This morning, together with my colleagues, team mates and fellow cyclists, Silvia Staffa, Fruzsina Dupas, Olivier Benoist and Zoltan Krasznai, I was interviewed by Dieter Snauwert, who works for an organisation called Bike to Work. From 29 May till 29 June some 400 teams are competing to see whether they can complete 50% or 70% of their journeys to and from work by bike. Since I always come and go on my bike, I would have been happy to aim at 100% but, anyway, the EESC Bee-cyclists (a name chosen by Zoltan, who keeps bees) are well on target. Dieter wanted to know how we felt about cycling in Brussels. For my part, as a longer-term resident, I think there has been a remarkable and entirely positive evolution in the way cyclists and bicycles are treated in the city. That has a lot to do with the fact that there is now a flourishing local democracy and government and the new, more bicycle-friendly city is, indeed, a good illustration of the importance of local government. Long may the positive evolution continue! (And here’s the link to Dieter’s finished article.)
This afternoon I gave a talk on the European Citizens’ Initiative to a group of about sixty visiting Italian students from the political science faculty of the LUISS University (Rome). They had come to Brussels to participate in a simulation of the EU legislative process leading to the adoption of the implementing regulation. My talk therefore came in between a simulated meeting of COREPER and the first, simulated, ’trilogue’. I tried to situate the Initiative in the broader history of the European integration process, from the disappointments of the constitutionalist ’big bang’ approach in the 1950s, to the pragmatic Monnet method of incremental development, and from the technocratic to the increasingly political. The Union’s first response to the growing ‘democratic deficit’ was parliamentary – direct elections to (1979) and then legislative powers for (1986) the European Parliament. The Treaty provisions arising out of the Convention and culminating in the Lisbon Treaty (implemented December 2009) complemented this with what I like to term a ‘composite democracy’. Now juxtaposed with representative democracy (the European Parliament, the national parliaments) are participatory democracy (structured dialogue with organised civil society) and direct democracy (which is where the Citizens’ Initiative comes in).
To today’s typical Monday meeting rhythm (management board in the morning) was added an afternoon meeting of the Committee’s Budget Group. The Group met, under the Chairmanship of Vice-President Jacek Krawczyk (Employers’ Group, Polish), primarily to prepare a series of decisions with financial ramifications for next week’s meeting of the EESC’s Bureau, but it also discussed a number of strategic issues. Starting in October 2008, the Committee has embarked on a root-and-branch reform of its financial and budgetary operational management, involving centralisation of all such affairs within one Directorate at administrative level and a decentralisation to the various ‘spending actors’ (the Groups, the Sections, etc) at political level. In part, therefore, the Budget Group also considered how to fine tune a number of aspects arising out of the transition to this new decentralised approach.
For the past three days I have acted as chauffeur, cook, washer, photographer and general gofor for N° 1 sprog as she entered the final rehearsals for a dance show that took place this afternoon. I enjoyed every minute of it – indeed, loved the whole experience, especially when we got into things like lights and dress rehearsals. Whenever I go ‘backstage’ I find myself back in my own experiences as an amateur actor (now in the distant past): the greasepaint, the costumes, the backroom teams, darting efficiently about. And can there be anything more satisfying than that moment, lived vicariously through N° 1 sprog’s experience, when the whole thing ‘clicks’? It was a resounding success, further enlivened by two guest appearances by an up-and-coming professional dance company, Opinion Public. It’s worth a visit to their site to see the clips. We’ll surely hear more about them.
To the Kaai Theatre this evening to see Michèle Anne de Mey’s Neige (2009), a piece for five dancers, performed to occasional extracts from the allegreto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. You can see a video extract here. Mmmm… The Westlake jury is still out on this one. The mise-en-scène is the first star of the show. Snowflakes fall endlessly on stage, covering the dancers’ tracks and the dancers themselves. An almost invisible screen contains the flakes but nevertheless creates a barrier between the performers and the audience. The dancers are typically brilliant. The tale they tell is one of the power and inter-relationship of sentiments from love through to jealousy, from friendliness through to hate – ultimately, they dance from life to death (and back again). Was it our imagination or did the mise-en-scène end up getting in the way of the creation? After all, it’s not the sort of set you can just take down and stow in the wings, so once it’s up you’ve got to stick with it. So stick with it we, and the dancers, did. And that’s why the Westlake jury is out. To be fair, there were no snowball fights (though one fistful of snow was thrown) and no snowmen, but the impression grew upon us that this was somehow a production to be seen in still images, and that the dancing in between was precisely that, and that would be monstrously unfair on the dancers and on the choreography. Put another way, I think I would be happy to see Neige again, only without the neige.
Having seen the film several times over the years, the famous twist in the tail of M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Sixth Sense is no longer much of a twist at all for me, but this 1999 psychological thriller is still good entertainment. A child psychologist , Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), is shot by a patient he has treated for hallucinations. Crowe goes on to treat another similarly-afflicted boy, Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment). Crowe gradually realises that the boy is not delusional but can truly see ‘dead people’ – ghosts. At the same time, the work-obsessed Crowe fears that his marriage is suffering. The twist is that Crowe himself is dead. Clever editing sustains the illusion that the dead Crowe is interacting with his widow and his environment, but the only person he truly interacts with is the boy. I forget who it was who advised all actors to avoid appearing alongside children and animals. Willis more than holds his own but, after several viewings, the star of this show is undoubtedly Haley Joel Osment. Surely the ancestor of this type of story is Edgar Allan Poe’s The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether, but I’d better not give away two endings…
I have a deal with N° 2 sprog whereby I read every book he reads. His favourite author at the moment is Marcus Sedgwick and I have just finished his 2008 The Kiss of Death, succinctly summarised in the blurb as being about ‘Venice and vampires’. I am full of admiration for children’s authors like Sedgwick who manage somehow to keep ‘brand loyalty’ whilst ranging far and wide in historical, geographical and even purely imaginative terms. I am also deeply envious of somebody who, as the homepage of his website makes clear, is doing something he loves. He also gives sage advice about the importance of finishing things. For writing, as John Boyle, one of the members of my writers’ workshop once put it, is about re-writing.
This morning I visited the bookshops of Redu with my father-in-law, a grand old European, and manfully resisted the temptation to buy yet more books when I still have so many to read back home. However, for a few cents I bought a tattered edition, N° 279, of Paris Match, dated 31 July-7 August 1954. (The magazine was then just five years old.) This edition is a sort of Aladdin’s Cave of history and, as I had fully expected, triggered vivid memories for my 87 year-old companion. Among the magazine’s features was an article on Pierre Mendès-France (the then French Prime Minister), ‘after Geneva’ (the 21 July Indochina peace accord), and an article on Indochina and France. Just 23 days later, the French national assembly would commit ‘the crime of 30 August’ by voting down the European Defence Community treaty by 319 votes to 264. Mendès-France, notoriously (in the eyes of many passionate pro-Europeans) did not make this into a vote of confidence. My father-in-law recounted a conspiracy theory of the time, that Mendès-France had done a backroom deal with the Soviets (who, after Stalin’s March 1953 death, had hinted at the process of détente and had therefore undermined the Americans’ arguments in favour of German rearmament), involving Vietnam and leading, in due course, to the restitution of independence to Austria in May 1955. Conspiracy or not (the arguments for and against the EDC Treaty were in any case passionate and hotly disputed), it is clear that the July 1953 end of the Korean war had already considerably weakened the anti-communist imperative. I wonder how Europe would have turned out if the EDC Treaty had been ratifed and implemented. Would we have had European Union today? Discuss.
This evening we went to visit the Maison Autrique, a carefully restored early Horta work that gives an excellent insight into life in a bourgeois household in the 1890s. Until the end of this year the house is hosting a rather sad exhibition about Horta’s lost works. These include those never built (the Congo Pavillion, for example), those forever gone (the Innovation department store, lost in a tragic fire, and the Maison du Peuple, notoriously demolished), and those dismantled, never (so far) to be rebuilt (the Hôtel Aubecq). There are two ways of looking at the Horta heritage. One is deep shock at the indifference with which his extraordinary work was regarded for so long. The other is relief that so many of his works survived and are now preserved. Those who can’t make the trek to Chausée d’Haecht, or don’t want to, can visit the Maison Autrique virtually on the website.
At lunchtime today I read an article recently published by the Robert Schuman Foundation with the title ‘Facebook, Twitter: are these the unavoidable tools for the future of European democracy?’ The paper, by Pauline Desmarest, gives much food for thought. She describes well ‘the interlocking of the public and private space’ which is so specific to social networks and flags up the opportunity that such networking has given to populists and extremists. She acknowledges the ‘digital fracture’ between those who have and those who do not have internet access. Nevertheless, such platforms clearly do ‘offer a new space for public debate and change relations between the elected and the electorate’. They can, and do, strengthen dialogue between European citizens and ‘the Brussels bubble’. But they are also ’a challenge to representative democracy and could heighten the existing gap between Europeans and Europe.’ Like them or loathe them, they are ‘an unavoidable tool’. If we do not embrace them, they may engulf us, and yet they are by their very nature unreceptive to structured strategies. In other words, they represent a considerable challenge already and may come to represent a fundamental challenge to governance at all levels as internet access extends to most people.