I shall miss them...
The plenary session continued this morning with a very heavy agenda, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Alongside a number of heavyweight and interconnected opinions on such topics as a new financial system for the internal market, practical initiatives for the economic recovery, green jobs, financing structures for SMEs and the interconnectedness of business registers, were two very well-researched opinions on the EU’s strategy for the Danube region and the EU’s multingualism policy. But beyond all of these, the plenary adopted a resolution on the situation of the Roma in the European Union. The full text of the resolution is below. The adoption of such resolutions is rare in the life of the Committee and is significant in itself. The rarity meant also that the plenary got embroiled in some procedural confusion but, in the end, the resolution was adopted and speaks for itself. Continue reading
From the vernissage we retired to a nearby Italian restaurant to which I had invited the outgoing President and all of his team together with my management board to say thank you and farewell in convivial circumstances. We have done a huge amount together and have always got on well. As I wrote in a previous post, we have been working with a passionate and committed President. Moreover, until the Lisbon Treaty EESC Presidents had a mere two years to push through their programmes (now it’s two-and-a-half years) so they are always in a hurry, whereas the administration’s primary concern is excellence and careful preparation. The potential for tensions and differences was therefore very high, but we always found a way to move forward together, for the better interest of the Committee. It was a good evening, with just a little bit of speechifying (my speech is below). The friendly atmosphere was in itself an illustration of how well the teams have got on. Now the administration must prepare itself to work with a new presidential team. The old team, meanwhile, will break up and its members will go their own ways. I hope they will all carry happy memories with them of their time in the Committee and above all, of course, their time with Mario Sepi. Continue reading
The President and I rushed back from the ceremony (our plenary session is being held this time in the European Commission’s Charlemagne building) so as to be present at the opening of an art exhibition in the EESC’s flagship Jacques Delors building. The exhibition, timed to coincide with the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, has the title ‘100 years of abstract art’ and features the works of five artists covering different Belgian regions: Guy Vandebranden (Antwerp), Jean Dubois (Hainaut), Guillaume Vanden Borre (Brabant), Victor Noel (Hainaut) and the sculptress, Hilde Van Sumere (Flemish Brabant). As Mario Sepi put it in his introductory remarks, the exhibition is proof that culture knows no boundaries. I had the privilege of meeting Guy Vandebranden (see picture), one of those people of great modesty and absolute determination and whose work features bold, geometric shapes and forms and bright colours surrounded by dark outlines that somehow create an illusion of depth and space.
In the early evening, at the end of the plenary session, the outgoing President presided over a ceremony in which each of the Committee’s outgoing members – just under a third – was individually awarded a diploma, a commemorative crystal paperweight and, as a gesture from Mario Sepi himself, a bottle of olive oil produced by the anti-mafia organisation, Libera (which received the EESC’s civil society prize in Palermo last year). It was a moment also for the Secretary General, a tear in his eye, to thank everybody and wish them well. This turnover of membership is a characteristic aspect of the Committee – its composition is thus ‘refreshed’ at the beginning of every new mandate – but as I shook hand after hand and bade the outgoing members farewell I realised just how much experience and expertise the Committee was losing. No doubt the new, incoming members will bring their own rich experience and expertise but the experience – it’s the first time for me, as Secretary General – reminded me of the way subjects of monarchies would once upon a time declare ‘The King is dead! Long live the King!’ (In the picture, Mario Sepi, himself an outgoing member, has just presented himself with his diploma! To his right is the Head of his Private Office, Andrea Pierucci, who is an old, near and dear friend.)
So the week galloped on and what a roller coaster of emotions our outgoing President, Mario Sepi, is riding! The rules of the Committee provide that the President should report back to the plenary at the end of his/her mandate. Mario’s speech was followed by those of the two outgoing Vice-Presidents, Irini Pari and Seppo Kallio, followed by tributes from the Presidents of the Committee’s three Groups. It is no suprise that the occasion got a little emotional. Mario’s Presidency has been characterised by passionate support for the causes in which he believes – primarily, human rights and a strong social Europe. No sooner had his Presidency begun than the financial and economic crisis struck, with all its potential consequences for Europe’s societies, and a lot of his energies have been directed to ensuring that the EU’s socio-economic model does not get eroded.
In the evening I hotfooted it from the Bureau meeting to the residence of the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the European Union, Sir Kim Darroch, who had kindly invited all of the outgoing British members of the EESC for a farewell reception, preceded by an analysis of the current overall political and economic situation of the European Union, presented by the Ambassador himself and by his deputy, Andy Lebrecht. The invitation was extended to the Committee’s SG as a courtesy. Our hosts’ analysis was sober but upbeat. The Lisbon Treaty’s provisions must be fully implemented and consolidated, whilst the Union rises to such challenges as reform of the common agricultural policy and budgetary reform, and all of this against a backdrop of recession and probably only gradual recovery. In my books and articles about the Council of the European Union I have always argued that the permanent representatives are the unsung heroes of the European integration process; they work extremely hard and their days are terribly long but they always find agreement – it is the basic tenet of their fellowhood. And that is why, I think, the analyses of our hosts were essentially upbeat. The basic message is that we just need to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Amen.
This afternoon the 2006-2010 mandate Bureau of the Committee met for the last time. It was a moment to take stock, but it was also a full working meeting, with a number of political issues on the agenda, from an agreement with the Committee’s partner organisation in Ukraine through to a draft resolution on the Roma situation, not to forget amendments to the Committee’s rules of procedure (always a delicate matter). But everything passed off well and the meeting was bathed in the bitter-sweet light of all endings: the end of Mario Sepi’s Presidency, the end of the Vice-Presidencies of Irini Pari and Seppo Kallio, the end of various Section Presidencies and the end of the Bureau itself. When it came to taking stock, there was a recognition that a great deal had been achieved and a solid platform had been built from which the new, incoming Committee and Presidency could build a stronger role for the institution not only in carrying out its core tasks as a consultative body but also in fleshing out the provisions of Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty on the democratic life of the Union. In our shorthand we call the concept ‘participatory democracy’, but what we mean is that in something as rich and complex as the European Union, with all its cultures and languages and layers of governance, civil society organisations must also play their role and have their voice.
The European Economic and Social Committee likes to think of its headquarters building as being the house of organised civil society. As such, we have a well-established practice of paying host to meetings organised by civil society organisations of various sorts, in partnership with us. So this morning we hosted the annual general meeting of the Euclid Network. We also have a practice of making sure that all important visitors to our premises get welcomed personally. So it was that this morning I found myself, together with Group III President Staffan Nilsson, welcoming Baroness Cathy Ashton to the Committee. She had come to deliver Euclid’s keynote address. Her basic theme was that civil society was an ‘untapped resource for the EU across the world’. This sentiment echoed what Ban Ki-Moon had told the AICESIS General Assembly in New York in early July. At a human level, I have to say that the High Representative and Commission Vice-President was remarkably cool and unflustered (a quality in itself in such a role, I would argue). As is well known, she is expected to do three jobs rolled into one and, at the moment, does not yet have her external action service beneath her to deliver. Although we have already had glimmerings, once the EAS is there I am sure that we will start to see many interesting and positive new dynamics in the Union’s external relations.
An enlarged President (again)
Today was the first of five very busy and also very moving days, marking the end of the current mandate of the European Economic and Social Committee and also therefore the end of the mandate of the current President, Mario Sepi. I get into the office quite early and each day begins with a pang, if not of guilt then of sympathy, for apart from the security guards at the entrance, the first person I meet is the cleaning lady who ‘does’ my floor. Of Turkish origin, she is always in a good mood. I admire her for this. As a student, I once had a similar job and hated it – the early mornings, the artificial light, the cleaning products, other people’s mess. I was Mr Grumpy. She is Mrs Sunshine in comparison. The pang comes because this lady has young children at home. I always see my children in the morning, at the breakfast table. With the exception of weekends, this lady never does. She is philosophical about it but, maybe because Cancer is my star sign, I feel for her every time I see her – which is every weekday morning. It’s a reminder of the real world out there. The day progressed with a series of coordination meetings: the weekly management board meeting, which I chair, first, followed by the pre-plenary session planning meeting with all colleagues involved (which I also chair), and then, in the afternoon, a political level meeting of what we call the ‘enlarged Presidency’ (the President, Vice-Presidents, Group Presidents and the Secretary General) to resolve a number of outstanding political issues related to the imminent plenary session, followed by a farewell dinner in the evening, where the incoming President, Staffan Nilsson, paid the first of what will surely be many tributes paid to Mario Sepi this week. In between all of this I had lunch with a new trade attaché at one the permanent representations, a very old friend from Florence days, and met a much-admired academic, Richard Rose, who, encouragingly, has started to get interested in the Committee and wants to write about it. A rich day, then, at the beginning of a very rich week.
To the Quartiers Latins in the Place des Martyrs at midday for the Brussels launch of my better half’s Le jour aux ignorants, published jointly with Brabant Wallon poet, Véronique Wautier. The discussion between the two ‘authors’ was very interesting. We are used to thinking that pictures illustrate text, but here it was the other way around; the pictures inspired the poems. And there was a great deal of (friendly) tension between competing visions that sometimes led them to leave out an image or a poem. On occasion, Véronique explained, she insisted on including a particular drawing although she had not yet drafted a poem to accompany it. The end result is a particularly coherent set of drawings and texts. Certainly the rich discussion provided a valuable insight into the dynamics of collaborative processes – and also to the aesthetic value of the resulting work.