Today I received an e-mail from an EU official (somebody I do not know) with the subject heading ‘permission to poke fun at you, sir?’. The e-mail went as follows: ‘I have been asked to contribute to a not-as-yet online satirical magazine and attached you will find one of the posts I have prepared. The project aims to provide light relief to those who occasionally find the Brussels bubble claustrophobic, while steering clear of anything scurrilous or nasty. In keeping with this ethos, I wanted to solicit your approval before publication of this item that concerns you directly. Hoping it appeals to your sense of humour – at least it gives a plug to your blog!’ Now, in my book you don’t need to ask somebody’s permission to poke fun at them, especially if you don’t know them, but let’s leave that to one side. The gist of the draft item in question is that I was hospitalised for shock because a Google search had given more than ten hits for the EESC. I had previously given up hope after several hundred blog postings ‘in a desperate attempt to drum up interest in the little known and consistently overlooked advisory body.’ Très drôle. Don’t worry, this is not a sense of humour failure but I would like to make something clear. This is my blog. I pay for it and maintain it. I decided to keep it as a way of providing illustrations as to what an EU institution and a Secretary General do. I wanted to humanise the EESC and the role of SG (and I am proud to point out that I am the only SG who keeps a blog). But, as readers of this blog know, I also write about a lot of other things. If you want to know about the EESC, you have to go to its website here. In due course, I’ll provide a link for the satirical website when it’s up and running. After all, one good plug deserves another. And here (posted 12 April) is the site of ‘the Brussels Jungle’ as promised.
Le Monde today carried a half-page article about Pierre de Boissieu, who is Secretary General of the Council of the European Union. I know, I know; it’s getting crowded out there, what with the Council of Europe, the Council of the European Union and the European Council. And I know journalists don’t choose their headlines; it’s the copy editors and the editors who do that. Still and all, I would expect better of Le Monde. So here’s the headline in question, as it appeared in the printed version of today’s newspaper: ‘Pierre de Boissieu, secrétaire général du Conseil européen, est l’homme de l’ombre du sommet extraordinaire sur la Grèce, à Bruxelles, jeudi 25 mars.‘ A special mention goes to the reader who correctly spots all of the mistakes in those two lines.
In the afternoon I was privileged to welcome Ritt Bjerregaard to the EESC. Bjerregaard is a grand old figure of Danish politics. She was a member of the Folketing from 1971 to 1995 and again from 2001 to 2005. She served as a minister three times, then served as a European Commissioner for the Environment (1995-1999), then returned to Danish politics as minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and then, most recently, served as Lord Mayor of the City of Copenhagen (2006-2009). Quite a record! And not one without a degree of controversy, though one wonders how much that has to do with the simple fact that she is a strong-willed woman. She certainly brought colour to the European Commission (and the Commission always needs colour). She is planning on writing a book about her experiences as Mayor. That, I am sure, would be a good read!
I spent most of this morning in a meeting of a body entitled the Political Monitoring Group (PMG). As faithful readers will know from previous posts, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions have agreed to pool almost half of their own resources in a set of joint services (translation, buildings, IT, logistics) that, by one estimate, save the taxpayer up to 14 meuro per year. The management of these joint services is established through a Cooperation Agreement that provides for a series of inter-institutional administrative bodies and meetings, with the whole being overseen by the Political Monitoring Group (composed of members of the two Committees). My CoR counterpart, Gerhard Stahl, would surely agree with me that the cooperation has been going really well, and proof positive of this came at the end of this morning’s meeting, when our political masters decided that, since everything was going so well, they didn’t need to meet so often. The PMG was conceived of as a sort of appeals chamber where any problem that could not be boiled off at administrative level could be addressed politically. In truth, though, there have been very few such problems. This is all grist to the mill of my argument that the two consultative bodies are setting a shining example to the other institutions.
I spent a lot of last night preparing a speech I gave at midday today to a group of guests of the Brussels Region’s Economic and Social Council. My chosen theme (guess!) was fleshing out the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on participatory democracy. There was a good turnout and a lot of very good questions. Of course, Brussels has to put up with ‘Brussels’, and so quite a few of the questions related to the way in which the EU’s institutions co-exist in the urban fabric of this small but vibrantly cosmopolitan city. Things are getting better, it was generally acknowledged, but the EU’s organic evolution and the very late decision on the definitive seats of the various institutions has meant that, alas, there can be no shining city upon a hill. As I have written in previous posts, I believe all EU officials should get ‘out there’ whenever they can to explain to the ‘real world’ what it is they are doing and why. I certainly valued today’s exchange and am very grateful to the Brussels Region’s Economic and Social Council for so generously providing me with a platform and such an interesting and informative audience.
It’s official; spring is here. There have been hints of its arrival for over a week, now, and on several cold days there was that almost indescribable scent of warmer weather on its way. Yesterday, the thermometer got up to twenty degrees for the first time and this morning the forsythia and the lilac buds in our garden told us what the nest-making birds have known for at least a week: it’s spring. And this year we can feel virtuous in enjoying the arrival of spring, since we have had a long, hard winter (by European standards, at least). Now, gazing out from my office window, I can just make out a green sheen on the trees in the Parc Leopold and, well, it just feels good.
This lunchtime I joined the administrative board of the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) and the European Administrative School (EAS) to say an early thank you and farewell to Vittorio Griffo, for long a Director General in the Council’s Secretariat General and somebody who oversaw the development of the idea and the reality of these two genuinely interinstitutional bodies. I write ‘early’ because Vittorio will not formally retire before 1 June and there will be other occasions. Still and all, he has a paternally affectionate view of the two bodies and in his speech he spoke with pride about their success. As to retirement, Vittorio spoke about his father, who was curator of the archeological museum in Agrigento (Sicily), and who could still get angry twenty years after his retirement because the window displays had been changed. ‘I will not make that mistake,’ averred Vittorio. And his mottos? Work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. Approach everything with good humour. And; you should always make the time for the rest of your life. Amen.
EESC members are appointed for a fixed period (until now, four years, but five years under the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions). The current mandate ends in September and in October the Committee will go through the process of what it calls ‘renewal’. Statistics indicate that as much as 30 per cent of each mandate’s membership is new to the Committee. To quote the ad men’s cliché, you never get a second chance to make a first impression and we, as an administration, are determined to make the best possible impression with our new members in October. To that end, we have established a task force to look into every angle of the renewal process, and this afternoon I chaired a very productive and positive meeting of the task force. Our basic philosophy is a ‘one stop shop’, with a new member being able to conduct and complete all formalities in one place and time. We also intend to give carefully targeted information (and avoid information overload). At the end of the day, it’s a sort of exercise of the imagination. If you were entirely new to the EU, ‘Brussels’ and the institutions, what would you want to know? What would you need to know and to have? From the chairman’s point of view, it was a dream of a meeting; excellently prepared, entirely constructive in atmosphere, and with every service represented bringing good news of great progress.
This morning, at short notice, I dashed off to the Council’s Budget Committee to defend the EESC’s draft supplementary budget for 2010. The EESC, like the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions, is finding itself on the end of a hiding to nothing at the moment. Last year, when this year’s budgets were being drafted and approved, all institutions were strictly instructed not to anticipate the Lisbon Treaty in any way, given the sensitivity of this for the Irish people and government. Now, however, the Treaty has been ratified and is being implemented and the institutions are, quite rightly, being asked to do their bit. Granted, extra tasks don’t automatically mean extra resources, but mostly they do, and there’s the rub; how can EU institutions be asking for supplementary resources in a year of economic, financial and social crisis? EESC members agonised long and large before its Bureau regretfully but unanimously decided that the Committee had to be consistent with the intentions of the draftsmen of the Lisbon Treaty – as I put it, to revive the ‘spirit of Laeken’, which was all about bringing the EU closer to the citizen. Here are some statistics which I cited in making my case: the EESC’s budget represents less than one one thousandth of the EU’s overall budget. It costs each EU citizen 25 eurocents per year, and the supplementary budget would add 0.8 eurocents to that. Like the CoR, the EESC suffers from small institution syndrome – by which I mean that small figures look like big percentages but, as I put it, 3.4% of a peanut is only 3.4% of a peanut, and I strongly persist in believing that both Committees provide excellent value for money.
Back to work and back to another major conference, this time organised by the Various Interests Group at the EESC (‘Group III’ in our internal parlance), on ‘A structured civil dialogue for a citizen-friendly European Union.’ The Conference opened under the Chairmanship of the Committee’s probable next President, Staffan Nilsson, and in its first session heard a keynote speech from European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding. I used to work for Ms Reding when she was in charge of education and culture in the Commission and it was nice to welcome her personally to the Committee. She underlined the basically positive approach of the Lisbon Treaty, which puts the citizens ahead of economics, and which now explicitly sets out the democratic conditions of the European Union. ‘I intend to ensure that an effective dialogue with the European citizen takes place,’ she insisted, continuing ‘who better than your Committee to get this message across?’