Just before he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown published a series of pen portraits of his heroes in a book entitled Courage. This was undoubtedly from the heart stuff and, as Brown made clear in his introductory chapter, the courage of individuals such as Edith Cavell and Robert Kennedy had richly inspired him during his political career. Today I learn from the New Statesman that Brown’s last two acts as Prime Minister were to write to Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela, ‘two people who have inspired him hugely’. Since Brown has almost completely disappeared from the public stage and has expressed no desire to re-enter it, these could not be considered cheap gestures to the British electorate but, rather, deliberately supportive acts. Here, for the record, is the text of his letter to Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘This is one of the last letters I write as Prime Minister and I want it to be to you, to champion your cause for democracy in Burma and to say I will do everything I can support you. You are, for me, what courage is and I will fight for you to be free and your people to be free. Yours sincerely, Gordon Brown.’ To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘nothing became his political life as the leaving of it.’
Yes, I did it again. I didn’t train as much as last year but, on the other hand, I had already done it once and so knew what was in store for me. Last year I started from the back and took things easy. My time was a more-or-less respectable two hours and thirteen minutes. This year I wanted to get under two hours, if possible. I ran a fast first ten kilometres but cramped twice in the second ten and so was delighted to come in on one hour and fifty-three minutes – a twenty minutes improvement! Last year I took my preparations seriously, laying off the booze the night before, getting an early night, eating pasta, and so on. This year, my preparation consisted of beer, wine, a barbecue and a late night. Who knows how much faster I might have been if I had drunk and eaten more and gone to bed even later? As to the atmosphere, it is a very special experience to be running down rue de la Loi in the midst of a sea of thousands of runners. The staggered start (an innovation this year) worked well. The race was as cosmopolitan as ever (click here to see a list of all of the nationalties represented) but most of the runners were Belgian and were doing what Belgians are best at; not taking themselves too seriously and having fun. Roll on 2011!
This evening I attended a surprise 50th birthday party for a friend and former squash team mate. A lot of our fellow dogs of war were present and a pleasant time was had by all. Our hosts were the epitome of English hospitality and even the bad weather was turned to humouristic advantage. Competitive squash used to be a very important part of my life. I spent a lot of time on court with my fellow old dogs, in training, in matches and, in our hey day, touring the country. It was great to see so many of them again for most, though not all, of us have long since hung up our rackets. Not for the first time, though, I found myself pondering the possible connection between squash and achievements off the court, for most of my squash contemporaries are now not just in management but senior and top management. I think there must be such a connection, for squash is about patience, endurance and spotting and seizing opportunities unhesitatingly when they arise.
I went to the College of Europe in Bruges this afternoon for a special commemorative event in memory of Jan Olaf Hausotter, one of my former students and a UN political affairs officer, who died on 12 January in the catastrophic Haitian earthquake. We were accompanied in the audience (composed, inter alia, of many of his contemporaries) by his parents and sister, Lilli, Dieter and Carola, and by his fiancée, Caroline, who was also in Port au Prince and herself only narrowly escaped disaster. It was my honour and privilege to make a few opening remarks and then introduce two remarkable guest speakers; Antonio Vigilante, Director of the UN and UNDP offices in Brussels, and Jack Christofides, Team Leader for Sudan in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations who had worked with Jan and, in a remarkable gesture, had flown from America to be present at the ceremony. The theme of the event was ‘Not a life like any other: international careers and personal sacrifice.’ For Vigilante, who has spent 26 of his 29 UN years working in the field, the United Nations is the institutional representation of a dream, ‘the best of dreams’. I am posting his speaking notes below. If you want to know why people like Jan give up comfortable lives and risk life and limb to help realise that dream, then you should please read Vigilante’s speech. It cannot impart, as he did, the idealistic passion that clearly courses through his veins and those of Christofides, but it will give you the sense of what it is that drives these people. The phrase that stuck in my mind was his rhetorical question about poverty in the world. If 2 billion people living in poverty and inhuman conditions through the accident of birth is not an emergency, then what is? He hoped that mankind would find the same resolve that had abolished slavery to abolish poverty. Jack Christofides began with some shocking statistics. In 35 seconds Haiti had lost 120 per cent of its GDP and at least 170,000 of its people and over 40,000 orphans had been created. Such a shock to a country, any country, was without precedent. Christofides focussed on the risk side of the UN equation. Jan had been killed in a natural disaster but, Christofides pointed out, after the Baghdad bombing of August 2003, the UN and its officials, volunteers and operations came to be considered a legitimate target for many terrorists. Ever since then, Christofides argued, the UN had had to weigh in the balance ‘risk against rôle.’ He gave a graphic example of how (implicitly at great risk to himself) he had gone to negotiate with warlords in Mogadishu, ‘some of the vilest and most disgusting people you can imagine’, indeed, who had recently kidnapped several of his colleagues, in order to extract from them a commitment that they would not fire on UN volunteers distributing food aid to the starving population. The risk, Christofides felt, had been worth it because scores of thousands of lives had been saved. But the experience contrasted with a previous world in which no such negotiations would have been necessary. He finished with Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. I am sure that everybody listening in that lecture room in Bruges (where, coincidentally, Jan and Caroline had sat their oral exams in front of me), was profoundly impressed by the compassion and commitment of these two keepers of the flame of the UN’s humanitarian mission. It was a fitting tribute for Jan, RIP.
As I frequently write, it’s always a little invidious to single out one opinion from the many on the agenda but the last opinion debated in this May plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee was a very poignant one. Jacek Krawczyk (Employers Group, Poland) presented his opinion on the investigation and prevention of accidents and incidents in civil aviation. Jacek is himself a former LOT pilot and really does know what he is talking about but, of course the terrible poignancy came from the fact that his country has so recently experienced devastating human and political loss through an air accident (admittedly, a military plane but, still).
The key event of this morning’s session was the (first) visit of the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. The former Belgian Prime Minister comes from a Member State where the consultative function plays an important role and, promising to return later in the year, he clearly attaches importance to the Committee’s role at EU level (‘the European Economic and Social Committee is an invaluable asset to the Union’). He spoke passionately about the two extremely difficult balancing acts that governments and the EU are having to perform during the current crisis. The first is to reduce debt and deficits whilst not jeopardising growth which, almost paradoxically, is the only way out of the crisis. The second is to reduce deficits whilst maintaining high levels of investment in Europe’s comparative advantage – highly-educated human capital. Closing his speech, Mr Van Rompuy came out with the excellent exhortation that we should ’never under-estimate people’s sense of reality!’ Governments must not only act and react but, he insisted, they must also explain: ‘Politicians will not just have to explain budgetary cuts, they will also have to defend long-term socio-economic changes. We must keep this double focus.’
The Committee’s May plenary session got under way this afternoon. It kicked off with a debate to follow up on last week’s Biennial Conference in Florence, before debating and adopting opinions on: the professionalisation of domestic work (rapporteur: Béatrice Ouin, Employees’ Group, France); collective civil society initiatives for sustainable development (Raymond Hencks, Employees’ Group, Luxembourg); EU-ASEAN relations (Claudio Capellini, Various Interests Group, Italy); international trade and climate change (Evelyne Pichenot, Various Interests Group, France); socially-responsible financial products (Carlos Trias Pinto, Various Interests Group, Spain); and an integrated approach to urban regeneration (Angelo Grasso, Various Interests Group, Italy). I wouldn’t normally list opinions in that way but there are two noteworthy aspects of this afternoon’s activities. The first is that, with the exception of Angelo Grasso’s opinion, all of the others are what we call ‘own-initiative’ opinions – in other words, opinions on topics where the Committee feels that the voice of organised civil society should be heard. (And the exception is what we call an ‘exploratory opinion’ requested by the Spanish Presidency.) The second is that every single one of these opinions was, for me, an excellent read. Now, I don’t mean that in a condescending way but rather that the afternoon’s collection of opinions was an illustration of the way in which our modern world has become so complex, with so many important developments or trends requiring attention all occurring simultaneously.
This will be a short week (because yesterday was Whit Monday) but a very busy one. This afternoon the Bureau met again and took another HR decision which brings my vision of the new establishment plan one step further to completion. Nikos Alexopoulos, who has had a long and very broad career within the EESC, was formally confirmed as Deputy Secretary General. This means I now have two deputies in whom I have complete faith and confidence and to whom I can delegate many operational powers and responsibilities that in the past have been, in my opinion, over-centralised. This will leave me more free to concentrate on strategic issues and, above all, to work more closely with the Committee’s members as they seek to flesh out the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on participatory democracy.
On 21 April I posted a piece about a venerable former President of the European Economic and Social Committee, Fons Margot, and I wrote up his memories of an eventful life. Just recently, I posted him an article about the post-second World War world and the way international organisations were established to deal with the great movements of displaced people, including former prisoners (Fons having himself been involved in such a work). By return of post Fons sent me a photograph, which I am reproducing here, of his father as a Belgian prisoner-of-war in Berlin, 1914-1918. He is on the far left. The two gentlemen in the middle were British POWs, and the gentleman on the right was a Russian POW. No more needs to be said, really. The photo is a story in itself.
Travellers from the south arriving at Zaventum are used to the sudden encounter with Belgium’s typically cooler and wetter weather, but yesterday it was the other way around; the weather in Belgium at the moment is beautiful and certainly much better than it was in Florence. We profited from the blue skies to go to the Chateau at Seneffe, where a series of eleven installations by Belgian film-maker, composer and artist Thierry De Mey has been set up in the Chateau’s beautifully restored grounds. Our favourite was ‘Prélude à la mer’, a film in triptych projected inside a Mongolian-style yurt. What it showed, to the music of Debussy (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune), was a couple (Mark Lorimer and Cynthia Loemij) dancing a duet choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. What was particularly special about it – and this is De Mey’s trade mark – was that it was filmed on the dry and sandy bed of what used to be the Aral Sea. The dance and the dancers were beautiful anyway, but the setting just made it sublime. This piece was worth the trip in itself.