The atmosphere of the Conference’s closing session was a mixture of optimism, pessimism and frustration, though President Mario Sepi finished on an upbeat note. Here are a few ‘soundbites’. ‘I am a trades unionist and we were always brought up on a simple philosophy; if you work, you shouldn’t be poor. But now there is a growing army of the working poor.’ ‘We need to be more pre-emptive than corrective. We need growth-friendly measures – dynamic, disciplined, collective.’ Professor Maria Joao Rodriguez: ‘How can the EU 2020 be successful if the challenges are bigger but the instruments are the same? We must equip ourselves with new political and financial instruments.’ Ben Butters (Director for European Affairs at Eurochambres): ‘Reform is not an option, it’s an obligation.’ Mario Sepi: ‘What is happening to our values when somebody retires from a bank at the age of 70 with a 160 meuro bonus? What can you do with 160 meuro at the age of 70? This is not a value, it’s a disvalue.’
The ‘Roadmap’ conference (see yesterday’s post) continued today, starting with a sober keynote speech from European Commissioner with responsibility for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn. Though, he opined, the Lisbon Strategy was in many ways better than its reputation, the new EU 2020 Strategy’s concentration on five key targets would better concentrate minds and make it impossible for the Union to evade its collective responsibility. The worst of the crisis was now over, but unemployment remained high. The choice was now ours, he argued. Either we take concerted action and make sure that we stick to it or there is otherwise a very real risk of ‘a lost decade’. (A phrase used also by Maros Sefcovic.)
The third book on my bedside table has been Dominic Lieven’s truly masterful Russia against Napoleon. It was on my visit to Moscow last December that I realised there was such a yawning gap in my knowledge about European history. Lieven’s study is plugging the gap. His opening argument is that histories that concentrate on 1812 forget about the equally significant campaigns of 1805-7 and 1813-14. But this is not just a revisionist, ‘from-the-Russian-point-of-view’ study (though that would be an interesting counter-balance to the traditional French-sided accounts). He refers back frequently to domestic developments and domestic politics and through all of this the reader comes to understand that the Russia of that period was not a ramshackle eastern despotism but, in many ways, a vibrant and quite modernistic organism with an enlightened attitude to senior appointments (there is a picture gallery of them in the book). By the end of this period, as the Amazon review puts it, Russia had begun ‘its strange central role in Europe’s existence as both threat and protector, a role that continues, in all its complexity, into our own lifetimes.’ There is much food for thought in Russia’s scorched earth policy and it is truly extraordinary how, within a space of just two years, Napoleon stood in the Kremlin and Russian troops marched through Paris. A bit like a game of Go, actually…
The second half of the bill was Stravinsky’s Firebird music for ballet. By chance, I had heard the more familiar parts of it just ten days before (see previous post on Dancing Angels), but not ‘in the flesh’, as it were. Stravinsky was a musical revolutionary and, listening and watching, it’s easy to see where his revolution was taking place. But now his music is so mainstream as to be classified unconditionally as ‘classical’ in music shops and websites. It’s a depressing observation, but is it not the fate of all revolutionaries and revolutions to become mainstream sooner or later? I feel a poem coming on…
This man walks on water
In the evening we made a dash for the Palais de Beaux Arts for a wonderful treat; brilliant Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos playing Beethoven’s violin concerto with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. It was a sublime rendition with a special sentimental resonance for us – in a sense, ‘our song’. It was 1983. We drove up from Florence to Nice in a battered Simca. There, I met my future father-in-law and ate a boulabaisse for the first time, and then we set off for the Alps. I had bought a sort of forerunner of the Walkman. You could listen through earphones but for our trip I bought a couple of ‘miniature’ speakers – each roughly the size of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (and you needed a suitcase full of batteries), but they worked. We followed the winding Route Napoléon up and up towards Grenoble and the snow and listened to just one cassette – Beethoven’s violin concerto. I forget how many times we listened to it, but we never tired and I am sure we both still know it off by heart. It was the perfect antidote to a very heavy week in which I have seen far less of family and home than I would have liked.
This afternoon, with our plenary session only just over, President Mario Sepi opened a conference at the EESC’s premises on ‘an EU roadmap for a sustainable economic and social recovery’. On the opening panel (picture), chaired by Mario Soares (Gr. II, Portugal), were Algirdas Semeta, Commission member with responsibility for taxation and the customs union, Perrvenche Beres, Chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Employment Committee, Wolf Klinz, Chairman of the EP’s Committee on the Financial, Economic and Social Crisis, and Sony Kapoor, Managing Director of Re-Define. Their theme was ‘support and responsibility’. Two further panels meeting this afternoon and tomorrow will hear from representatives of civil society organisations and discuss the vital concept of sustainability. What a week! And it’s not over yet!
In the evening, all of our Irish members – from north and south – hosted an Irish cultural evening on the Committee’s premises. There were speeches and music and dancing and whisky and Guinness (of course!) and hosts of distinguished visitors, including Maire Goeghegan-Quinn, the new Commissioner for Research and Innovation (picture) and everybody had a lovely time. It was one of those occasions where you have to drag yourself away reluctantly. Full marks to our Irish members and particularly to Jillian van Turnhout (Gr III, Ireland, also in the picture) who was the chief coordinator of the festivities and did such a brilliant job.
The plenary next welcomed a very distinguished guest speaker, Martin Mansergh TD, a member of the Irish Parliament and Minister of State, and somebody who played a very important part in the Irish peace process. With us on St Patrick’s day, his chosen theme was ‘The European Union and cross-border cooperation with Ireland.’ In his opening remarks, he explained that he had something in common with the Secretary General (me!) since he had also studied politics, philosophy and economics and he went on to recount that he had once passed an open competition to become a civil servant at the EESC. He would have worked for the Committee if his career in Ireland had not taken off at the same time. But his speech was on a theme dear to our Irish members, from north and south. Both during his speech, and in the following exchange, it felt like we were listening in to a reunion between near and dear friends whose friendship had been forged in a historic and common endeavour – enduring peace. The underlying theme was clear; politicians may have had to find the compromises, but civil society made the thing stick.
By chance, Durant is a neighbour of ours, though not in the same street. During her speech she made an observation that made me sit up and think. She is also a local politician and she spoke to the plenary of her doubts about whether even at the very local level politics is working. She said that her local political meetings are ill-attended, that the same people always turn up and that those who take the floor do so to complain. Is local politics another casualty of modern technology, I wonder? It’s a bit like the choice between watching a football match in a stadium or watching it on the television. You have to get to the stadium, it might be cold, there are no replays or commentary and you can’t just switch off if the match is boring. Maybe it’s the same with local politics. Food for thought, in any case.
The Committee’s March plenary session got under way this afternoon with a major debate about the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on participatory democracy. On the agenda were two Committee opinions. Former EESC President Anne-Marie Sigmund (Gr. III, Austria) had drafted an own-initiative opinion on the overall provisions in Article 11 of the treaty, including both structured dialogue with organised civil society (what I like to call participatory democracy) and the citizens’ intiative provisions (what I call direct democracy), and Miklos Barabas (Gr. III, Hungary) had drafted an own-initiative opinion on how that structured dialogue could work with regard to the triumvirate of rotating Council presidencies (as also established under the Lisbon Treaty). The Committee hosted two distinguished guests, both European Vice-Presidents: Libor Roucek and Isabelle Durant. They both have particular responsibility for civil society dialogue, and their basic message, of cooperation rather than individualism at institutional level, and of working closely together, was warmly received. As Durant put it, modern technology – the internet, 24-hour news – has done away with a series of filters that used to act as both dampers and communicating rods in facilitating relations between the political and the popular. The Lisbon Treaty’s provisions give the Union a chance of re-establishing such mechanisms, but there is nothing automatic about any of this; they must be established and maintained and, it seems, the EU’s institutions are determined to do this together.