Listening to the radio, reading my newspapers and exchanging e-mails with friends over the past week, four futuristic predictions, all made by scientists, caught my attention. The first was a food scientist who argued that food crises for the world’s growing population could easily be avoided if people could overcome their aversion to eating insects. He enthused about deep-fried locusts, roast honeyed ants and meal worms, ground down and reconstituted as fake steaks. He pointed out that aboriginal peoples in, variously, Australasia, Asia and the Americas have always complemented their diets with insects. If we could only overcome our aversion there need never be a food crisis. The second was, in the context of a recently published book about Latin and English, a scientist who predicted that simultaneous mechanical interpretation is with striking distance and would render ‘world languages’ such as ‘globish’ unnecessary. The third was a scientist who pointed out that human intelligence is increasing at such a speed that the level of our intelligence within, say, a hundred years, would be beyond our understanding now. Lastly, a friend brought to my attention a New York Times article by Brian Greene about the consequences of our steadily expanding universe. His central prediction is that the Earth’s future night sky will be mostly dark (since most light-emitting stars will have accelerated away and the light they emit will be trapped). People staring up at such a sky would find it difficult to believe that it had once been alive with hundreds of thousands of twinkling stars. Who needs science fiction?
This evening, thanks to a gallery-owning friend, we went to a pre-opening viewing of ’BRAFA’, the Brussels Antiques and Fine Arts Fair, at Tour & Taxis (the former customs warehouse site in Brussels). Altogether, about 130 galleries had gathered to display their objets, whilst waiters served sparkling wine and aperitifs to a vast crowd of collectors and amateurs. Oh my! So many beautiful things, including some well-known works from well-known artists. There were also a lot of relatively minor or less well-known works. One I particularly liked and thought might, just, be in my price range was an exquisite Léon Spilliaert water colour, beautifully framed, of a sunny landscape (not a characteristic subject matter for the manic depressive that Spilliaerts was to become). I sidled up to the gallery owner and asked what sort of price we were talking about. ‘One hundred thousand euros,’ he replied. Ah, well; one can dream, can’t one? I couldn’t find a copy of the image on the internet, by the way, so I have put a copy of one of Spilliaert’s most well-known works.
In addition to the visits of European Commission Neelie Kroes and Minister Zsolt Becsey, the plenary session debated and adopted fourteen opinions. Some of these were big set-piece opinions, such as Franco Chiriaco’s (Employees’ Group, Italy) on the European Commission’s 2009 Report on Competition Policy, or on self-evidently major issues for the Union, such as Petru Sorin Dandea’s (Employees’ Group, Romania) and Krzysztof Pater’s (Various Interests, Poland) opinion responding to the European Commission’s Green Paper on Pensions. Others might seem more technical but are actually of equal significance. Two that caught my eye were, first, an opinion by Michael Smyth (Various Interests Group, UK) on corporate governance in financial institutions and remuneration policies (you got it – bankers’ bonuses!) and an opinion by David Sears (Employers’ Group, UK) on a Regulation for ‘the marketing and use of explosives precursors’. The latter, despite the technical title, is designed to reduce terrorists’ access to widely-used substances and mixtures which, in suitable concentrations can also be used to manaufacture explosives. The reason these two opinions caught my eye was not because they happened to have been drafted by British members but because both rapporteurs are acknowledged experts in their field; Smyth a respected economist, Sears a chemist by training who cut his teeth in the Committee on the REACH Directive. Here were two excellent examples of the Committee’s advisory function at work. Whilst it is impossible to prove empirically the influence of an advisory body, the vigorous nodding from the officials on the Commission’s benches during the debate and adoption of these two opinions spoke for itself.
The tradition has grown up in the Committee over the past five or so years for ‘cultural evenings’ to be held, typically in association with the Presidency-in-Office. So this evening, last but not least, the Committee hosted a Hungarian cultural evening, in the presence of the Hungarian minister, Zsolt Becsey, and a large number of distinguished guests. We were treated to a wonderful feast of Hungarian food, wine and music. In the picture President Staffan Nilsson and the minister are accompanied by another distinguished Hungarian member, Mr Antal Csuport, Managing Director of the Hungarian Association of Strategic and Public Utility Companies (STRATOSZ).
After the plenary session was over, I accompanied Vice-President Anna Maria Darmanin and Hungarian member Etele Barath in welcoming the Hungarian PSC Ambassador Karoly Gruber to the opening of an exhibition of photographs, jointly organised with the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Brussels, of bridges over the river Danube – a fine series of photographs by Peter Gyukics of a selection of the many bridges that span the Danube as it flows through ten countries. Gruber was delighted to help with the opening because, as he put it ‘I am a Danube boy. I was born and brought up on the banks of the Danube. I swam in it, sailed on it, cycled alongside it.’ Moreover, he had crossed many of the bridges in the photographs. The exhibition is open to the public in the 6th floor foyer of the Jacques Delors building until 10 February.
Amidst all the hullabaloo about media laws and the like it should not be forgotten that Hungary has taken over the six-monthly Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This is a powerful symbolic moment. Hungary is the first of the most recent member states to hold the Presidency since the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty and, just as significantly, it will be followed by another, Poland. This responsibility comes at a crucial time for the Union. Minister Zsolt Becsey made it clear that managing the current economic and financial crisis is the necessary first priority, with the Presidency undertaking the tricky exercise of simultaneously seeking to reduce debt and promote employment. Boosting economic growth, coordinating economic policies, following up on the Commission’s report on the European semester, boosting and extending the single market, energy policy, the Union’s commitments in countering climate change…; it would all stack up to a major challenge at any time, but Becsey’s speech imparted a quiet confidence that the Hungarian Presidency can and will rise to the challenge.
If it had not been for a bad bout of sinusitis, I would have accompanied my President, Staffan Nilsson, to Tunis in December. The occasion was a meeting of the Board of the International Association of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions. Since then, we have been following events with great concern but also in the conviction that the social partners and civil society will have a key role to play in the establishment of a lasting political settlement. This afternoon, Staffan Nilsson made the following declaration to the EESC’s plenary session:
“The EESC expresses its solidarity with the Tunisian people and its peaceful struggle for fundamental rights and freedom.
The EESC welcomes and supports the aspirations of the Tunisian people to establish a stable demoracy and calls for the involvement of all democratic forces, including civil society representatives, in this process.
At this moment of political instability, the EESC underlines the important role of participatory democracy and the economic and social partners’ and civil society organisations’ contribution to a constructive and fruitful dialogue about the future of the country.
The EESC will continue to assist and support Tunisian social partners and civil society organisations in this crucial moment of Tunisia’s history.”
The Committee’s January plenary session got under way this afternoon with a visit from Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice-President with responsibility for the Digital Agenda. IT, she argued, is not a goal but a vital instrument in helping the Union to reach its ambitious Europe2020 objectives. Admittedly, the ‘crown jewel’ of the single market is already there, but we cannot afford to be complacent. (In an amusing aside, Kroes told her audience that ‘If somebody had told me in the 1970s that by 2010 we would have a single market, 27 member states, a united Europe and a single currency I would have told them to go and see a psychiatrist.’) I am going to quote just a few of Kroes’s declarations here, not to be immodest about the Committee, but because of another post which I will write in due course. ‘I am here for selfish reasons. I have come to get you on my side. I badly need your help. I need your support for the digital agenda.’ To my ears, that does not sound like somebody who thinks the Committee is useless!
Today had a decidedly Hungarian flavour. The Committee was happy to welcome the Hungarian Government minister with responsibility for the national economy, Mr Zsolt Becsey. Our President, Staffan Nilsson, hosted a lunch in his honour and I was among the welcoming party. Mr Becsey began his career in the Hungarian Foreign Affairs Ministry as a specialist in European integration. He then became responsible for relations with the Council of Europe before joining the Hungarian permanent representation in Brussels. He went back to Budapest as chief European adviser to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, returning to Brussels as Deputy Permanent Representative. Then, from 2004 to 2009, he served as a Member of the European Parliament. In other words, when it comes to affairs European, Mr Becsey knows his onions! The lunchtime discussion was erudite, respectful and frank. Some of the topics discussed can be guessed, but it was good for us all to be reminded that there is always more than one side to a story.
A heavy week for the Committee at political level began with this afternoon’s Bureau meeting, where the main agenda item was a discussion of the European Commission’s 2011 work programme with its new Deputy Secretary General, Michel Servoz. As a consultative body, a lot of the Committee’s work is necessarily reactive, since most of the opinions it gives are in response to legislative proposals tabled by the European Commission. The purpose of such a discussion is obviously not to influence the Commission’s legislative intentions; the influence on those obviously has to come upstream of the drafting of the programme. Rather, the Committee’s Bureau members seek to influence the way in which the Commission will draft its legislation and the relative priorities that its departments choose to establish. The Bureau also decided to renew its cooperation with the International Association of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions for a further year. As Jean Monnet once remarked, ‘nothing can be done without citizens but nothing can last without institutions.’ I find the gradual institutionalisation of organised civil society’s role at regional and international level such an interesting phenomenon that I have written an article about it, to be published in the next edition of the Fudan Journal of Human and Social Sciences. For civil society organisations it is in a sense about the eternal play off between authenticity and influence. I shall post a link once the article is out.