In the Thalys train, on my way back to Brussels from Paris this evening, I witnessed a rather sad episode. Three young teenage boys from the banlieue got on to the train. Clearly, they were not typical Thalys clients and they were planning mischief; they were, in short, trouble on its way to happen. I could see all the passengers instinctively checking their wallets and watches as they passed by the three. When the train got underway the boys moved elsewhere and I forgot about them. But at Bruxelles Midi there was a lot of shouting and then I saw two burly men in red sweatshirts emblazoned with the legend ‘Securail’ marching two of the three boys off of the train. The third was wandering around on the platform, apparently waiting to be caught. ‘You idiots!’ I felt like telling the boys. ’That was just so obvious! You were bound to get caught.’ But, then, when I looked closer, I realised that they had expected to get caught – indeed, had probably wanted to get caught. It was a rite of passage of some sort. They were so young (13? 14?) that I doubt whether, apart from the rough handling that the red sweatshirts were clearly enjoying handing out, they suffered any sanction other than being returned to Paris. Nevertheless, the episode saddened me. Somehow, it reminded me of Rosselini’s urchin in Paisà.
Thanks to the hospitality of the European Economic and Social Committee’s Employees’ Group and its President, Georges Dassis (in the centre of the photograph), I spent all of today in an extraordinary meeting of the Group in Paris, at the headquarters of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council, devoted to the timely theme of the future of Europe. The morning’s keynote speaker was former European Commission President (and my former boss), Jacques Delors. His – characteristically incisive but uncharacteristically dark – analysis was followed by a panel discussion with representatives of the major French trades unions (Bernard Thibault, Secretary General of the CGT, Yves Veyrier, Confederal Secretary of the FO, Marcel Grignard, Deputy Secretary General of the CFDT, Philippe Louis, Confederal President of the CFTC) together with Giglielmo Epifani, President of the Bruno Trentin Assocation. In the afternoon we heard how a low-carbon industrial policy could help Europe out of the crisis, and the meeting was closed by: the President of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council, Jean-Paul Delevoye; the President of the European Economic and Social Committee, Staffan Nilsson; and the President of the Employees’ Group, Georges Dassis. It is impossible to summarise a day’s debate in a short post, so I’ll finish this with three short ‘soundbites’. First, Jacques Delors; ‘without memory there can be no future.’ Second, Staffan Nilsson; ‘if we don’t believe in our future why should anybody else?’ Third, Georges Dassis; ‘our leaders have a choice between a return to the past or a reaffirmation of the future.’
Oh dear. Just as Les Intouchables had restored faith in human nature yesterday evening, so Clint Eastwood’s 2008 Changeling comes along this evening and sends us back to square one. And, like Les Intouchables, the basic story line of Changeling is derived from a true story. A single mother’s son disappears. He is found. The police return him to his mother, but the mother insists the found boy is not her own. Angelina Jolie turns in a very powerful performance as the mother and, as in Mystic River, Eastwood lets the ghastly story tell itself at its own bitter-sweet pace. I suppose I am giving away things just a little if I say that there are modern-day echoes in the Madeleine McCann and Frederick West affairs. Indeed, if you subtract out the (LA) police corruption (1920s) from the story, you are left with a series of people struggling to believe the scarcely believable. Eastwood’s direction is good at putting this dilemma into relief. Who would you believe: an apparently hysterical grieving mother or an apparently stoical and rational police officer? It’s a cautionary tale. The scene where a perfectly sane woman who questions the police is consigned to an asylum powerfully reminded me of a frightening scene I witnessed in communist eastern Europe where the most powerful impulse was always to avoid running foul of a system that would stop at nothing because it could, if it wished, do anything it liked with impunity. The moral of the plot of Changeling is, contrary to Ockham’s razor, that if you know something is true you should stick to your guns. But human credulity undermines the plot and hence also the moral.
This evening we saw the suddenly – and justifiably – popular feel good film Les Intouchables. On an impulse, Philippe (François Cluzet), a very wealthy aristocrat and quadriplegic since a hang gliding accident, employs Driss (Omar Sy), a fresh-out-of-prison angry young man from the banlieue, as his carer. Somehow the chemistry works and the two men bond – not least because Driss refuses to treat Philippe as anything other than an equal, which is precisely what Philippe wants and nobody else understands. The two men open up each others’ worlds – and that of Philippe’s pampered entourage – riffing off of each others’ senses of humour, whilst also exploring deeper themes such as love and art and parenthood. Thanks to deft directing from Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the film avoids being mawkish or maudlin, but it is the acting of Cluzet (who can, after all, only move his head) and Sy that makes the story believable. Which is only as it should be since, as the title credits roll, we learn that the film is based on a true story and we even see, briefly, the real ‘Philippe’ and ‘Driss’. If you are feeling down about humanity, this is the film to see.
Throughout the sensational events of May this year I kept DSK out of my blog. The whole thing seemed so extraordinary and his status and reputation encouraged and enflamed passions on all sides of the argument (I shall never forget a near-hysterical discussion at a dinner party that seemed more like a lynching party warm-up than a rational discussion of the facts available at the time). Today’s Financial Times newspaper has published a full page analysis by Edward Jay Epstein, an American investigative journalist, based on hotel and phone records and images taken from CCTV cameras (a longer version was published in the New York Review of Books). I shall continue to refrain from all judgemental comment but, if I may put it this way, the simple records and images provide an awful lot of scope for conspiracy theorists. As the joke has it, ‘just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not after you.’ Read the analysis and see for yourself.
I have gone through this week with two songs playing in my mind, both beautifully sung and both, as it happens, pretty easy to play. The first, Make You Feel My Love, performed by Adele, was written by Bob Dylan and, in the manner of many of his beautiful songs, was leapt upon by performers (Bryan Ferry among them). The second, Video Games, was written and is performed by the fascinating Lana Del Rey. For both songs I am providing the links to ‘unplugged’ performances on the With Jools Holland show, where both are basically piano and voice pieces (and Del Rey’s wobbling voice confirming this was among her first live performances). Beautiful voices, haunting songs. Can it be coincidence that their names share so many of the same letters? (Only joking – please don’t write in!)
This week has whistled by in a series of back-to-back meetings, some to chair, some one-on-one, from early to late, but this afternoon, thanks to the kind invitation of the President of the EESC’s Various Interests Group, Luca Jahier, I was able to sit down in one place for a few hours and actively participate in a brainstorming session about the role European universities can play in Europe, both in relation to the current crisis and, more broadly, in relation to the European integration process. Jahier had invited a number of his Group members active in the academic sphere and a number of representatives from the European university sector. To encourage the sense of a free exchange, we met in one of the Committee’s circular meeting rooms. I suspect my invitation also had something to do with a previous incarnation, since my last job in the European Commission was managing higher education exchange programmes in the Directorate-General for Education and Culture. There were in any case some old friends around the table. The implicit question on the table was could and should Europe’s universities refind the sense of cultural community that once used to exist – before the arrival of the nation state, that is. Answers, on a postcard, please…
The European Economic and Social Committee’s steering committee on the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy met jointly today with representatives of the national economic and social councils in the member states. The EESC has been invited by the European Commission’s President, José Manuel Barroso, to coordinate relations with the national councils to ensure that organised civil society’s voice, at both European and member state level, is properly fed into the EU’s ongoing deliberations on how sustainable and inclusive growth can best be guaranteed. Understandably, the current crisis and austerity policies added a sharp edge to the discussions which revealed a broad consensus on the importance of ensuring employment-rich growth.
A frequently overlooked particularity of the European Economic and Social Committee is that it is composed of representatives of civil society organisations in the member states – and not, despite the adjective ’European’, of pan-European organisations. In order to create synergies on issues of common interest, the Committee created a Liaison Group composed, on the one hand, of EESC members and, on the other, of representatives of European civil society organisations. This afternoon the Liaison Group met, co-chaired by EESC President, Staffan Nilsson, and the President of the European Civic Forum, Jean-Marc Roirant, and held in-depth discussions on the the preparation of the European Year of Citizens (2013) and on the theme of social entrepreneurship. The EESC’s rapporteurs, Andris Gobinš and Ariane Rodert, respectively, deliberately set out to consult the Liaison Group at a very early stage in their work. This was clearly appreciated and the richness of the debates gave evidence once again of the added value of such structured cooperation, cooperation that will continue, on the one hand, through a joint hearing with members of the study group responsible for preparing the Committees’s opinion on the Commission’s proposal on the European Year of Citizens (2013) and, on the other, on the occasion of the preparation of an opinion on the communication from the Commission entitled Social Business initiative.
Today I hosted one of my occasional working lunches with all of the EESC’s female managers. I wanted to know how they saw the possible consequences of the reform package that was tabled earlier this year by the European Commission. The Committee is, in comparative terms, a tiny institution and since the 2004 reforms has had to compete, together with all the other smaller institutions, to recruit the ‘brightest and the best’ from what is, in effect, a single pool of candidates. Arguably, this is a relatively more important imperative for a smaller institution, since one unsuccessful (management) appointment may block a key position for a long time. One way of competing is to provide attractive working conditions. Since the Committee is in any case both economic and social it has always sought to provide the best possible working conditions for its staff. Hence today’s wide-ranging and frank discussions.