After a delightfully long and lazy Sunday lunch we decided to walk the dog just as night was falling. By the time we got to Berthem it was, theoretically, pitch black (no moon) and yet we were able to walk for an hour-and-a-half in the dark without any trouble at all, as though a full moon were shining behind us. The reason? Low cloud cover and the reflected city lights of Leuven and Brussels. If this reflected light enabled us to walk around without any difficulty I wonder what sort of effect it has on animal life – both those that normally are inactive at night and those that are specialised in hunting in the absence of light.
Sad news in this morning’s Belgian newspapers of the death yesterday of Willy De Clercq, a well-known Liberal politician, but also a familiar figure in European politics, as a Commissioner and as a member of the European Parliament. I knew him, at a distance, as a member of the Commission but when he went to the Parliament (again) I got to know him quite well and I liked him a lot. He was President of the European Parliament’s External Relations Committee, which I was following as a representative of the European Commission’s Secretariat General. I remember the distinctive shock of white hair and the bow ties and the polyglot introductions and the mannerisms (‘Bonjour à toutes et à tous’) and, as the classic gamekeeper turned poacher, I remember Willy insisting politely that the Commission should share its negotiating mandates (with third countries) in a confidential manner with the EP, which turned me into a constant target. But I also remember the courtesy and the friendliness and the typically Belgian pragmatism and consensualism (if that word exists) and the constant Europeanism. Though belonging to different political families, he and the late Karel Van Miert were good examples of Belgium’s habit of producing internationally-respected statesmen. Unlike poor Karel (67), Willy died at a decent age (84), I suppose, but in both cases the world is indubitably the poorer for their passing.
When I was about eight I received, as a generous Christmas present from an aunt, an illustrated book about birds and animals. I must have paged through that book hundreds of times (it is still on my bookshelves), gazing in wonderment at the (black-and-white) photographs of all sorts of exotic species. One bird that fascinated me was the bower bird. The male of the species builds a bower – quite a complicated stick structure – and then decorates it with various objects. As wiki puts it, ‘These objects — usually different among each species — may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass.’ I thought about the bower bird as I was on my way to Zaventum airport a few weeks ago. There are roadworks in one of the tunnels leading out of the city. As our car flashed by I just had time to see that the workmen had collected up about thirty fallen hubcaps and had decorated the walls of their hut with them. They were urban bower birds!
This evening we watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 sci fi novel of the same name. Inevitably, it concentrates more on the hallucinations and the emotional crises of the scientists (particularly the investigator, Kris Kelvin) who are its main protagonists than the almost philosophical reflections that the novelist could engage in. But it remains true to Lem’s brilliant central thesis, which is the inability of human intelligence to even comprehend, let alone communicate with, a different, extra-terrestrial form of intelligence. In their struggle to provoke some sort of reponse, the scientists resort to the characteristically human response of controlled violence and this, in turn, provokes a response that is at one and the same time beyond their comprehension and beyond their control. In the film version, Tarkovsky cleverly weaves Kelvin’s guilt about the father he leaves behind into the ending. There is resolution but, exploiting the ambiguity of reality, Tarkovsky leaves us to understand that the resolution is Solaris’s and not man’s.
Today, at the end of a very heavy week, I took two deep breaths of fresh air, one literal, and one literary. The literal breath of fresh air was an early-morning walk in the arboretum at Tervuren with the dog. I am posting a picture I took on the way back. Walking along this avenue of beech trees, their upper branches limned by the rising sun, felt like walking along a cathedral nave and, I am sure, such scenes subliminally inspired the anonymous architects of perpendicular gothic fan vaulting (Bath Abbey, for example). At lunchtime I went to a poetry reading organised by the Northern Ireland Executive office in Brussels. Two young poets, Miriam Gamble and Ben Maier, did not disappoint. The latter is also a singer and musician and sang for us as well. Gamble’s poetry is rich in arresting concepts. One that has stuck in my mind is ‘an underwater tear’. Maier, coincidentally once Gamble’s student and then her tenant in Belfast, builds structures (a series about the circus, for example). The one that stuck in my mind was a sort of invented, poetic, history of cotton. I walked back on this balmy day feeling refreshed and stimulated and ready to attack the dossiers and issues lurking balefully in the office…
Yesterday’s sad news about a good and much-liked Belgian lawyer colleague, Daniel Jacob, was paralleled this morning by sad news about a good and much-loved lawyer uncle-in-law, Pierre Van Gehuchten, who passed away today at the ripe old age of 89. A quietly devout and modest man, he adored his family and music and had an impish sense of humour and an infectious laugh. His presence at any gathering, no matter what the age of the participants, guaranteed a good time and a fair share of belly laughs. Pierre came from a distinguished family of academic achievers, particularly in medecine. As a passionate young democrat he became a resistance fighter and then a soldier. I shall never forget his – characteristically modest and self-deprecating – account of the liberation of Wavre in September 1944. The occupying forces had at last decided to leave quietly, their tails between their legs but their heads held high. A young Belgian hothead could not resist giving them the metaphorical equivalent of a kick up the backside. The Germans turned back in cold anger and Pierre lost many of his friends in the ensuing firefight. ‘It was a mess,’ he would say, giggling dismissively. But if you pushed, he would tell you how one of his best friends died alongside him, spouting blood and guts on the bank of a stream. Ever after he told me that episode I imagined I could see sadness in his smile. He undoubtedly loved mankind but knew also of what man was capable.
Our plenary session this time is being held in one of the European Parliament’s meeting rooms in the Jozsef Antall building (one of the ways in which both consultative bodies save the taxpayer money is by borrowing the Parliament’s or the Commission’s meeting rooms for their plenary sessions). This particular meeting room is named after Italian politician and European founding father Alicide De Gasperi, and the back of the room sports two huge photographic portraits of him, plus another, famous, picture of him on the cover of Time magazine. Once upon a time, before professional life got quite so busy, I had the intention of editing a series of books on various cross-system political phenomena. So far, only one of the titles, Leaders of Transition, has seen the light of day. Another title in the projected series is Political Survivors and I realised that I was looking out from the podium at a good example of the phenomenon. De Gasperi was not only the Prime Minister of eight successive coalition governments in post-war Italy. Born in the Tyrol (1881), he became active in the Austrian Social Christian movement and was imprisoned as a demonstrator in Innsbruck before later (1911) becoming a member of the Austrian Reichsrat. In 1919 he founded the Italian People’s Party and served as a member of the Italian Parliament (1921-24). In 1927 he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison by the Fascist regime. In 1943 he created the Italian Christian Democracy Party and in 1945 he became Prime Minister for the first of eight times. He was an embodiment of continental European history.
This morning the Committee’s plenary session held a thematic debate on the Common Agricultural Policy reform package with the European Commissioner responsible for agricultural and rural development, Dacian Ciolos. Once again, the Committee’s expertise was much to the fore, with some twenty knowledgeable speakers, many of them farmers, or working on behalf of farming organisations, taking the floor to provide constructive criticism of the Commission’s proposals. And, once again, in Dacian Ciolos the Committee had a knowledgeable and passionate interlocuteur who clearly valued the exchange and was, like Siim Kallas the previous day, determined to give detailed answers as far as he could. This, as Ciolos put it, was the whole point of his presence; to build understanding and support through open and constructive debate. And once again I thought to myself that this was, in effect, the provisions of Article 11 at work.
There was terribly sad news today of the loss of a fine Belgian colleague, Daniel Jacob, Deputy Director General of Human Resources in the European Commission. After serving at the Belgian Bar he joined the European Commission’s Legal Service. I first got to know Daniel well in the 1980s when, as bright young thing, he served in the private offices of, successively, Stanley Clinton-Davis and Bruce Millan. Then, in the late 1990s he became Neil Kinnock’s Deputy Head of Private Office just as I was writing Neil’s biography. He would later be Philippe Busquin’s Head of Private Office, before stints in DG Administration and Personnel, then DG Research, then DG Administration and Personnel again. He had excellent English, compendius knowledge about British politics, forensic intelligence and a great sense of humour. I interviewed him about six months ago, with a view to updating the biography. Since there was nothing he liked better than swapping political anecdotes (never salacious), we had a great time. Daniel’s first specialisation was labour law and he was intimately involved in the current reform process. We have lost a very fine colleague.
This afternoon the Committee’s plenary session held a thematic debate, in the presence of the responsible European Commission member and Vice-President, Siim Kallas, about the Commission’s White Paper on a ‘Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area – Towards a Competitive and Resource Efficient Transport System’. Also on the agenda was the Committee’s response to the White Paper, an opinion prepared by Jean Coulon (Employees’ Group, France) and Stefan Back (Employers’ Group, Sweden). In a nutshell, the Committee expressed general support for the Commission’s ambitions, but it also expressed criticism about what it sees as the mismatch between the goals, the methods needed to achieve them and the budgetary resources available. The Committee’s opinion also criticised the strategy’s lack of specific shorter-term measures. Pointing out that the White Paper would be followed up by more detailed proposals, Kallas demonstrated the value he attaches to the expertise of the Committee’s members by giving detailed answers to the many points made. This, as the next post will show, was the first of two such well-informed dialogues. Such debates are, to my mind, concretisation of the provision of Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty for all EU institutions to enter into structured and open dialogue with organised civil society.