. The BBC headlines were ‘snow brings chaos to German motorways’, and that was something of an understatement. We battled through blizzards and blockages, with crashes and overturned lorries all about us. Once, the autobahn was closed to allow the snowploughs to do their work, but thanks to the heroic driving skills of Pierpaolo, we made it and, though we missed the first part of the funeral ceremony, the epic nature of our journey (over six hours) somehow seemed fitting for the occasion. Hungen is a small town in the Lande of Hesse, in the centre-west of Germany. The Lutheran chapel was crammed to the rafters. There were terribly touching tributes from Jan’s fiancé, Caroline, from his brother and sister, his childhood friends, his university friends, a room mate from Fletcher, and his school teacher. A heroically large contingent of his Bruges contemporaries had made it through the blizzard and I had the honour of speaking from the Bruges perspective (the text is below). There was beautiful music; Teleman, Bach and Debussy. And because of all of this there was a general recognition among us all that Jan Olaf Hausotter had been very special. A wonderfully eloquent metaphor, in English, came from his Fletcher contemporary, who likened individuals to trees whose branches intertwined. Jan, said the contemporary, had left behind a forest of friends. A UN flag was draped over Jan’s coffin, and that was perhaps the most eloquent of symbols. For throughout the world, similar ceremonies of grief and remembrance are surely being held, in places much like Hungen, to commemorate the very many UN personnel who, like Jan, lost their lives in trying to make a difference to the world.
Over the past two evenings Valery Gergiev treated us to some very special Mariinsky magic at the Palais des Beaux Arts. Yesterday, 27th January, we heard a sublime rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, followed by Borodin’s 2nd Symphony, and rounded off with Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite, Sheherazade. Tonight, it was a beautiful piece of Mussorgsky, ‘Dawn on the Moscow River’, that I had never heard, followed by Shostakovich’s First Symphony and then Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. It was a wonderful display of the riches of Russian composition and of the mastery of the Mariinsky orchestra but also of the genius of Gergiev. Watching him conduct is a real spectator sport, with his big hands and fluttering fingers. It is, a friend said, as though each finger controlled a different section of the orchestra. He has a number of tics. One is to pull closed the lapels of his jacket, as though it has suddenly got cold in the concert hall. Another is a hangover from the time when he had constantly to claw back his then long hair. The hair has gone, but Gergiev still makes the same clawback motion after periods of energetic conducting. Listening to the music, one can identify similar tics – Tchaikovsky’s distinctive strings, for example, but in the Mussorgsky piece I could hear exactly the same musical depiction of Moscow’s church bells as he was later to use to such brilliant effect in Boris Godunov.
At nine this morning I was on protocol duty downstairs, waiting to welcome Dutch Princess Laurentien to the ‘art and climate change’ event I wrote about yesterday. The security services stood beside me as we awaited the Princess and her escort. At about five past nine a Mini with Dutch number plates drove into sight and parked by our back door. Out popped the princess, who had driven herself. She has always been committed to literacy (she is the UN Envoy for Literacy) and cultural causes and generated considerable media interest last year when she published a children’s book, Mr Finney and the World on its Head, designed to educate children to be environmentally aware. It was a lovely and unepexcted start to a very, very busy day.
The European Economic and Social Committee’s headquarters building is a busy place. There are always meetings – of study groups, of sections – and conferences going on, and many of them are very interesting. As Secretary General, I realise I cannot be everywhere, but sometimes I have great pangs of regret about not being able to attend or participate in particular events. That happened today with regard to a very special event on art and climate change co-organised by the Committee’s Sustainable Development Observatory and EUNIC (the EU National Institutes for Culture) and the European Commission (the Directorates-General for the Environment and for Research), together with Tipping Point and the British Council. No less than 130 artists, scientists and policy-makers came together for two days and just a month after Copenhagen to debate this topic using a variation of the ‘open space’ method in which our Committee has become expert. If you want to get a flavour of the event, though, take a quick look at the blog of our Vice-President for Communication and Culture, Irini Pari, here.
In the early afternoon I accompanied the Vice-President of the EESC, Seppo Kallio, who happens also to be the President of the EESC’s Budget Group, to the European Parliament to meet the EP’s rapporteur for the institutions’ budgets for 2011. This was a courtesy call designed to elicit early indications from Parliament’s side about the likely parameters within which the institutions will probably have to work in drafting their 2011 budgetary bids. The landscape is changing. The new budgetary procedure established by the Lisbon Treaty provides for only one reading, where once there were two, and as matters currently stand the smaller institutions will be excluded from the conciliation procedure foreseen thereafter. On the policy side, none of the institutions could anticipate the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in their draft 2010 budgets last year and so now they are considering whether to introduce supplementary budget requests. This is a particularly important issue for the EP, which has seen its powers grow considerably, but it is also important for the other bodies. Then there is the ongoing crisis. Even though there may be perfectly legitimate and strong reasons for requests for big increases in 2011, the institutions know already that the member states in the Council would find it very difficult to approve large increases in a crisis year. So; in a sense it’s the usual balancing act between calculated real requirements and political possibilities, but with even greater rigour than in previous years.
A few minutes ago I was informed by his family that Jan’s body, recovered from the rubble of the UN’s Haiti mission, had been formally identified. As with any sudden and unexpected death (I am sure), it is difficult to accept that somebody so recently, physically present (in my office on 4 January, to be precise) and full of such enthusiasm and a simple desire to do good in the world could be snatched away so abruptly and so brutally. Having lost a sibling myself back in the mists of time, I have an inkling of the profound grief that his family, his fiancée and his friends must be going through now. It is terrible to think, as we must, of that grief multiplied a hundred, maybe two hundred, thousand times. So many people, so many good people, have been lost prematurely and cruelly. But here I would like to pay simple tribute to Jan, a beautiful human being who thought only of doing good and of bringing good to the world. In his passing away, as in his life, he is an immense tribute to his family. My heart goes out to them and to his fiancée and to his friends.
Two more light-hearted articles caught my eye in the press this week. One was a Guardian editorial praising Casper, a commuting cat. Casper used to commute on the N° 3 bus in Plymouth, queueing patiently at the bus stop for a ride into town and back again. Sadly, he was run over by a car and the regular passengers on the bus are in mourning. On a more scientific note, last Saturday’s Financial Times carried an article about Moscow’s 35,000 stray dogs. Some 500 of these live in the metro stations and about twenty of those have learned how to ride the trains. According to Andrei Neuronov, a specialist in animal behaviour, ‘They orient themselves in a number of ways. They figure out where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals.’ Whereas most of Moscow’s stray dogs are slowly regressing to their genetic origins in the wolf family, these clever dogs seem to be going the other way.
This was another Bureau and Plenary Session week for the EESC. Both meetings went smoothly. Apart from the adoption of a number of important opinions, the political highlight of the session was the visit of the Spanish State Secretary for EU affairs, Mr Diego Lopez Garrido. His rich opening speech and detailed responses in the debate illustrated well why the ‘traditional’ rotating presidencies of the Council of the European Union continue to matter and indeed will continue to matter. Like its Swedish predecessor, one of the Spanish Presidency’s primary concerns is the exit strategy from the current crisis, and there Mr Lopez Garrido and his colleagues will, he stressed, be looking to the Committee for inspiration and support. As previous posts have illustrated, the Committee and its President, Mario Sepi, have been highly active in advising the EU about ways of avoiding the worst and sharing the best in terms of tactics and strategies. The situation at the moment is one of the glass being both half-full and half-empty. Yes, there are some absolutely ghastly unemployment statistics and there is a lot of very real suffering out there, but much worse has so far been avoided. Now, we must stick to our guns and make sure that our workforces and our societies more generally are well-placed to take advantage of the upturn when it comes.
There is an interesting op ed article in today’s Financial Times about the Afghanistan conflict by Alastair Campbell. He’s a controversial figure, and some would surely accuse him of being daring or even worse for publishing such an article on such a subject so soon after his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, but he nevertheless makes a compelling case. His basic argument is that whilst soldiers can win wars, ‘failure in the battle for hearts and minds can lose them.’ He draws three lessons from the Iraq conflict: first, take strategic communications seriously; second, ‘in a multinational alliance, you have to internationalise communications so that key aims can be communicated across… political systems’; third, ‘there is a need for a constant focus on the strategy and security reason for (the war)’ – ‘the arguments have to be put out there consistently’. Campbell is writing about Afghanistan but I can’t help but feel that his arguments apply just as much to the European Union. In that context, has anybody seen the EU’s communication policy? It was there all right, but it seems suddenly to have disappeared. Wherever it has gone, the need for it surely remains as strong as ever.
We saw Guy Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes this afternoon, with Robert Downie Jr and Jude Law pairing up to play Holmes and Watson. It’s a great romp with a lot of good gags. Robert Maillet’s Dredger must be the best comic giant bruiser since Richard Kiel’s Jaws in the James Bond films (hammers bounce off of him). Poetic licence is taken with a London that has more to do with Disney than with Conan Doyle (Tower Bridge is within a short dash of the Palace of Westminster, for example), but somehow none of that matters. I was convinced Downie Jr’s English accent was dubbed, but it’s all his own work. With a sequel planned and the Iron Man sequel already in the can, Downie Jr is in the clover and, on the strength of these performances, he deserves to be. For the Holmes sequel we will meet Professor Moriarty (who keeps to the shadows in the first film), rumoured to be a role for Brad Pitt…. Could be good, could be good.