The Committee’s Bureau met this afternoon to prepare tomorrow’s plenary session but, in a particularly rich meeting, also debated the current crisis, discussed the impending accession of Croatia and the consequences of future accessions for the composition of the Committee and, finally, decided that henceforth it would publish declarations on the financial interests of the Committee’s members. As to the debate on the crisis, I’ll write a post after tomorrow’s plenary session, where the debate will continue. Croatia will, if all goes well (as it should) become the 28th EU member state in the summer of 2013 – that will be in the middle of the Committee’s five year mandate. The draft accession treaty foresees that nine Croatian members will join the current 344 members of the Committee, but only until 2015. That is because the Lisbon Treaty set a cap of 350 for the Committee’s membership. Therefore, before 2015, the Council must decide, on the basis of a Commission proposal, on a new numerical composition for the Committee. It is unthinkable that the Commission would not want to know the Committee’s own point of view and the Bureau therefore set up a three-member task force to start exploring the issue – not only with a view to Croatia but other likely accessions in the not-too-distant future. Lastly, the European Parliament, in its resolution on the discharge of the 2009 budget for the Committee, called for the EESC’s members to publish declarations of their interests on the Committee’s website. The EESC’s Quaestors were initially nonplussed, since by definition the Committee’s members represent interests (already published on the Committee’s website). However, mindful of the spirit of openness and transparency that underpins such initiatives, the Bureau today decided that henceforth members would make such declarations. A rich agenda and a productive meeting!
It started off as a normal plenary session week: early morning management board meeting, followed by the ‘morning mass’ (the pre-session coordination meeting). At lunchtime, gazing out towards the Parliament, I noticed wisps of white smoke emerging from the small park between the Committee and the Parliament. About half an hour later a massive power cut hit the whole European quarter. The fire was in an electricity sub-station and the power cut continues as I write. My counterpart in the Committee of the Regions, Gerhard Stahl, and I immediately met together with our logistics director, Cees Bentvelsen, and crisis management team in order to monitor the situation. All of our buildings are equipped with back-up batteries and generators, so there was no danger to staff, and our servers have back-up systems (the wi fi is still working, which is why I can write this post now). But the normally well-ordered preparatory work for tomorrow’s Bureau meeting and the subsequent plenary session has been badly challenged. I write ‘challenged’ because our ever-excellent and ingenious colleagues in the registry are quietly confident that they have been able to keep things more-or-less on track. About half an hour ago, in the continued absence of electricity, Gerhard and I gave instructions for colleagues to go home. On a Greek ferry this summer we participated in an ‘abandon ship’ exercise – an interesting experience! – and this afternoon was a little similar. We will treat it as a free lesson. (The photograph shows our head of security informing assembled colleagues.)
I confess to being an almost totally unconditional admirer of David Bowie, though maybe I draw the line at giving your children idiotic names such as ‘Zowie’. It didn’t do the boy any lasting harm, though. He took his father’s real surname, Jones, and after some existential drift is now firmly on his career path as a film director. This rainy afternoon we watched his second film, Source Code, and found it to be an accomplished piece of directing and an entertaining movie with an intriguing sci-fi plot line of the sort I adore. The script (by Ben Ripley) echoes a little a post I scribbled in August about Marcus Sedgwick’s White Crow. What if (suspend your disbelief for just a moment) consciousness continued briefly after the death of the brain in which that consciousness existed, as a sort of after-glow? And what if (a little more suspension required) you could somehow access and explore that after-glow? By the time the film ends we are in parallel time lines and the poor brain starts to overheat, but Duncan Jones runs a tight ship and the steam only starts to come out of the radiator after the credits have rolled. Like father, like son – yes, I do.
To the Bozar this morning to see ‘The Power of Fantasy: Modern and Contemporary Art from Poland’, a rich, high quality and fascinating exhibition curated to coincide with the Polish presidency of the Council of the European Union. The strongest themes of the works on display are, perhaps not surprisingly, tragedy and comedy and the absurdity of daily life. Poland’s long, tortured history is echoed in a number of works that are dark but never entirely devoid of humour or hope. Perhaps the darkest and most sinister is Artur Smijewski’s Berek (Game of Tag), in which a group of young to middle-aged people, all stark naked, play a game of tag in a dark and sordid underground room, recalling concentration camps, though the laughs and smiles of the participants also recall the human spirit. The absurdity of daily life, particularly during the communist era, is disected and commented upon with a great deal of wit (‘Queue leaving the shop’, for example). For me the funniest is Zbigniew Rybezynski’s 1980 Tati-like film, Tango. Perhaps a majority of the artists on display only caught the tail end of the Communist era, but their works are still tinged with their knowledge of what went before. This exhibition was one of those events that again left me thanking my lucky stars I live in Brussels and Belgium. What similar-sized small city would have such a rich and varied cultural life?
To La Monnaie this evening to see Luigi Cherubini’s Médée (1797). It is a very dark and powerful piece of theatre (from Euripedes’ original tragedy): Médée, a madly passionate lover, who in her blind pursuit of Jason has betrayed her people, committed fratricide and butchered her brother’s body, is thwarted by her former lover, who denies her access to their children as he tries to start a new life with Dircé. Médée poisons Dircé and descends, in her madness, to infanticide, ultimately destroying what she most loves. Under the skillful, passionate baton of Christophe Rousset on this occasion, the orchestra and choir are, as always at La Monnaie, of a very high standard. Cherubini’s enjoyable score has some wonderful passages and is cleverly constructed. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s mise en scène, though much-fêted, left us a little cold. We have grown tired of such ubiquitous gimmicks as cigarettes (signifying vulgarity?), sunglasses (inscrutability?), burning paper (burning bridges, murderous intent?), singers getting undressed down to their underwear and re-dressed (vulnerability, voyeurism, change?), and gratuitous vulgarity (Médée inappropriately seeking Créon’s groin) and were the echoes of Bladerunner in the red-and-black colours of Néris’s hair and the flickering neon lights deliberate? But what makes this production a must-see is Nadja Michael’s stupendous performance in the title role. Mutating from Amy Whitehouse through blond bombshell to madwoman crop (one part of the mise en scène that does work), she gives a truly electric performance. From her first, sinister appearance on stage to her defiantly lonely appearance at the bitter end she radiates sultry passion and dangerously pent-up energy, stalking around the stage like a coiled spring. And to her great acting she adds great singing. The other singers gave strong supporting performances – Vincent Le Texier’s Créon in particular radiated controlled power. But the evening was Michael’s. The role is famed for its difficulty but she has risen brilliantly to the challenge. Catch it if you can.
This morning, at the invitation of Vice-President Anna Maria Darmanin, I replaced the President (who is in Istanbul, at a meeting of the Committee’s EU-Turkey Joint Consultative Committee) in the EESC’s Communication Group in order to update members on the running of the Committee’s civil society prize. You can read about the prize – worth up to 20,000 euros – here. The basic idea is to recognise and reward civil society projects and initiatives that help underpin the integration process by making a valuable contribution to the community. This year, as the President’s spokesperson, Coralia Catana, explained, the chosen theme – so very appropriate given all that is going on at the moment – is ‘Dialogue and participation fostering EU values: integration, diversity, solidarity and tolerance.’ The deadline for candidatures is 7 October. There is an application form and a description of the application and selection procedures at the above link, so if you know a civil society organisation that you think deserves to be recognised and rewarded, please take a look. The prizes will be awarded in the Committee’s 7-8 December plenary session.
After we had worked our way through the whole of Lost I thought we’d shaken off our fascination with series, but now we’ve just finished the first season of Prison Break and are gearing ourselves up for the second. The Americans are brilliant at these things: a simple basic idea, convoluted plotting, twists in tales, plenty of mini-climaxes (for each commercial break); an array of strong and distinctive characters played by a group of excellent but previously unknown actors; flashbacks and flashforwards; mini-summaries at the start of each episode to enable viewers to drift in even if they have missed episodes; atmospheric music; moral dilemmas and a mix of unexpected treachery and surprising reliability. Drawing up such a list makes it seem easy but it would be nothing without Paul Scheuring’s strong script and the accompanying slick production. Scheuring and his ilk are the equivalent of the stable of writers – Dickens, Hardy, Conan Doyle – whose serialised cliff hangers kept British audiences on the edges of their seats in the 19th century, and the techniques are clearly very similar.
My meetings with staff continued this morning with a combined meeting (over a hundred colleagues) with the two directorates servicing the consultative works – the engine house of the Committee. Before becoming Secretary General I was one of the two Directors for consultative works and so I had the pleasure of returning to an old and much-liked haunt. I am also very much aware of the way the Committee’s output – measured in terms of opinions produced, conferences and public hearings organised, and other advisory activities – has increased at a much steeper rate than any increases in human resources. Colleagues work hard and to a high degree of excellence whilst meeting tight deadlines and maintaining good relations with the Committee’s members. Working methods are constantly under review to enhance efficiency but the feeling is that such increasing dissonance between output and resources cannot continue indefinitely. If, as seems very likely, the administration enters a period of zero growth in budgetary terms coupled with cuts in human resources, then, to use the dread term, ‘negative priorities’ will have to be identified. I write ‘dread’ because the word ‘negative’ is a misnomer. In an ideal post-Lisbon Treaty world, the Committee would be firing on all cylinders, helping to make the Treaty’s provisions on civil dialogue a reality; lesser priorities are not negative ones.
This afternoon I attended a meeting of the EESC’s Budget Group, under the chairmanship of our Vice-President with responsibility for budgetary matters, Jacek Krawczyk, where the process of producing the Committee’s draft budget for 2013 is getting under way. This is going to be a particularly complicated exercise, with all sorts of constraints to be taken into account and information missing. The Lisbon Treaty inadvertently froze the smaller institutions out of the budgetary exercise, so the draft we have to submit before the end of next March (yes, nine months before the year in question) must, because it’s our only input, be our ‘best shot’. The backdrop is, naturally, austerity across the board. At the same time, we have to act responsibly. We have to budget to be able to pay for the rent, for example, and we must budget to recruit Croatian language translators (which will have a knock-on effect on the salaries bill). We have to pay the salaries of our officials – it’s a legal obligation – but we probably won’t know what sort of annual adjustment will be made until after the exercise has closed. We won’t know what the Commission’s projected rate of inflation (the standard on which we have to base our calculations) for 2013 will be much before January. How, then, to calculate probable rent increases with any accuracy? We have to plan the budget for our pooled resources with the Committee of the Regions in close cooperation with our sister institution. If the Council and the Parliament cannot reach agreement in their November conciliation meeting, we may not even have a budget for 2012 and so no certitude about the basis for our 2013 estimations. And all of this is without taking into account the reform package presented by the Commission in the summer that may or may not involve cuts to staff of 5% or more over a five year period from 2013 onwards. We’ll get there; we always do. And we are all in agreement, at political and administrative level, that we are going to do this together and in as consensual a way as possible. From that point of view the meeting was an encouragingly positive one; where there is a will, there is a way.
To Wiels to see an exhibition, Sculpture Undone, of the work of Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973). This is one of the first major exhibitions of her work outside her native Poland and it is well worth a visit. A survivor of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt, she went on to become, in her own words, ‘A sculptor experiencing the failure of a thwarted vocation.’ Convinced that ‘of all manifestations of the ephemeral, the human body is the most vulnerable,’ she set out ‘to praise the impermanence in the recesses of our bodies’ by making ‘awkward objects’. Body parts emerge from glutinous, resinous, undefinable organic slime and formless agglutinations. Casts of wrinkled bellies become scowling jowls. Lips and breasts hover, rendered alien through detachment from their context. The mechanical and the organic merge. Parts of her body and of her intimate wardrobe are frozen in polyester resin. Casts of her head become tumours. A life-size cast of her son floats ethereally. Flattened casts of body parts, glued to wooden boards, hint at the awfulness of past experiences. But there are also upbeat dreams, like her project to install an ice-skating rink in the crater of Vesuvius (never realised, of course). In the last room there is a short film of an interview with the artist herself. She was clearly shy but determined to get her point across. ‘All artists are exhibitionists,’ she says, fluttering her eyelids endearingly and looking down…