This morning my secretariat held a small farewell ceremony for our departing trainee, Laura. We are spoiled by our trainees, who are always of the highest quality. Laura was no exception and we were very sorry to see her go. At the same time, we know that the future holds bright things in store for her and we await news of what will surely be a glittering career with impatience but also certainty. Once upon a time, far back in the mists, I was a trainee (or stagiaire) myself. What strikes me about contemporary trainees is how mature they are (if I compare them with my own behaviour at the time). When I see young Europeans like Laura I know that the future will be safe in their hands. Oh, yes, and saying farewell to our trainees is always sad but it is also, I must confess, always delicious. Never has a Secretary General had so many accomplished cooks in his staff!
Twice a year the Committee organises two-day information sessions for all new staff recruited during the preceding period. The President kicks off the sessions and I end them. I enjoy these pep talks. It’s good to be able to put a face and a voice to the Secretary General. What exercises me, though, is how I (or the administration more generally) can transform this first contact into a sustained dialogue. We are, I believe, a sufficiently small institution to be able to do this, but how? Answers on a postcard, please….
This afternoon I accompanied my President, Mario Sepi, on a formal visit to the new President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. Sepi spoke about the importance of fleshing out the concept of participatory democracy and of the important role, in that context, of the EESC. But there were also discussions about effective strategies for getting out of the economic and financial crisis and the European Commission’s new 2020 strategy (which is designed to follow on from the Lisbon Strategy). This was a first formal meeting and a good one.
There was more speechifying today. In the morning I spoke to quite a large group of European Studies students from Maastricht University. I believe that all of us involved in the integration process should be able to explain what we are doing to denizens of the ‘real world’. In the absence of time to get out ‘there’, speaking to visitors’ groups (when I can) is one way of keeping in touch, even if they are students of European studies. I started the afternoon off with a visit to the Budget Group, which was discussing the tactics and the strategy of the Committee’s draft 2011 budget. We are living in unknown territory now. The Lisbon Treaty has introduced a new budgetary procedure and nobody knows quite how it will work. What we know already, however, is that the smaller institutions will not be able to defend themselves in the gigantic conciliation meeting which has replaced the old second reading. From the Budget Group I went to a meeting of the steering committee for the two Committees’ Eco-Management and Audit Scheme, which I co-chair, together with my counterpart in the Committee of the Regions, Gerhard Stahl. The Committees are already pretty green in their approach and we are forever improving our act.
Leaving aside the habitual Monday morning coordination meeting, this choc-a-bloc day started with a speech to the annual general assembly of the Committee’s Association of Former Members. They wanted to know how things were going and what sort of challenges I thought loomed before the Committee. Later, I attended an employers’ group roundtable on the theme of leadership and women in the private and public sectors. Last but not least, I attended the opening ceremony of a fascinating photographic exhibition, organised by the Committee, on the themes of ‘Portraits of women in Egypt and Iran.’ You can see the two gifted photographers, Ulla Kimmig and Matjaz Kacicnik, in the photograph, together with our Vice-President for cultural matters, Irini Pari.
Yesterday afternoon we went to a dance show in which N° 1 sprog was performing. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience with she and all her fellow dance school pupils being put through their paces to Stravinsky and more contemporary music, from Philip Glass to Bjork. But ,not for the first time, I found myself in deep admiration for the head of the dance school who had put on the whole show, from choreography through to rehearsals, for what looked like close to a hundred, if not more, pupils of all ages (up to and including adults). A journalist friend once asked me to write a piece in a series entitled ‘Angels’. The idea was to home in on the people who make our societies and our cultures tick. There are so many of these people – teachers, nurses, volunteers of all sorts – and where would we be without them and all of the hard work they put in?
In this morning’s Guardian newspaper I read about an extraordinary lake in South America which has started to make the headlines now because suddenly it is no longer extraordinary. I quote: ‘Darkness rarely lasted long in the skies over Lake Maracaibo. An hour after dusk the show would begin: a lightning bolt, then another, and another, until the whole horizon flashed white. Electrical storms, product of a unique meteorological phenomenon, have lit up nights in this corner of Venezuela for thousands of years. Francis Drake abandoned a sneak attack on the city of Maracaibo in 1595 when lightning betrayed his ships to the Spanish garrison. But now the lightning has vanished. A phenomenon that once unleashed up to 20,000 bolts a night stopped in late January. Not a single bolt has been seen since… The spectacle, one of the longest single displays of continuous lightning in the world, lasts up to nine hours a night. On average it is visible over 160 nights a year and from 400km away. Lightning bolts discharged from cloud to cloud strike 16 to 40 times a minute. They can reach an intensity of 400,000 amps but are so high thunder is inaudible. There are similar phenomena in Colombia, Indonesia and Uganda but they do not last the whole night. Fishermen in the village of Congo Mirador, a collection of wooden huts on stilts at the phenomenon’s epicentre, are puzzled and anxious by its absence. “It has always been with us,” said Edin Hernandez, 62. “It guides us at night, like a lighthouse. We miss it.”‘ If you read about such a lake in a science fiction novel, you’d think it was a clever invention. But here is proof again of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
This has been a particularly heavy week. On two days I had back-to-back appointments, meetings and functions from eight in the morning till eight in the evening with literally not a moment to look at those e-mails or start on the files as they piled up. The other three days were scarcely less heavily charged. This evening I put on my Facebook account that I was at the end of a ‘very, very, very long week’. This is factually correct. It felt at times like swimming a length under water. At the same time, though, the week went by with extraordinary speed. The busier you are, the faster time goes, is one way of looking at it. Is there a good theory about the human relativity of time out there? What was that you said? Einstein? Oh, yes…
March o'clock and all's clear!
This afternoon my CoR counterpart, Gerhard Stahl, and I co-chaired a regular meeting of the two Secretaries-General and the Directors of what we call the ‘joint services’. Under the terms of a cooperation agreement the two Committees pool their resources to achieve economies of scale which are to the benefit of both Committees and, I always argue, an example to the other EU institutions. The purpose of these meetings is to discuss common concerns and to take those operation decisions which may have bubbled up to our level. Mostly, though, it’s our job to set the mood music and make sure that the cooperation agreement works well. Our role is not unlike that of the old night watchmen, who would tour the city at night, assuring the citizenry that all was well. Well, all is well.
Decidedly, it’s a week for sad news. Yesterday former Labour Leader and great man of letters, Michael Foot, passed away at the ripe old age of 96. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing ‘Footie’ (as Neil affectionately called him) when I was researching my biography of Kinnock. I was warmly received at Foot’s Hampstead house and, once I’d made friends with Dizzie the dog (after Disraeli, of course), he took me up to his study and spent the best part of two hours with me. Like Napolitano, Foot was a historical figure and, indeed, when I think about it, the two have much in common; anti-fascism and great passions for parliamentarianism and literature. About half way through my interview with Foot we were talking about the SDP breakaway. ‘I had them all there – Williams, Rogers, Jenkins,’ he said, pointing animatedly to the sofa I was sitting on. It soon became clear that most of the Labour front bench over the past twenty years or more had sat on that very sofa, seeking advice, making confessions or declarations. I wonder what will happen to it now? As I said goodbye his wife, Jill, made a brief but beautiful appearance. Foot was monstrously ill-treated by the British media. He would have been a towering figure in any other century. As it was, he made an indelible impression on the political and cultural life of his country.