This morning I at last got down to reading a fascinating European Policy Centre analysis (by Fabian Zuleeg) of the forthcoming financial perspectives discussions/negotations, worryingly entitled ‘In danger of breakdown: is the EU approaching budget stalemate?’ Zuleeg’s central thesis, echoing what Janusz Lewandowski told EESC Bureau members in November (see post here), is that the Lisbon Treaty now enshrines a bias towards the status quo, with its provision that the last year of the previous Multi-Annual Financial Framework is continued if no agreement is found. In other words, absence of agreement plays into the hands of the hawks. The author also points to the trend whereby traditional ‘own resources’ is a dwindling part of the EU’s overall budget, with an increasingly large proportion (currently 93 beuro out of 122 beuro) coming from Gross National Income contributions from the Member States, leaving the EU’s budget increasingly open to the critical gaze of hawkish treasuries. I found particularly fascinating the facts assembled in one section of the paper. Who are the net contributors? Well, we know Germany pays the most (23.7 beuro in 2010), followed by France (20.3 beuro) and Italy (16.2 beuro). The UK only pays 13.2 beuro. But there are two other ways of looking at the picture. If you look at net balances, Germany (8.1 beuro) still leads France (4.7) and Italy (4.1), but the UK (1.4) then comes in after the Netherlands (2.0) and Belgium (1.5). Lastly, though, if you look at things on a per capita basis then Luxembourg, Denmark and Belgium (€166, €149 and €136 respectively) lead the way, followed by Slovenia (€131), the Netherlands (€124) and Germany (€99). Such alternative figures and comparisons put things in a different perspective.
This evening we went to the ‘Roots Contemporary’ Gallery in Ixelles, to an exhibition of the work of an Italian photographer, Patrizia Bonanzinga, entitled Interior Fuijan. Bonanzinga has been working on Chinese themes since 1995. In 2004 she published a photographic work about the Chinese coal industry, The Road to Coal. In the current exhibition, Bonanzinga goes into the interior of a series of Tulou, the huge, round, fortified houses of the Hakka people and captures everyday life: the shrines to ancestors, the carefully swept kitchens with slippers stacked against chairs, the wood and brick passageways, etc. This sense of timelessness is juxtaposed with the frenetic development of modern China. It is a sobering but somehow reassuring contrast. Maybe the Hakka will be swept away, but not just yet and, when they and their Tulous float away on the high tide of modernity, they will doubtless still be inside, sweeping their kitchens and praying to their ancestors…
I returned to the Parliament’s hemicycle this morning for the closing session of the Citizens’ Agora. The participants heard back from the three workshops and the so-called ‘consensus conference’ (1. The economic and financial crisis and new forms of poverty; 2. The impact of the economic and financial crises on migration flows and integration processes and 3. The economic and social crisis: access to a decent and sustainable way of life for persons in situations of precariousness – challenges for the European model of society; the consensus conference was designed to follow the workshops and bring practical conclusions back to the plenary). In the ensuing questions-and-answers session the familiar problems with such exercises arose; providing an occasion for people to speak is all very well but how do the institutions show that they have listened? Isabelle Durant and Libor Roucek (EP Vice-Presidents) and Staffan Nilsson (EESC President) were frank in acknowledging this challenge but, as Durant put it, if the issue could be put on the political agenda as climate change had been (the theme of a previous Agora), then that in itself would represent genuine progress. This conference was about the plight of the victims of crises and the poverties they suffer and we will all, I am quite certain, continue to strive to help them. As EESC Secretary General, I was proud of the way in which two institutions, the Parliament and the EESC, had cooperated together so well and so productively. As Libor Roucek put it, ‘If we want to be successful and achieve our goals we must cooperate with the other institutions, and the European Economic and Social Committee is one of the most important of those.’
I hotfooted it back from the Parliament for a working lunch with the Committee’s Vice-President with responsibility for Communication, Anna Maria Darmanin, our head of communication, Peter Lindvald Nilsen, and two very special guests, Claus Sorensen, Director General of DG Communication in the European Commission, and Reijo Kemppinen, Director General of Communication and Transparency in the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union. They had come to the Committee to be keynote speakers in the opening (afternoon) session of a seminar for the press officers of the civil society organisations from which our members are drawn. One of the major themes to be addressed was the challenges represented by new technologies, and not just the social media. We had an excellent discussion about whether institutions and organisations should regulate the use by their officials of such social media as Twitter and Facebook. Reijo, whom I first met when he was the spokesperson of the Finnish permanent representation in the mid-1990s (a time when the then new Member States were fighting hard to introduce more transparency into the EU’s decision-making processes), argued strongly that further regulation was unnecessary, since all EU officials were subject to their contractual obligations and the staff regulations. As I would have expected, a breath of fresh Nordic air! Afterwards, I attended the opening session, where he repeated his point of view (so I am not revealing confidences). Claus Sorensen, meanwhile, stressed the twin needs for a decentralised approach and for civil society organisations to be involved. As with the Citizens’ Agora, the sorts of questions and answers that arose in the opening session promise a rich and interesting two days’ work!
To the European Parliament’s hemicycle this morning for the opening session of the Citizens’ Agora on crises and poverties, jointly organised with the European Economic and Social Committee. Under the chairmanship of the two EP Vice-Presidents with responsibility for the Agora, Libor Roucek and Isabelle Durant, the plenary heard, variously from Parliament’s President, Jerzy Buzek, the EESC’s President, Staffan Nilsson, the President of the Committee of Regions, Mercedes Bresso, the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, Laszlo Andor, and Hungary’s permanent representative, Peter Gyorkos. But what made this opening different to a typical run of set-piece speeches was the presence of a choir of homeless people from the streets, the ‘Chorale des Sans-Abri Au clair de la rue’, whose songs interspersed the speeches, and the presence in the hemicycle – Parliament’s plenary chamber, let us not forget - of an assembly of representatives of civil society and organised civil society. The Citizens’ Agora, organised on a thematic basis, is part of the European Parliament’s response to its obligation, under Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty, to enter into structured dialogue with organised civil society. It is a considered response to an obligation which, it could be argued, seems slightly ‘out of area’ for an institution which directly represents 500 million citizens and it therefore seems entirely logical that, as Buzek, Roucek and Durant all made clear, the Parliament should join forces with the EU body that does represent organised civil society, the European Economic and Social Committee. The opening question-and-answer session promises a productive two days ahead!
It sounds like Cockney rhyming slang but this was the delicious fare at the Palais des Beaux Arts this evening, played by the Hungarian National Orchestra under the expert baton of Zoltan Kocsis. We had, variously, Franz Liszt’s ‘Preludes and symphonique poem after Alphonse de Mamartine’, then his second piano concerto (with Dezsö Ranki giving an accomplished performance), then Bela Bartok’s four Slovakian songs and three village scenes, and finally, his Cantata Profana, The Nine Enchanted Stags. It was all great stuff but the concert, coming at the beginning of the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, was rendered special from the outset by the presence of the Hungarian President, Pal Schmitt, on a state visit to Brussels, and Belgian Princess Mathilde. Because of their presence, the concert began with the Belgian national anthem (sung twice, once in French, once in Flemish), the Hungarian national anthem and, most movingly, the ‘European anthem’ – Beethoven’s Ninth and Schiller’s Ode to Joy sung by a double choir – that’s right, a double choir. It really did make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Europe, endless!
Today’s newspapers carried the obituaries of Desmond O’Donovan, a theatre director whose accomplishments included the 1964 premiere of Peter Shaffer’s extraordinary play The Royal Hunt of the Sun. That got me reminiscing. My secondary school, for reasons nobody understood, had an excellent stage (of West End standards, it was said). It also had, in Colin Tufnel, MBE (finally honoured in 2005 for his extraordinary work with generations of schoolchildren), a metal work teacher who was a great enthusiast of theatre and who, with great ingenuity and unstinting effort, produced several plays or musicals of very high quality every year. In my first year, 1968, he produced The Royal Hunt of the Sun (in other words, just four years after the premiere) and I appeared in the play, courtesy of quantities of greasepaint, as an Inca Indian. My older brother, a few years ahead of me, had played violin in the school’s 1967 production of The Pirates of Penzance, and that had been my introduction to the magical power of the theatre. But, oh!, the scene where Pizarro almost begs the strangled Atahualpa to prove that he was indeed the son of the sun king and to rise again – oh! I watched spellbound from the wings for four nights and I was hooked, totally hooked. Pizarro was played by Albert Welling, who, to nobody’s surprise, went on to enjoy a distinguished acting career. Atahualpa was played by Peter Herbert. I don’t know what happened to him but, through the wonders of the internet, you can read about that 1968 production in a copy of the school magazine here. In the picture I can just be made out, front of stage left, prostrate before Peter Herbert – I mean, the King of the Incas and the son of the Sun King!
To a normal post plenary session Monday (Directors’ meeting discussions on follow-ups to Bureau and plenary sessions, etc) was added this afternoon the annual meeting of all EESC staff with the President, Staffan Nilsson, and myself, as SG, followed by a reception. The Committee’s tradition of relatively short presidential mandates (since the Lisbon Treaty, two-and-a-half years) is both a sadness and a pleasure. I joined the Committee in 2003 and so have already known five Presidents: Roger Briesch (a French Trade Unionist/Group II), Anne-Marie Sigmund (an Austrian lawyer/Group III), Dimitris Dimitriadis (a Greek businessman/Group I), Mario Sepi (an Italian trade unionist/Group II) and now Staffan Nilsson (a Swedish farmer/Group III). I have worked closely with them all and have greatly enjoyed the experience. Staffan has a wonderfully quirky sense of humour and at times this afternoon I felt like the straight man in a comic duo act. It is, as I am sure our audience understood, great fun as well as a special sort of privilege. For, as SG I sit at the right hand of people who bring the authenticity of their lives out there in the real world to ‘Brussels’. After Christmas, for example, Staffan (who probably won’t thank me for writing this) had a series of scars on his head because he had been mending his tractor and had kept banging his head on the bonnet as he stood up! When such a person talks to a Commissioner about reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (to take an obvious example), who can doubt that he knows what he is talking about?
This film, Kick Ass, which we belatedly saw this afternoon, has left me perplexed and bemused. It is well made, well directed (Matthew Vaughn), tightly plotted, well acted and quite funny in places. It is also full of filthy language and quite extreme violence and a key part is played by an eleven year-old vigilante girl (Mindy Macready/Hit Girl, played very well by Chloë Grace Moretz) who dispatches the villains, murderers of her parents, with great aplomb and liberal quantities of gore. Nicholas Cage (as Damon Macready/Big Daddy) turns in a suitably creepy performance as her father. Irritatingly, the closing scene quite deliberately sets up a possible sequel and the solid box office figures are probably encouraging the studio to think about that right now. But I just didn’t get the point of it. The everyman anti-hero, Dave Lizewski/Kick Ass (played by Aaron Johnson), fails in his suicidally futile fightback and can only be helped by a series of ‘with-one-bound-he-was-free’ twists to the plot (for example, a car accident damages his nerves and raises his pain threshold). So what’s the message, if there is one? Don’t try this at home, kids?
Talking of science fiction, tonight we watched Starship Troopers (the 1997 edition) – in Italian (that was the deal with N° 2 sprog – gore in return for language exposure). This is one of those films that is definitely not better than the book on which it is based. Nevertheless, it does strongly echo one of the book’s central themes, that, as Director Paul Verhoeven put it, ‘war makes fascists of us all’, a theme underlined by the satirical use of uniforms deliberately echoing Nazi dress. It is, of course, a recurring theme in science fiction literature – if we cannot even empathise with our fellow human beings, how could we possibly empathise with alien beings? To echo one of the scientific predictions in this morning’s post, would we even be able to understand them? That is the central story line of Solaris, which I would strongly recommend. Unlike Heinlein’s novel, Stanislaw Lem makes the point without a war; when we can’t understand things, we tend to attack them.