Tradition has it that once a year, in January, the President and Secretary General of the EESC invite all staff to a meeting, followed by a reception. At the meeting the President and the Secretary General give brief speeches about how they see the year ahead and then field questions from the staff (and tradition has it that the President of the Staff Committee is the first to ask a question). This afternoon was my fourth such meeting. In my experience, they always go well – in no small part down to the amicable characters of our Presidents – the late Mario Sepi, and now Staffan Nilsson. I was asked what I regarded as my greatest achievement to date. My frank reply was that maintaining the good atmosphere in the house was easily my most important task and hence achievement. I have worked in enough institutions and organisations to know that such a good atmosphere is by no means guaranteed. We have it, and it is a precious thing.
This evening we watched the 1980 Ken Russell classic, Altered States, starring an unrecognisably young William Hurt. The sprogs found the film by turns corny but also suspenseful. We oldies rather enjoyed it, despite the corn. Like many of the best stories, the plot (from Paddy Chayeksky’s novel of the same name) is based on truth; in this case, research into sensory deprivation carried out in isolation tanks under the influence of psychotopic drugs. William Hurt’s character, Edward Jessup, is a professor of psychology who theorises about other states of consciousness, submits himself to sensory deprivation and drugs and inadvertently connects with a deeper, primaeval consciousness that involves physical regression (a primitive man, and then primordial consciousness). In the end, his wife saves him from himself, which is dreadfully corny. In the meantime, though, we enjoyed what one critic described as a ‘methodically paced fireworks display, exploding into delirious special-effects sequences at regular intervals, and maintaining an eerie calm the rest of the time.’
This evening we had the privilege of dining alongside a top opera director. The purpose of this post is not to drop his name (which I won’t). Yes, there was some talk about the creative process, but the most striking aspect of the evening was his selection of anecdotes, recounted in resigned frustration, about a major opera house in a European capital city (which had better also remain nameless). These included a one-armed cellist, several eccentrics on the opera house payroll who did nothing but sit in the stalls all day and the orchestra refusing to finish rehearsing the fifteen minutes at the end of an opera because, according to their rules, they were entitled to fifteen minutes to put away their instruments. (This reminded me of how quite frequently at La Monnaie most of the members of the orchestra have left before the applause has finished.) It cannot be for a visiting opera director to try to reform such practices and so our fellow guest had to resign himself to working within those restraints but the experience had clearly been a stressful and a puzzling one. To finish on a positive note, the one-armed cellist story reminded me of this classic sketch.
I travelled to Strasbourg today for work, a quick in-and-out. I used to live and work (at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) in this beautiful city and I am always happy to return. However, as I get out towards the Council of Europe and European Parliament complex of buildings I do tend to get a little nostalgic. I used to walk to work and had a favourite route that, at its end, took me past a green field where storks would hunt for frogs, over the Ill river and past an old tennis court and swimming pool complex. My favourite spot on the walk, though, was the wall of an old barracks (still functioning as such). There was a little gatehouse with a miniscule garden in which the occupant had built gaily coloured windmills and aeroplanes and other constructions. And at some time a Captain (I imagined it was a Captain) had planted a vine. The vine, carefully tended, had grown and grown, pushing several bricks out of the way and itself through to the outer side of the wall. I once managed to look at the other, inner side of the wall. The rest of the vine had long since gone, but the bit in the wall remained. I am not completely sure why, but I used to get a lot of pleasure out of seeing ‘the Captain’s vine’. Today, I had half an hour to spare, so I retraced my old steps. The green field and the storks have disappeared. First the field became a car park and now ARTE has a building there. The tennis courts and swimming pool also went a long time ago, replaced by a multistorey car park. The gatehouse is abandoned and the brightly coloured windmills have rotted away. But the barracks are still there and I looked eagerly for ‘the Captain’s vine’. Horror of horrors! The wall has been repaired. The Captain’s vine is no more.
When I first started school a factory hooter at five to eight and another at eight o’clock signalled when we had to leave home. The hooter was at the Kodak factory in Harrow, which then enployed around six thousand people. Started in 1890, it was Kodak’s first factory in the UK and for most of its life it was one of the largest photographic manufacturing sites in Europe. It wasn’t just a set of manufacturing plants turning out film. It was a whole city, dominated by a massive chimney. It had its own artesian well and water supply and its own electricity generating plant. It had its own fire station and fire engines. Its own theatre. Its own playing fields and cricket pitches. Its own football team. Its own everything. Nearby Harrow and Wealdstone station was built to bring the workers to the Kodak plant. For those with parents who worked there, it was a handy source of summer jobs and we were frequent visitors to Kodak’s pool and billiard tables. But the factory made film and nobody uses film anymore. When I heard today that once mighty Kodak had filed for bankruptcy I did a quick surf and, sure enough, what had once been a vibrant city, its machines humming and lights shining all day and night, is now a development opportunity. You can visit it here. Progress always comes at a price…
This evening I hosted a farewell reception for one of my two Deputy Secretaries General, Wolfgang Jungk, who is retiring at the end of the month. In fact, all through this month there have been a series of ‘lasts’ involving Wolfgang; his last pre-session meeting, his last Bureau, his last plenary session… He has worked for the Committee for no less than twenty-seven years, during which time he has served six Secretaries-General and 15 Presidents and participated in roughly 240 plenary sessions and 150 Bureau meetings. His retirement is well-earned and I wish him well. But I shall miss him enormously. Wolfgang was always loyal, collegial, constant, wise, courageous in a non-conflictual way and had a mischievous wit that defused many a tense situation and lightened many a gloomy meeting. He was the perfect gentlemen. He also had a compendious knowledge of pleasant seaside watering holes and I have fond memories of sipping a beer with him in, among other places, Portoroz, Lisbon and Piraeus, after lengthy meetings. Auf wiedersen, lieber Wolfgang, und danke schön!
This morning the EESC’s plenary session hosted the Danish Minister of European Affairs, Nicolai Wammen, representing the Danish Presidency of the Council of the EU, a Presidency which has just got under way and in the most testing of circumstances. In his opening remarks he nicely and neatly summed up the role of the Committee: ‘You offer important advice on a regular basis to Europe’s policymakers. You represent millions of workers, employers and civil society groups, who all keep the wheels of Europe turning at this critical juncture in our history. In short, the Economic and Social Committee is an influential partner for any EU Presidency. But let me take this opportunity to inform you that the Danish Presidency considers you more than an influential partner. Because of the exceptional economic and social challenges facing Europe today, the Danish Presidency regards you as a key partner in our efforts to help Europe deal with the current economic crisis.’ Wammel argued passionately that austerity must come also with growth creation. ‘This,’ he argued, ‘is a time when Europe must work together. Sometimes this is less true and sometimes it is more true, but today it couldn’t be more true.’
This morning’s EESC plenary session debated a, to my mind, highly significant own-initiative opinion on the role of the European Union in peace building in external relations. The rapporteur, Jane Morrice (Various Interests Group, United Kingdom), comes from Northern Ireland and had previously shepherded through a much-respected opinion on the role of civil society in the Northern Ireland peace process. Rather than describe the opinion, I would just like to quote some of its evocative language. ‘Peace-building is in the European Union’s DNA. Its very creation, enlargement and survival in times of crisis are a testament to its peace-building prowess. As a community of nations promotiong democracy, human rights, equality and tolerance, the EU has a moral obligation to support peace-building worldwide and it now has a Treaty mandate to do so.’ … ‘Without a clearly defined peace-building strategy…the EU’s potential to create a real and lasting difference in the world’s most troubled regions will not be fully realised. The challenge may be great, but the reward is greater. A peaceful Europe sits better in a peaceful world.’ Amen, Jane!
This evening I attended the vernissage at the European Economic and Social Committee’s Jacques Delors building of a photographic exhibition entitled A Modern Royal Household. It is our first cultural event under the Danish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The exhibition documents, through photographs and a video, the exceptional restoration and contemporary artistic decoration of Frederik VIII’s palace in Amalienborg, Copenhagen. The restoration was carried out between 2004 and 2010 to transform the palace into the new official residence for the Danish Crown Prince Couple. The Couple were deeply involved in the renovation project. They invited ten contemporary artists to decorate some of the rooms in the palace and the exhibition shows the artists and craftsmen working closely together. It was, in effect, a rediscovery of an old symbiosis. EESC President Staffan Nilsson welcomed Klaus Bondam, Director of the Danish Cultural Institute and curator of the exhibition, and an old EU hand, Danish Ambassador Poul Skytte Christoffersen (in the picture). This was a première for the exhibition, which will stay in the Committee until March and then go ‘on tour’. It is open to the public and is well worth a visit.
The second opinion on this afternoon’s agenda that demonstrated the EESC’s consensus-building mechanisms hard at work was an opinion on genetically modified organisms in the EU (rapporteur = Martin Siecker, Employees’ Group, the Netherlands) where, rather courageously, I think, the Committee sought – successfully (by which I mean adoption of the opinion by a large majority) – to provide orientation for the future debate that will surround forthcoming legislative proposals. After a rich debate in which, among others, farming, consumer, environmentalist, business and scientific points of view were all cogently expressed, the Committee adopted an opinion that highlights various ethical, ecological, technlogical, socio-economic, legal and policy questions. The opinion provides an excellent tour d’horizon that is also, in my view, a tour de force.