This evening I gave the seventh John Fitzmaurice Memorial Lecture. John, a European Commission official, a prolific academic author and a founding member of the Brussels Labour branch, was in turns my academic mentor, boss, colleague, comrade and dear friend. He passed away suddenly in August 2003. It was a great pleasure and privilege to be able to pay tribute to him. Neil Kinnock delivered the first memorial lecture and the subsequent lecturers have been Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, Geoff Hoon, Julian Priestley, Margot Wallstrom and John Monks. Until the end, John and I would have lunch about once every six weeks (our last lunch was just one month before he died), and we would use these occasions to bounce ideas for articles and books off of one another. I deeply miss those lunches, so I asked the audience to pretend they were John and bounced some ideas off of them. My chosen theme was the rise of Euroscepticism and the risk of a conflation with extremism. Basically, I think we have much to learn from American politics in the mid-1800s, when permanent political parties first started to form at the federal level. These have always remained loose coalitions and maybe that’s the way party politics in the EU will evolve in the longer run, with a loose coalition of pro-integration parties and a loose coalition of more Eurosceptical parties. I’ll post a link to the speech once I have written it up. Here’s that link.
Continuing our children’s education in the great film classics (well, that’s our excuse, anyway), tonight we watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I forget how many times I have seen this film. It’s always enjoyable. There’s the wonderful chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the tragic-comic plot, some spectacular scenery lovingly shot, a great song (Raindrops keep falling on my head) and some brilliant one-liners: ‘you keep thinking, Butch; that’s what you’re good at’; ‘I don’t know where we’ve been and we’ve just been there’; and ‘Who’s the best lawman?’ ‘You mean the toughest or the easiest to bribe?’ What struck me more this time around was the darker, elegiac, allegoric side to the film. The cheerful and charismatic outlaws are inexorably hunted down just as the native Indians had been before them. The evil of the outlaws is extirpated but so is their fancy-free life and cheerful innocence. Civilisation is right and inevitable but it’s also boring… It’s strange to think that, before Redford landed the part (which made his career), Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon and Newman himself were all considered for the role of the Sundance Kid. It’s impossible now to imagine it being anybody else.
This evening we went to Les Halles de Schaerbeek to see a double bill from the Company Moussoux-Bonté. The main piece, Les Corps Magnétiques, is a brilliant idea that somehow fell disappointingly flat. Besuited men and party-dressed women in high heels strike various poses on the stage, each with a cocktail glass in hand. Couples and groups form and unform, mimicking the dynamics of a party, perhaps. But it rapidly becomes clear that there are deeper and darker forces at work. There are rejections and acts of dominance and submission. People crawl across the stage or storm off of it. It is, say the programme notes, ‘between humour and oddity, an allegory about the impossible and necessary community.’ So far, so good, and the piece, if it had lasted ten minutes, would have been very powerful. But by the conventions of our day and age the main billing had to last longer and, the longer it lasted, the more it seemed to repeat itself and the less force it had. About half way through the piece the dancers strip to bathing costumes and bikinis and go through it all again. I don’t want to pan this piece and I am glad I saw it, but the contrast came with the first half of the bill, Kefar Nahum, where Nicole Moussoux herself performs a brilliant mime on a darkened stage, bringing to life a series of everyday objects. Put it this way, if you could only see one, take the Kefar Nahum.
This evening we went to see the Irish Theatre Group’s production of Brian Friel’s Translations, directed by Nick Roche. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre, leaving the audience, as the publicity succinctly declared, ‘to ponder on how we communicate with one another, between countries, between siblings, between the generations, between the sexes, between cultures and between languages’. It is also, I might add, a powerful piece of writing against colonisation and cultural imperialism (every Englishman should see it). We had an additional reason for going. The part of Hugh was played by a member of my writers’ workshop, John Boyle, who played the same part in the ITG’s first production of the play in 1983, when the playwright himself was among the audience. The whole cast were excellent and once again I was left thinking how lucky we are to live in a city with such a rich cultural agenda.
I spent all day today in a senior management seminar. I started the opening session with a plea for what I journalistically entitled a ‘cultural revolution’. One of my basic arguments was that collectively the EU’s institutions had not yet fully understood the consequences of the last two waves of enlargement (2004 and 2007). We have a fierce attachment to the notion of a European public service. We know how difficult it is to compete in the international job market for high-performing polyglot staff. We therefore understand why our officials receive the salaries they do and work in the conditions that they do. But many of our members, particularly those coming from Central and Eastern European countries, understandably cannot avoid making comparisons with conditions back home and the conditions that used to exist back home until very recently. After my talk there was a table round in which participants agreed with the basic analysis. But the whole atmosphere in the room changed electrically when a Latvian deputy director, IS, took the floor and briefly recounted the world which she had known. When the Soviets invaded Latvia in 1940 they split up former grand townhouses into small flats. IS’s parents lived in half of one room. Their half was demarcated by a wardrobe and a curtain. All services – toilet, kitchen – were communal, shared with three other families. There was no bathroom. Washing was in a bowl of hot water. Because of theft, they kept their refrigerator with their food in their half room. IS was an only child. It was impossible to have another until, ten years later, they obtained an additional room, when IS’s brother was born. I have very briefly summarised IS’s account. This is a world which she knew. Indeed, she has lived more of her life under the old regime than under the new one. It was a perfectly timed and delivered reminder of just how lucky we are.
I was co-chairing a regular joint management meeting this morning with my counterpart from the Committee of the Regions, Gerhard Stahl, when a friend texted me the news that the European Court of Justice had ruled against the Council in the ‘salaries’ case brought by the European Commission. Well, we saw this one coming. It’s easy to be wise after the event but I cannot help but feel that a little more foresight and a more imaginative approach could have enabled us to avoid the bad press we are now understandably going to get. Basically, EU officials’ salaries are adjusted each year according to a method which essentially follows adjustments to the salaries of civil servants in a basket of eight different member states. By its nature, this method involves a time lag, and so alas it threw up a 3.7% increase in the middle of an economic and financial crisis. It was, quite understandably, politically impossible for member state governments, particularly those imposing harsh austerity programmes at home (including cuts to civil services), to approve such an increase although, as the Court has now confirmed through its ruling, the Council in effect had no margin of discretion. At a managerial level, the potential problem (assuming the Council now approves an increase from the 1.85 it had originally decided to 3.7%) has four parts. First, the institutions will have to find the necessary credits to pay the difference as from 1 July 2009, a budgetary year that has closed. They’ll have to do the same for 2010, a budgetary year that is almost over. They’ll have to do the same for next year (because the Council could not accept that the institutions anticipate the Court’s possible ruling in their draft budgets). And they’ll have to incorporate the relevant full increases into their draft 2012 budgets. Since we are under a legal obligation to pay the salaries of our officials, ways will have to be found. Understandably, however, none of this will play well out there in the ‘real world’. I hope that we collectively learn our lesson from this experience.
Sad news. Stanley Crossick, a solicitor, think tank leader, political analyst, writer, speaker and media commentator, and a well-known figure in Brussels circles, passed away yesterday. Stanley was also a very active blogger. His last post was on just 23 October – ironically, it was about the sad passing away of Max Kohnstamm. Stanley was the Director and Founding Chairman of The European Policy Centre, in its own words, ‘a proactive, Brussels think tank, driven by business and the other economic and social actors, which focuses on key internal and external issues of European integration’. Stanley was a passionate believer in the process of European integration and in the goal of European Union. Latterly, he was a fervent believer in the importance of Sino-European relations. He was generous with his advice, learned advice that I sought eagerly and he gave generously as I took up the cudgels as Secretary General. But I am sure he will be remembered primarily for what he always was; a thoroughly nice and decent human being.
At one end of our street there is a traditional Asian corner shop. In the beginning, it was run by a lovely old Pakistani couple. After a while, they went home and their son, Taseer, took it over. In time, he refurbished the shop and took over several others. Taseer is one of the quarter’s guardian angels. He is in part barman, parish priest, teacher, and urban security officer. He has a friendly wink, smile and chat for everybody. He is very active in the local neighbourhood association, organising street parties and other initiatives. This morning we ate an opening Oxfam breakfast in his latest venture; Bread and Breakfast. The neighbourhood has been crying out for such a coffee shop/snack shop for a long time and if the crowds this morning are anything to go by, Taseer is onto a winner – and he deserves it! Bread and Breakfast, Taseer Mirza, 50 rue Thomas Vincotte, Schaerbeek.
This evening we went to see an amateur performance of Frank Loesser’s great musical, Guys and Dolls. The Brussels Light Opera Company, an amateur group bringing together people of many nationalities and ages, has existed since 1975 and is now an unmissable part of the Brussels expat community’s landscape. On this occasion they brought us Loesser’s witty music and lyrics and, behind that, the keen observations of Damon Runyan, on whose short stories about Prohibition New York the musical was based. We had great fun. The two leading ladies, Laura Ford as Sarah Brown and Lisa Armetta as Miss Adelaide, turned in wonderful performances. For my money, Miss Adelaide, with her romanticism undiminished by occasional bouts of world-weary pragmatism, is the story’s strongest character. All of the characters get some great lines but the public is always on Miss Adelaide’s side. When, on the fourteenth anniversary of her engagement (marriage has yet to follow), her fiancée forgets to get her a present, she remarks; ’Oh, I don’t mind, Nathan, if you don’t give me a present. It makes me feel like we were married.’ There are still a few places left for tomorrow’s performance. Don’t miss it! Into the bargain you’ll see a brilliant tap dance routine from Grégoire Vandersmissen.
At midday I joined a human chain formed around the European Parliament to raise consciousness in this, the year of combating poverty and social exclusion. The event is part of the European Parliament’s communication campaign on its role in fighting poverty, social exclusion and the negative consequences of the crises, leading up to the Citizens’ Agora, in January next year, which is being organised by the Parliament with the support and very active participation of the European Economic and Social Committee. In a recent post I wrote about the poverty revealed in a local jumble sale. As European Vice-President Isabelle Durant put it, poverty and its consequences are all around us. In part, poverty is hidden. In part, the poor hide their condition through understandable pride. And in part we who are better off do not see. Events like this are an important way of reminding us about the reality ‘out there’.