On the Eurostar, heading back to Brussels, I opened today’s Economist magazine and learned from an editorial that there will henceforth be a weekly section in the magazine devoted to China, just as there is one devoted to the US and one to Europe. It is, says the editorial ‘the first time since we began our detailed coverage of the United States in 1942 that we have singled out a country in this way.’ The principal reason, the editorial continues, is that ‘China is now an economic superpower and is fast becoming a military force capable of unsettling America. But our interest in China lies also in its politics: it is governed by a system that is out of step with global norms. In ways that were never true of post-war Japan and may never be true of India, China will both fascinate and agitate the rest of the world for a long time to come.’ At least as far as the Economist is concerned,the future we have been hearing so much about has arrived.
This afternoon and evening I made a quick in-and-out to London, to the London School of Economics, to give the opening lecture for Michaelmas term in a seminar series, The EU in Practice, organised at the European Institute and designed to allow practitioners to give insights about developments in their particular part of the EU’s universe. My talk and the ensuing discussion was about the concept of participatory democracy and the way its popularity seems to have ebbed and flowed. Was the concept, as it was developed during the Convention on the Future of Europe and consolidated in the various versions of the Treaty that followed, prescriptive or descriptive? Was it a luxury item in the good times or an essential item in the not-so-good times? Naturally, I also spoke about my own institution’s role in that context. The talk was followed by an excellent sixty minutes of questions and answers. In the picture I am flanked by the seminar’s organisers, Maurice Fraser, Senior Fellow in European Politics, and Anthony Teasdale, Visiting Senior Fellow.
To La Monnaie this evening to see and hear Richard Strauss’s revolutionary Salome. Unfortunately, Scott Hendricks, whom we had seen and admired at la Monnaie two years ago in his brilliant interpretation of Macbeth, was ill but nevertheless bravely mimed his portrayal of Jochanaan. Martin Zehetgruber’s mise en scène places the action in a Beirut-like modern Middle East bunker, with bullet-riddled walls and repair work still under way. Twitchily nervous body guards stalk the perimeter whilst their masters meet and eat (though I do wish there could be a moratorium on the use of sunglasses and machine guns in modern interpretations of operas) at a banquet table configured to echo the last supper. The director, Guy Joosten, brings three innovations to the production. First, the playing of a stolen home-made DVD leads us to understand that Herod’s infatuation with his step-daughter extended back to her childhood and that child abuse (hinted at again by a throwaway visual reference to Kubrik’s Lolita) may both explain Salome’s decline into madness and why, despite all his misgivings, Herod is prepared to give her Jochanaan’s head. Second, following a desperate struggle, Narraboth seems to be shot by Salome, rather than by his own hand (suicide is a diplomatic cover), thus pre-announcing her precipitous descent into murderous madness. Third (though maybe I am wrong on this – I have Aubrey Beardsley’s depiction in mind), Salome is portrayed not as a dark-haired, sultry temptress but as a blonde-haired, faintly scatty teaser (sung excellently by Nicola Beller Carbone this evening). There is, quite deliberately, little sensuality in this production (the DVD replaces the dance of the seven veils, for example). Rather, grubbiness and growing madness replace morals. The famous music (conducted by Carlo Rizzi) washes back and forth like a silk screen brush and Hendricks’s Jochanaan looms like a rock onto which all ships are driven.
This evening, in what has been something of a royal week, we were delighted to welcome the Danish Crown Prince and Princess to the European Economic and Social Committee. They are instinctively shy of the limelight and their aides had insisted on a low key event with no prior publicity, which was just fine. After all, the reason for their visit was the exhibition that the Committee is currently hosting about their official residence, Frederick VIII’s restored palace in the Amalienborg (Copenhagen). The royal couple were delightful; smiling and enthusiastic in explaining the pictures on the Committee’s walls. This was a brief but happy occasion.
This morning I spoke to a visiting group of undergraduate students from the University of Ulster, brought to the European Economic and Social Committee by Dr Michael Smyth (Various Interests Group, in the picture), a respected professor of economics at the university and Chairman of the EESC’s ‘ECO’ Section. It is easy for insiders to get lost in technicalities (as a student I sat through many such boring talks on official visits), so I went back to the very basics. Where did such advisory bodies come from? Answer; first, when national economies started to coalesce and got complicated organisationally, rulers (monarchs, basically) increasingly found they needed advice; and, second, after the industrial revolution, when labour started to organise itself, leaders realised that dialogue and planning was a better long-term strategy than confrontation. Advice and dialogue; that just about sums up the basic function of all economic and social councils and similiar institutions.
To the Palais des Beaux Arts this evening for an evening of sublime music with the Kremerata Baltica, its founding director and first violinist, Gidon Kremer (picture), Martha Argerich and Anastassiya Dranchuk on the piano, trumpeter Sergei Nakariakov, and percussionists Andrei Pushkarev and Elina Endzele. On the menu was, first, an extraordinary set of five modern compositions, commissioned by Gidon Kremer, in hommage to Johann Sebastian Bach and Glenn Gould. The compositions, arrangements and playing were simply sublime. This was followed by Giya Kancheli’s chiaroscuro for violin, string orchestra and vibraphone, with the composer himself taking the stage at the end for well-earned applause. Next was Shostakovich’s first concerto for piano and trumpet, with the remarkable Martha Argerich (incredibly, now in her seventies) playing the composer’s virtuoso piece with all the ease and artistry of somebody arranging flowers. Lastly, we had five witty rhythmical pieces composed by Leonid Desyatnikov, with Gidon Kremer clearly enjoying himself immensely and infectiously. It was a wonderful musical evening.
This afternoon I and my counterpart at the Committee of the Regions, Gerhard Stahl, met for half an hour with the team of volunteers who make sure that when an order to evacuate our buildings is given, the order is carried out. When an alert is sounded, or if the instruction is given, they don a coloured vest and a fire helmet and then make sure that everybody leaves their office and the building in a safe and orderly way. The two Committees together boast over a hundred such volunteers, which is splendid, I think – especially given that they all follow a special training course into the bargain. I see it as a demonstration of the strong civic culture that exists in both Committees’ administrations. The primary purpose of the meeting was to thank these volunteers for their help in carrying out what can, on occasion, be a critical role.
For the past two days the European Economic and Social Committee has been hosting a visit by the Palestinian Minister of Labour and a delegation of Palestinian civil society representatives. This afternoon I met with the delegation. The visit has been organised at the request of the ILO, which has been supporting the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to set up an Economic and Social Council for the Palestinian Territories, the aim being to enable our visitors to see how such an ESC works and to draw parallels and lessons. In my presentation I stressed five important considerations: the membership (non-governmental, apolitical, unelected, ‘authentic’, in the sense of representing real organisations); the composition of that membership (covering all aspects of social and civil dialogue); the administration (necessarily small and highly trained); consensus (the greater the consensus, the stronger the advice); and results (good and strong advice delivered in good time). The following questions were entirely pertinent, covering such issues as measuring effectiveness and optimal decision-making structures.
To the Royal Palace with my President, Staffan Nilsson, and Vice-Presidents, Anna Maria Darmanin and Jacek Krawczyk, for the Belgian King’s New Year reception for the European institutions. The Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Secretaries-General of the various institutions, together with the permanent representatives and their deputies, line up in their ordre protocolaire and are then called individually into a small room to shake the royal hands before moving on to the reception proper. I have now attended this occasion three times and I can confirm my previous impressions that, in addition to its formal raison d’être, it is a very effective informal networking event. In particular, when we all line up before the shaking of hands there is a constant to-ing and fro-ing across the parquet. And this is followed by the general milling around in the reception hall where it is actually possible to get a lot done. This year, sadly, Princess Mathilde was not present. She is in her element on such occasions and excellent at making intelligent conversation whilst putting her interlocuteurs at ease. Martin Schulz, the Parliament’s new President, was much in evidence and much in demand!
This morning I joined my fellow Secretaries General on the benches of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee for public hearings in connection with the annual discharge procedure. Under the EU’s financial regulations, the Secretaries-General are ultimately responsible for the good management of public money and resources. The institutions’ accounts are audited by the European Court of Auditors (represented in the meeting today by Dr Louis Galea) and the Court’s recommendations are passed on to the Parliament. This year the Parliament is considering discharge for the 2010 accounts of the institutions. The rapporteur is Ines Ayala Sender (Spain, S&D Group). The proceedings of the Committee were streamed. This – the public holding of the institutions to account for their use of public monies by directly represented members of parliament - is democracy at work and it is strange to think that it wasn’t always like this (the Court of Auditors was established only in 1975 and direct elections to the European Parliament were first held in 1979). It surely should have been.