Thursday morning kicked off with a visit to the plenary from European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, who has particular responsibility for inter-institutional relations, including those between the Commission and the Committee. His basic message was very similar to that of the two EP Vice-Presidents the previous day; we must work together as institutions! Moreover, he argued, the EU’s new flagship strategy for sustainable economic growth and development will only work if European citizens have a sense of ownership and that cannot be generated by institutions in Brussels alone. He therefore invited all of the Committee’s members to become ‘ambassadors of the EU 2020 strategy’, an invitation enthusiastically taken up by our President, Mario Sepi, and successive speakers. His visit to the plenary was preceded by a ‘bilateral’ meeting with our President and Irini Pari, EESC Vice-President, and in no time at all very solid and positive foundations had been laid for our future cooperation.
Alongside the slight but impressive Pullman novella, I have just finished Martin Amis’s magnificent autobiographical masterpiece, Experience. Forget the critics (and Amis has more than a few). If you care about writing, and even if you don’t, you should read this book. It is moving, honest, witty and brilliantly written. The narrative weaves together past and present like the shuttle of a loom, with the author, now fatherless (his father, Kingsley, being a revered novelist and poet in his own right), homing in on the eternal polarities of innocence and experience, life and death, and the ebb and flow of family relationships in a perpetual illustration of what Amis describes as ‘the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections.’ In places, it is so intimate that the reader feels almost voyeuristic and there is a sense of Amis retreating into himself: ‘I have seen what perhaps no writer should ever see: the place in the unconscious where my novels come from.’ My notebook is full of brilliant quotations and witticisms from this book. I’ll cite just one here. With painful honesty, Amis is recounting how, drunk and high, he is childishly teasing fellow author and friend Salman Rushdie, with the latter just about to invite Amis ‘outside’; ‘By this stage,’ writes Amis, ‘Salman looked like a falcon staring through a venetian blind.’ Wonderful, simply wonderful! Amis has a notoriously bad relationship with the English press. From time to time, fellow authors and journalists jump up and take a pop at him (most recently a painfully inappropriate attack from his friend, Anna Ford). It is difficult to avoid the feeling that this is a sort of inverted snobbery. Amis is a brilliant wordsmith who intellectualises about his art and is always pushing at the boundaries. Sometimes it comes off (Experience being a glittering example). If sometimes it doesn’t, we should not hold against him the fact that he tried.
My SciFi glut being temporarily over, I have had three books, in three different genres, on the go in parallel over the past few weeks, and I intend to devote a separate post to each of them. The first was Philip Pullman’s novella, Clockwork. This is an excellently told story, full of suspense, but it is also a strongly moralistic parable, a critique of modern Western society. I found the concept of Sir Ironsoul, a mechanical knight who comes to murderous life whenever the word ‘devil’ is voiced, wonderfully sinister and I am sure I would have been afraid of this character as a child. But here, too, there is a parallel in human dynamics. How often do we inadvertently upset or anger somebody in a gathering or a meeting by talking about something or by talking in a way that, unbeknown to us, they find objectionable? I have certainly seen my fair share of meetings where colleagues became the targets of aggression for reasons that they did not know and therefore couldn’t explain. Truth be told, there is a bit of the Sir Ironsoul in all of us.
President Sepi nipped out of our Bureau meeting this afternoon for an hour for a bilateral meeting with José Manual Barroso at the Berlaymont. On the agenda: the Commission’s draft EU 2020 strategy; planning an exit from the current crisis; and fleshing out the concept of participatory democracy (and, in particular, the provisions of Article 11 in the Lisbon Treaty). These informal tête-à-têtes are a favoured way for our President to set out the Committee’s stall. I sense that this is a growing trend among all the Presidents of the EU’s institutions. The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, for example, has made a point of frequent meetings with the President of the Commission and the Parliament and, as you know from a previous post, has already seen Mario Sepi. I suspect this is a consequence of the growing complexity and size of the EU’s institutions. Such one-on-ones, even if officials are in the room, restore the human dimension.
This afternoon’s Bureau meeting adopted the EESC’s draft budget for 2011. In a sober and consensual debate, the Bureau members recognised that all EU institutions are facing a difficult task in this context. All are painfully aware of the economic and financial crisis and of its social consequences. At the same time, the institutions have to respond to the positive challenges set for them all by the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions. It’s a difficult balancing act. We are also heading into unknown territory, for the Lisbon Treaty has changed the budget procedure and nobody knows exactly how it will work for the smaller institutions not formally involved in the procedure themselves. In case you are wondering, yes, it is strange that the institutions should have to adopt their draft budgets so far in advance of the year in question, but that’s life.
This evening we went to the Balsamine Theatre to watch a performance of Ismene. As you all knew (didn’t you?) Ismene was a daughter and half-sister of Oedipus, daughter and granddaughter of Jocasta, and sister of Antigone, Eteocles, and Polynices. The play (a Monnaie production), written by Georges Aperghis, is a monologue based on a poem by Yannis Ritsos and was performed brilliantly by Marianne Pousseur. The Balsamine is a small, intimate theatre, and it was no mean feat for Pousseur, completely naked and onstage throughout, to hold the audience’s attention so powerfully. In the legend, Ismene is the compliant citizen (in comparison with the more extreme and unreasonable Antigone). In the play, she remembers her childhood and poignant moments in her life, caught between the powerful figures of Oedipus and Antigone. I thought the portrayal hinted that Ismene had been driven to a sort of madness through the constant experience of being torn between stronger passions and her own schizophrenic desire to be both reasonable and loyal. Other members of our party did not agree. I wonder if any of you out there saw it and what you thought. The production and lighting, by the way, was by Enrico Bagnoli, with much emphasis on shadows and silhouettes and reflections and some moments of extraordinary beauty (Ismène stands in a shallow basin of water onto which various images and Greek script are projected). Pousseur’s body, half in shadow, half a sort of fleshly manuscript was an outstanding image. Once again, I was left thinking how extraordinarily privileged we are to live in such a culturally rich city.
In addition to the usual pre-plenary session coordination meetings, I spent some time today in a meeting with the Presidents of the Committee’s three groups, where we slowly edged our way closer towards a decision where there was at the outset, as I put it, ‘perfect disagreement’. The respective positions were (I exaggerate only slightly): ABC, BCA and CAB. I think I have already referred in a post to Arrow’s Paradox or ‘Impossibility Theorem’ and I was reminded of it by this situation. Nevertheless, there is always potential for some convergence if, for example, the relative strengths of participants’ preferences differ. It was, for me, a fascinating insight into the Committee’s basic working method, something sometimes dubbed the art of ‘dynamic compromise’. The whole culture of the Committee is based on this process and its underlying assumption: that a common position between different interests will always be stronger than a set of individual positions.
Today was European Consumer Day – an annual event launched by the EESC over a decade ago. The tradition is to organise a thematic conference on the day, alternating between Brussels and the Member States. This year the conference took place in Madrid, with the participation, among others, of our President, Mario Sepi, two Commissioners (Vice-President Viviane Reding and John Dalli), the Chairman of the EP’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, Malcolm Harbour, and Francisco Moza Zapatero, Secretary General of Social Policy and Consumption at the Spanish Ministry of Health and Social Policy. Reding promised that consumer protection would be at the heart of the new European Commission’s agenda, while Harbour called for the establishment of a five-year strategic framework for consumers. All very promising for the Committee which, for twelve years now, has insisted on the need to enforce the rights of consumers so that they can make the most of the EU’s ‘crown jewel’; the single market. You can see clips of the conference on President Mario Sepi’s blog here.
N° 2 sprog has been getting steadily better at chess and the day has long since been and gone when he first beat me. Nevertheless, if we don’t use the clocks I can still just about hold my own (on a good day, with a fair wind, etc). Now, however, I have had it; my goose is cooked. Through manga reading he developed a taste for the brilliant Japanese game, Go. In the beginning, we concentrated on tactics and neglected the strategy and I managed to beat him once – once! But now he is untouchable. It’s a rite of passage, of course (well, at least, that’s what I am telling myself). However, I also see the game as a metaphor for managerial and political affairs. In particular, local skirmishes may result in a loss of territory and resources, but vast swathes of territory can be changed from one side to another through a sustained overall strategical approach. And so we beat on…
The end of a matje...
To the Belgian seaside today to help my brother-in-law celebrate his sixtieth birthday. Sixty! There is a telling phrase in Martin Amis’s latest book (I’ll be writing a post about Amis in the new future) about the ‘bullet train of the fifties’, and it is true that these years are whistling past. How well I remember my late mother shaking her head when she reached sixty and saying ‘I cannot believe it, I cannot believe it.’ Coincidentally, today’s Guardian published a series of wonderful poems, commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy, on the theme of ageing. British poetry is, it seems to me, going through a golden age – or has that always been the case? Well, before I masochistically watched the English and the Scots fiercely battling each other to a bloody draw in the Six Nations, we went for a walk along the Yser and in Nieuwport old town we gorged ourselves on sublimely fresh matjes – Flanders’ answer to sashimi!