This evening we went to the annual press review – a comedy review of the year written and performed by members of the Brussels-based press corps. The title of this year’s review was ‘Up Rompuy’ (from an old British comedy, ‘Up Pompei!’) The running theme was, of course, the new President of the European Council but he received only mild, though also very funny, treatment. A supportive cheer even went up from the crowd when somebody pretending to be him declared ‘Better to be a wet rag than an old fart!’ Those following events in the European Parliament last week will know what this refers to. Well, the number of journalists in the Brussels-based press corp may be declining but, based on this year’s review, the quality is staying.
This evening I gave a talk to a bunch of young Syracuse University students on a visit to Brussels from their Strasbourg campus. I have been giving these talks now twice a year since 1987 (see 15 October 2009 post). The curiosity and alertness of my audiences has never changed but the tenor and themes of my presentations have evolved a great deal over the past twenty-two years. In that period I and my contemporaries have had the privilege of witnessing all the ‘grand narratives’ – the avoidance of war, the end of the cold war, German unification, the single market, the single currency, enlargement – come to pass. By chance, there was an article in today’s Guardian newspaper by Timothy Garton Ash on the same theme: ‘The deepest reality underlying this crisis,’ he writes, ‘ is that the personal experiences and memories that have pushed European integration ahead for 65 years, since 1945, are losing their force. The personal memory of war, occupation, humiliation, European barbarism, fear of Germany, including Germany itself; the Soviet threat, the cold war, the ‘return to Europe’ as a gurantee of hard-won freedom, the hope of restored greatness. These were massive biographical motivators which drove people like Mitterrand and Kohl evn unto the euro. Can Europeans go on building Europe without such profound motivators? Are there new ones in sight?’ My answer to the students tonight was a determined ‘yes’. This new narrative – of consolidating the Europe we have achieved whilst exporting our successful model with more proselytism – is maybe not as attractive as all the recent history we have lived through but I am sure it can be as inspiring. As I get older, so I speak more about the duty of future generations to maintain an idealistic approach towards world affairs. The ambitions of the students sitting at my table – including conflict resolution and fighting against child trafficking – were proof that this idealism is encouragingly alive and well.
This morning I went, together with my President, Mario Sepi, to an annual reception offered at the Royal Palace by the Belgian King, Albert, to the Presidents, Vice-Presidents and High-Ranking Officials of all of the EU institutions. Albert was accompanied by Paola and Prince Philip. The Palace was, well, palatial. We gathered in the gilded and mirrored ballroom, lined up to shake the royal hands and then gathered again in the reception room for champagne and canapés. It was all done with dignity and style but not too much pomp – typically Belgian, somehow (and I mean that in a positive sense). During the reception the King spent a lot of time talking individually with the Parliament’s President, Jerzy Buzek, Herman Van Rompuy (they must know each other so very well!) and José Manuel Barroso. Constitutional monarchies are very special affairs, but the Belgian monarchy is more special than most, symbolically sitting not only in the capital of Belgium but also the ‘capital’ of Europe. One of the biggest thrills for me was to be standing in the room that Jan Fabre decorated with thousands of irridiscent beetle wings. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
By chance, this week I have met the new Permanent President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, twice. The first was at a private function, the second at a reception at the Royal Palace. On the basis of what I saw and heard, I rapidly came to the conclusion that Van Rompuy was the perfect person for the job. He has had a bad press in some quarters, but those who point to his alleged failings either misunderstand the man or the difficult role he must now play or both. Implementing this particular provision of the Lisbon Treaty was always going to be a tall order but Van Rompuy’s appointment would happily appear to be one of those rare phenomena in political affairs: the right man in the right place at the right time.
In counter-point to my previous post, I was informed today that, sadly, three European Commission officials lost their lives in Monday’s rail crash in Halle. As I earlier reported, two EESC officials were involved. Both survived, though one is still off work with whiplash injuries to the neck. These terrible and completely unforeseen events, like the Liège explosion and the Haiti earthquake, surely give us all cause for thought. Life may be good and it may be bad but it can also be terribly, terribly fickle.
Sitting on the plenary session podium from 14.30 to 20.00 or from 09.00 till 13.00 is as much a physical as an intellectual challenge, especially, when, as has been my misfortune for the past two months, you’ve got lumbago. My pilates instructor has given me a few tricks to try and ease the strain on the lower back and they seem to be doing the trick. I am basically writing this post so that I can show the photograph which, I think, is a sweetie. There were many solemn moments over the two days of the plenary but also, as can be seen, some lighter-hearted occasions.
The undoubted highlight of today’s plenary session was the visit and speeches of the Presidents of the Economic and Social Councils from all the partner countries of the Euromed region. In addition to the EU’s 22 working languages, interpretation was also provided into Arabic (a first, I think, for the Committee). The message these presidents brought was that civil society organisations have key roles to play in fostering the sort of prosperity which can, in turn, lead to better-educated workforces and better mutual understanding. In a previous incarnation as manager of the TEMPUS programme, I once had the great honour of hosting a meeting of representatives of all the Euromed countries, including Israel and the Palestinian Authority. To see such representatives working peacefully and positively together in confronting common problems always gives me goosebumps and makes me realise why those saints of the international world, peace negotiators, do what they do, despite frequent setbacks. To hear Hanna Siniora, President of the Palestinian Economic and Social Council, and Yehuda Talmon, President of the Israeli Economic and Social Council, echoing each other warmly was the highlight of the week for me. As Talmon put it, ‘There is ignorance on both sides. We have to learn about each other. No-one is better placed than civil society to bring about this mutual understanding.’
There was an at times impassioned debate later this evening on the subject of the political, economic and social dimensions of EU-Latin America relations. The rapporteur, José Maria Zufiaur Narvaiza (a Spanish member of the Employees’ Group), put a special emphasis on human rights, though the debate, like the opinion, was spread across all aspects of EU-Latin America relations. Zufiaur’s opinion argues that civil society can play a stronger role in raising awareness about relations between the two continents and in enhancing transparency and effectiveness. Adopted with a very large majority and not a single vote against, the opinion will provide a basis for the work of the sixth meeting of civil society organisations from the EU, Latin America and the Caribbean, set to take place in Madrid from 5 to 7 May this year. The EESC is organising this meeting as part of civil society’s contribution to the next Summit of Heads of State and Government of the EU and of Latin America and the Caribbean (EU-LAC Summit).
There were a number of important opinions on this afternoon’s plenary agenda, and it’s always invidious to single out one for special attention. Nevertheless, an opinion on the future strategy for the EU’s dairy industry (rapporteur: Frank Allen, an Irish member of the Various Interests Group) caught my ear and my eye. One striking statistic in Frank’s introductory presentation explains why milk is such an important topic for the EU. The European Union is responsible for 27% of the world’s annual production of milk. In second place comes India, with 20%. The United States is third, with 16%. Whenever the EU debates agricultural issues, the arguments are as much about cultural and social identity as they are about economics, and this occasion was no different. As Frank pointed out, large scale feedlots, with over 2,000 cattle on ‘a patch of sand’ and dependent only on foodstuffs and chemicals rather than grazing, are already a reality in the US. Whatever the future of the EU dairy industry, it cannot be – shouldn’t be – this.
This week’s plenary session kicked off with a presentation by Irini Pari, our Vice-President responsible for communication matters, of the Committee’s communication strategy for the next five years. Irini, who is, as she put it, ‘A Greek, a Belgian and a passionate European’ gave convincing reasons as to why and how the Committee and its members had a special role to play. Above all, she argued, the Committee’s perceived weaknesses are actually its strengths; being ‘only’ a consultative body, it can speak its mind, and the fact that its members are part-time volunteers gives the Committee a special and unique authenticity. Irini stressed the fundamental difference between information and communication, which latter was as much about listening; ‘two monologues do not make a dialogue’. In the ensuing debate, the new strategy that Irini has so passionately and eloquently championed was soundly endorsed. It was a great start to the plenary!