This evening, at dusk, the dog took us for a walk across agricultural land near Leuven. We walked past field after field of potato plants. They are in blossom at the moment, some producing white flowers, some a sort of pale mauve colour. This is bintje country and what is currently under the ground will be in Belgian bellies in one way or another in the autumn. The lateness of the hour and the failing light meant that, notwithstanding the dog’s presence, there was a lot of wildlife about. We saw over twenty hares. In daylight they would be gone like a flash but in the twilight they seemed happy to lope along, sometimes quite near to us. It could also be a form of animal arrogance; a way of letting the dog know that they’re confident he’ll never catch them. Certainly the dog seemed happy at times to pretend that he wasn’t seeing them and therefore didn’t need to give chase!
Yesterday the European Commission adopted its proposals for the 2014-20 Multiannual Financing Framework and on reforms to EU staff’s pay, pensions and benefits. The proposals include reducing the number of staff working in all EU institutions by 5% by 2018. As I write, the battle lines for what promise to be interesting negotiations are being drawn see this earlier post for one observer’s predictions). As Secretary General of one of the smaller EU institutions (and with a small ‘i’ into the bargain) I’ll have a ringside seat, but I won’t be in the negotiations themselves. On the other hand, I will have to implement whatever comes out of them. This thought leads me to make four observations. The first is about the perversity of percentages where smaller institutions are concerned. I don’t know how many accountants, auditors, doctors and nurses the larger institutions have. The EESC has one of each. Short of taking a bacon-slicer to them we obviously cannot reduce each of them by five per cent (leaving aside the objective question of work load). The second observation is about the relative administrative weight of additional languages. Croatia is now set to join in 2013. It will bring a new working language. That will require interpreters and translators. For small institutions, the relative administrative weight of such additional staff and functions is higher. My third observation is that, as I have argued in previous posts, by pooling almost half of their respective resources to create the Joint Services (translation, logistics, IT, buildings, etc), the EESC and the Committee of the Regions already set a shining example to the other institutions and already achieve considerable economies of scale and synergies (we have recently jointly published a brochure detailing these). My fourth observation is inspired by a recent European Commission debunking exercise. It is simply not true, the Commission argued, that the EU costs too much; ‘A Tax Freedom Day comparison is telling. When you calculate how many days in a year you have to work to pay the total of your yearly taxes, the national tax burden means that people work until well into spring and summer until they have paid their contribution. By contrast, to cover his or her contribution to the EU budget, the average European would have to pay only four days, until 4 January.’ Well, by the same standards, the average European taxpayer works just one minute to pay for the EESC; that’s right – just one minute.
In last week’s edition of European Voice, John Wyles argued (here) with characteristic cogency that the current crisis could and should be turned to good effect, in particular by building on the current responses to the crisis to take the European project one step further towards true economic government. Elsewhere, another friend, Jon Worth, has penned two posts on his blog, one berating superficial journalism on the question of the EU’s future but the other nevertheless bemoaning the current grey mood in ‘Brussels’. I have always argued that it is wrong to aspire towards popularity. ‘Brussels’ will probably never be popular, just as ‘Washington’ and ‘Paris’ are not popular. On the other hand, ‘Brussels’ can and should aspire towards respect, and so the way the Union handles itself in these challenging times is doubly important. I passionately believe that the euro was a brilliant technical achievement (I had the privilege of seeing its creation up close) as well as a fundamental political step. I am convinced that with the same technical brilliance and political determination the EU will come through this crisis the stronger and the wiser. In doing so, it may remain unpopular, but it will have earned still greater respect.
With apologies to Hugo of New York (he likes that), I am illustrating the Enlarged Presidency again with Howard Taft and will continue to do so until I receive a better suggestion. On the substance, the EESC’s Enlarged Presidency met this morning to discuss a rich political agenda, including budgetary issues and working methods. The Enlarged Presidency consists of the President, the two Vice-Presidents and the three Group Presidents and its serves as a preparatory body for the Committee’s main decision-making body, the Bureau. The atmosphere was excellent and the meeting very constructive. There are times when I come out of meetings thinking better progress could have been made. Today, on a series of potentially thorny issues, much progress was made and the EESC’s Secretary General was a happy bunny.
This evening we at last got around to watching The Social Network. This is another entertainment loosely based on a real life story and it is very well done. The plot plays cleverly on a series of ironies, not the least of them being the fact that the social network is created by an almost autistic code-writing genius and that on his way to fabulous success and riches the Mark Zuckerberg of the film loses virtually all of his friends. Jesse Eisenberg plays the Zuckerberg role brilliantly. As one of Zuckerberg’s friends, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskowitz, commented when the film came out, ’At the end of the day, they cannot help but portray him as the driven, forward-thinking genius that he is.’ Where the real Zuckerberg objected was in the portrayal of his basic motivation. This did not grow out of his inability to woo the opposite sex (as the film would have us believe) but his pleasure in building things. In the film he parties. In real life, he wrote code. But there is a fundamental authenticity about the portrayal nevertheless. We need our geniuses and they inevitably come with rough edges.
This afternoon, our President, Staffan Nilsson, chaired the 20th meeting of the EESC’s Liaison Group with European civil society organisations and networks. A key point on the agenda was a discussion with Libor Roucek, Vice-President of the European Parliament, on the European Parliament’s commitment and contribution to the establishment of an effective civil dialogue between EU institutions and civil society (in line with the provisions of Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty). It was therefore also a moment to take stock of the very fruitful and positive cooperation that took place between the EP and the EESC on the occasion of the 27-28 January Citizens’ Agora on the theme of ‘Crisis and Poverty.’ It was an occasion, as Libor Roucek acknowledged, where the EESC demonstrated very effectively the role it can play as an important flanking partner to the European Parliament.
It was so generally cold, grey and gloomy yesterday that I made a stoemp to cheer us (well, me) up. I would like immediately to apologise to my Facebook friend, Peter. About a month ago there was an exchange on my page, with me maintaining that a true stoemp was necessarily made with leeks. Not so, he argued, and he was right. Basically, you can make a stoemp with most vegetables (together with potatoes, of course). For those not conversant with the dish, stoemp is a pinnacle of Belgian cuisine. The reason I thought it had to be leeks was because I used our old, battered version of Le Petit Comme Chez Soi, which has the leeks version and brussels sprouts only as a variant. The recipe is delicious. The leeks are first sweated in butter then stewed in well-salted chicken stock and cream. The potatoes are par-boiled and bruised (as opposed to boiled and mashed) and the two are mixed. Where does the climate change come in? Well, stoemp (a winter dish, you will not be surprised to learn) is even better re-heated, so I ate the rest of it today and today, in extraordinary contrast to yesterday, is a roasting hot day. I nevertheless had to atone for my sins and did this by running some ten kilometres under a blazing sun. Frankly, it was worth it.
This evening (N° 2 sprog’s turn) we watched Ip Man, a martial arts film very, very very loosely based on the true life of Chinese martial arts artist and teacher, Yip Man (whose pupils included Bruce Lee). Though the hero figure is a little too saccharine sweet for my tastes the film is interesting for several reasons. The first is its depiction of the way in which Foshnan evolved into a hub of martial arts (wing chun) in the 1930s, with several schools being rapidly founded and thereafter competing energetically against one another. The second is its depiction of the brutal Japanese invasion at the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese war, which, although invented for the film, was based on an all-too-horrific historical reality. The third is a subsidiary plot line about a wing chun master who cannot accept the Japanese yoke and becomes a bandit but is then reduced to robbing his own people. Lastly, the climax of the film comes when a Japanese general, himself a martial arts lover, is obliged to fight Ip Man on level terms because to refuse would represent humiliation not only for him but also for his country. The general is then very publicly beaten, which is of course equally humiliating, but he has been led into a blind alley by his own culture. The scene is cleverly plotted and well acted. I used the word ‘loosely’ three times because, although the real Yip Man was much less heroic and saintly (he was an opium addict, for example), his life was also deserving of a biopic rather than a bromide.
One other article in the morning newspaper caught my eye: ‘Gardeners in crime’. Guerrilla gardeners – and there are apparently many of them ‘out there’ – transform scraps of wasteland into urban gardens. They do this surreptitiously because a lot of what they do is probably illegal. (Or was – Munich legalised guerrilla gardening in April which, I suspect, took some of the fun out of it.) And these clandestine gardeners are ingenious. The article cites a Canadian designer, Vanessa Harden, who has created precision weaponry for the cause. This includes a precision ‘bombing device’, disguised as a camera lens, that allows the user to ‘shoot seeds over fences, or to the fringe of railway tracks’. She even has a website with a You Tube clip (here). And here’s another website on the theme. Marvellous stuff.
The man in the picture, Alan Haberman, who just recently passed away at the age of 81, could legitimately lay claim to have radically altered people’s lives during his own lifetime. Unlike Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the web), Steve Jobs (Apple) and Marc Zuckerberg (Facebook), though, he remained relatively unknown. This may be in part because he did not invent the barcode, though it is mainly thanks to him that this now indispensable device became so ubiquitous. It might also be because it took a long time for the price of scanning technology to come down to commercially viable levels. In pushing so hard (see today’s FT obituary here), it could be argued that he badly undermined general numeracy levels (we have probably all experienced the shop assistant lost in simple calculations when the electric till goes down). On the other hand, by diminishing supermarket queues and facilitating baggage handling he surely added significantly to the general sense of well being throughout the world.