As I never tire of pointing out, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions have engaged in a unique and pioneering arrangement whereby they jointly pool many of their resources, particularly for translation and logistics (buildings, IT, etc). This leads to synergies and economies of scale that represent considerable savings for the EU budget and hence for the taxpayer. The arrangement requires close cooperation and coordination. By carefully planning their meeting calendars, for example, the two Committees spread the work load for their translators, providing a steady flow and avoiding ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’. The arrangement is oiled through a series of joint governance mechanisms and an overall cooperation agreement. Today, I and my CoR counterpart, Gerhard Stahl, held a regular lunchtime meeting to discuss issues of common concern and then in the afternoon jointly chaired a management meeting of our joint services. Gerhard and I have known each other for donkeys’ years and that helps, I am sure, but we were happy to note that, as a mid-term review of the cooperation agreement fast approaches, the arrangement is working very well, enabling the Committees to realise economies and synergies whilst maintaining their respective roles and identities. At the request of our political authorities, we will shortly be publishing a pamphlet that details the various forms of interinstitutional cooperation that we champion so very effectively. The working title is ‘An Efficient Relationship‘.
I spent some time, as an undergraduate philosophy student, wrestling with Descartes’s argument about the evil genius. Today’s young things (including N° 1 sprog, now studying philosophy) have the likes of Peter Weir’s 1998 film, The Truman Show, or The Matrix, to help them grapple with such concepts as the mind-body problem. Until his thirtieth year Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, lives a reality which, although entirely convincing to him, is a complete fabrication, the creation of an innovative television reality programme producer, Christof (played by Ed Harris). Without over-egging the pudding, the film’s philosophical underpinnings can be traced as far back as Thomas More’s Utopia, but Weir famously did not want the script to be heavy and as viewers we don’t feel too awkward about the fact that, for example, we are double voyeurs – of the Truman Show, but also of the reactions and emotions of those watching the Show. It’s a clever film but, thanks to Weir’s direction and Carrey’s acting, it wears its learning lightly. Even so, the film has given rise to its own, clinically diagnosed, delusional syndrome; now there’s fame for you!
Ahem. Proud Secretary General warning. Every year many EU officials run ‘for Europe’ for a cause. This year the cause was to draw attention to the Year of Volunteering and 1132 EU officials ran. And every year there is a sort of unofficial competition between the various EU institutions and agencies and the European Commission’s separate Directorates-General. The institutions are ranked on the basis of their first three fastest times. The European Parliament, fielding thirty runners, came first, with an overall time of 4h16’57. And the European Economic and Social Committee, fielding just eight runners, came second, with an overall time of 4h23’33. Commendably, the Commissioners’ cabinets came third, with an overall time of 4h24’50. Embarrassingly, DG MOVE came second last, with an overall time of 6h04’16. But I shall not gloat. Oh no.
This evening we watched Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie (‘as himself’, as the joke had it), Candy Clark and Rip Torn). This is one of those films that is as good as, though different from, the novel of the same name (by the American author Walter Tevis, who has the distinction of having had three of his six novels turned into films, the other two being The Hustler and The Colour of Money, and who surely deserves to be better known). Like much of the best SF, the book and the film use ‘the other’ to comment on ourselves – and who better to play an androgynous alien than Bowie? James Sallis described the book as follows: “Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written.” It is surely also a dig at Howard Hughes and the way he was treated. Both book and film are convincingly strong in their portrayals of the way people can get deflected from their initial noble purpose and, dispirited, sag back into displacement activity and ennui. They also give convincing accounts of the dispair of permanent exile. For Major Tom, aka Thomas Jerome Newton, knows he will never return home and that his family will die without ever learning his fate. Nowadays, you can book your place in space with Virgin Galactic, but I wonder what the CIA and the FBI would make of a reclusive billionaire who suddenly decided to build an intergalactic space rocket in his backyard. There must surely be a law against it.
Although neither of us had really trained properly for it, N° 1 sprog and I ambled around the annual 20 k course this afternoon, clocking up a fairly respectable 2h10 time. The festive atmosphere was great as ever and it is always a thrill to be part of a 30,000-strong crowd jogging along the Rue de la Loi. The novelty this time was a staggered start. I understand the intention – to avoid the crush at the off – but I wonder how effective it was at avoiding crushes elsewhere: the tunnels seemed particularly full, but that may have been because we began from the middle of the third wave (whereas last year I was much nearer the front). It was hot this year. The Avenue Louise tunnels were very muggy and the shadeless Avenue Franklin Roosevelt climb was a toughie. Later, I discovered our times and those of my colleagues on the website and I was very proud. For a small institution, the European Economic and Social Committee sports quite a few accomplished runners as well as the amblers like me, one of my deputy Secretary Generals (Nikos), our Head of Communication (Peter), our accountant (Claus) and our nurse (Caroline). Congratulations in particular go to Marc and Fausta, head and number two respectively of our Various Interests Group secretariat. But the undoubted star of the show was the Head of our Budget Unit, Johannes Kind, who raced around in just 1h15, coming in 126th out of 30,000 runners. Well done, Johannes, and well done, everybody!
This has been one of those weeks when, as Secretary General, I can look back over the past five days with pride and happiness because the Committee’s membership and its secretariat have really worked exceptionally hard and always to a very high level of quality. On Monday there was not only the high level international conference on food security (see previous posts) but a public hearing on volunteering. The next day the Committee hosted the fifth meeting of the European Integration Forum, with high-level speakers including our own Vice-President, Anna Maria Darmanin; Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs; Mercedes Bresso, President of the Committee of the Regions; Malika Benarab-Attou, Member of the European Parliament and Lorrie Louwes, Deputy Mayor of Rotterdam. And in addition, on consecutive days, the TEN, NAT, REX (with Pierre Vimont), INT and SOC Sections met – each a major meeting involving over a hundred participants and the preparation, debate and adoption of numerous opinions. And everything went smoothly and well. Not bad, not bad at all! Well done, everybody.
This morning I took part in a fun initiative, organised by our administration to encourage people to lead healthier lives and to save energy into the bargain. Colleagues who wished to take part had their pulse and blood pressure taken on the ground floor of our Bertha Von Suttner building and were then invited to walk up the stairs to the fifth floor and, if they so wished, to the ninth floor, where their pulse and pressure were measured again. So I went along to fly the flag. Since I plan to run the 20 k on Sunday, I wasn’t surprised to be told that I was fit. But I was slightly surprised to discover that my blood pressure had improved after I had walked up nine flights of stairs. Curious, but great fun. The picture shows me at the fifth floor check point. The moral of the exercise is; take the stairs rather than the lift when you can. It keeps you fit and saves energy.
This afternoon EESC President Staffan Nilsson and I congratulated some thirty officials who had completed twenty, thirty or (in two cases) forty years’ service for the EU and the Committee. Forty! The very thought makes me feel humble. I was still at school in 1971. It is a very enjoyable occasion. As always excellently organised by our HR colleagues, each colleague gets a certificate and has her or his photograph taken with the President and the Secretary General. In addition, I gave a little speech, with elements prepared or contributed by close colleagues, on each of the recipients. It is always a voyage of discovery. I learned that one colleague has climbed Africa’s highest mountains and written a book about Mount Kilimanjaro; another’s secret passion is collecting orchids; another is a passionate expert on the world’s 6,000+ languages. It’s simply a lovely occasion. After thirty speeches and over an hour at the podium I had a slightly sore throat but I wouldn’t do it otherwise for all the tea in China.
This morning the Committee and more specifically its external relations section has welcomed Pierre Vimont, the first and current Secretary-General of the European External Action Service (EEAS). After an amicable and productive ‘bilateral’ meeting with the President of the external relations section, Sandy Boyle (UK/Employees Group), Vimont addressed the sections’ members, first explaining the physiology of the EEAS, which is still a work under construction and which is a composite 3,600-strong administration of Commission, Council and Member State officials but not a new institution and which has only partial budgetary autonomy (for administrative expenditure). As a fellow Secretary-General, listening in to his description, I am deeply impressed at how well-functioning order has already been brought out of such challenging complexity. The EEAS is one of the major innovations in the Lisbon Treaty and its growing success, particularly away from the headlines, represents a wonderful example of Europeans’ ingenius ability to get on ever better with themselves and with the world around them. In that context Vimont addressed the burning issues south and east of the Union, where civil society organisations and civil society more generally are playing such important driving roles. The EESC, with its structured dialogues with civil society organisations and institutions, where those exist, is well-placed to play a supporting role and Vimont indeed confirmed the value of the EESC’s contribution and his willingness to work closely with it.
This evening, again at the sprogs’ insistence, we watched Streetdance. Again (see previous posts) the plot was nothing to write home about but the dancing is simply prodigious. Like White Nights, this film’s particular originality lies in its bringing together of two very different types of dance – in this case, street and ballet. The film’s basic message is a joyous one – the sense of freedom that unconstrained artistic self-expression can bring, if the underlying discipline and technical ability are in place. Oh, yes, and the presence of a majestic and ever-handsome Charlotte Rampling would make this film worth a watch in any case.