When I give talks about the European Economic and Social Committee I always stress its fundamentally consensual working methods. The Committee is an advisory body. The greater the majority that votes in favour of an opinion, the stronger that advice will be. Over more than fifty years the Committee has evolved working methods that, in recognition of that basic fact, encourage the greatest possible consensus. The risk of such an imperative is that the content of opinions is watered down to the lowest common denominator but there were two opinions on this afternoon’s plenary session agenda that demonstrated how the Committee can avoid that risk, even on sensitive and potentially divisive comments. The first was an opinion (rapporteur = Peter Morgan, Employers’ Group, United Kingdom) on prudential requirements for banks and investment firms. The Commission has tabled a draft regulation that is, in effect, part of the post-crisis architecture that the Union is trying to build for the banking sector. Peter is a respected expert on banks and banking and this no doubt enabled him to rally a large majority to his arguments. The opinion calls strongly inter alia for ethical and sustainable new business models and radically revised reward structures and it urges the Commission to come forward with a directive relating to ethical and participatory banking.
At midday today I met with my counterpart in the Committee of the Regions, Gerhard Stahl, for a spot of violin tuning. Both Committees are currently heading into the 2013 budget drafting exercise. Because we pool so many of our resources together in our Joint Services, we have to tune our violins – by which I mean ensure that our general approaches are consistent and coherent. Otherwise, our budgetary strategies would be asymetrical and inefficient. But more generally both institutions – like all EU institutions – face the reform proposals tabled by the European Commission as part, inter alia, of a response to the serious economic and social situation in the Union and its member states. Once again, and in the spirit of the cooperation agreement between the two Committees, it is important that we tune our violins about tactics and strategies and general approaches.
This morning I accompanied EESC President Staffan Nilsson to a conciliation meeting with the Committee’s trades union representatives. As an economic and social committee surely should, we regard trades unions as important components in the democratic structure of the Committee’s administrative life. Today, the subject of the conciliation meeting was a reform to the Committee’s promotion system. The discussions revolved around technicalities that relate to important issues. The discussions were polite and respectful and all sides laid out their arguments well.
Tonight we watched Jodie Foster’s The Beaver (2011), starring Mel Gibson as a depressive businessman and Foster as his long-suffering wife. The basic premise of the film – that Walter Black (Gibson’s character) develops an alternate character through a beaver glove puppet which always talks on his behalf – is both unbelievable and what makes Mel Gibson’s performance fascinating. I rather liked this reductio ad absurdum approach to analysing the strains in marriages created by serious depression but that was probably too sophisticated for mass audiences and there is in any case too much saccharine in the rest of the plot for the film to work well. (The film was a ‘box office flop.’) It’s a shame, for Gibson clearly put a lot into his role. I wonder whether the opening sequence, where Walter Black depresses himself further by being unable to commit suicide effectively, was a deliberate nod to the opening sequence of The Odd Couple.
The EESC’s thirty-nine member Bureau met this afternoon. As always, the primary function of the meeting is to prepare the next plenary session and to decide on budgetary questions. The Bureau also deals with a number of recurrent points. These include deciding on authorisations for ‘own-initiative’ opinions. The Committee only won this right to speak when it wants to – rather than when it is asked – in 1974. The traditional attitude within the Committee has been that the right should be used sparingly so as to maximise the impact of any individual own-initiative opinion. But the policy scope of the European Union is now extensive and, as the Section and CCMI Presidents discussed yesterday, the window of opportunity for making the Committee’s voice heard upstream of the traditional legislative procedure is increasingly narrow. I sense that the attitude is therefore changing. Own-initiative opinions enable the Committee to express the voice of organised civil society on topics it feels are important. So today the Bureau discussed which opinions to authorise for the coming six months or so. To give a flavour, the following topics caught my eye: the role of female entrepreneurs and specific policies to favour growth and employment; the contribution made to the EU’s economy by immigrant entrepreneurs; independent workers; and the involvement of consumers’ organisations in the internal market. Clearly, the backdrop to much of the Committee’s reflections at the moment is the ongoing crisis and the two sides of the coin; how to encourage growth, and how to deal with, and minimise where possible, the consequences of the crisis.
The European Economic and Social Committee has six specialised Sections plus a Consultative Commission on Industrial Change. These are the Committee’s engine houses, where the consultative work, the drafting and debating of opinions before they go to the plenary session, gets done. Today I was kindly invited to a working lunch with the Section and CCMI Presidents. The agenda of each of these meetings revolves around the same basic theme; how can the Committee’s working methods be improved? Today the Presidents discussed the composition of study groups – small groups, generally of three, six or nine members, that prepare the basic drafts of the Committee’s more important opinions – and the challenge of meeting the three-month deadline that the European Parliament imposes when it asks the Committee for its opinion. With regard to the latter, the Presidents were pleased to note that the Committee generally gets its homework in on time. The challenge for all of the Union’s assemblies – if I can term the Parliament and the Committees collectively in that way – is the same; languages. Texts have to be available in the working languages of the participants and, ultimately, in all of the working languages, and that means that the translators have to be given the time to do their work. Through such meetings the Committee is constantly seeking to improve its performance so that as far as possible it delivers short, sharp and to the point opinions as early as possible.
Today has been a typically heavy Monday on a plenary session week. It started with an early coordination meeting with the President, Staffan Nilsson, an early management board meeting, the ‘pre-session’ preparatory meeting for the Bureau and the plenary session, a meeting with the sub-group of three members from the Budget Group tasked with preparing the 2013 draft budget, meetings with my two Vice-Presidents, Jacek Krawczyk and Anna Maria Darmanin and, in the evening, the enlarged Presidency (the President, Vice-Presidents, three Group Presidents and me). I am now several months into the fourth year of my mandate as Secretary General and my team have worked out that already I have served 30 plenary sessions and 37 Bureau meetings. Of course, there are always problems to be solved and occasional technical and logistical hitches to be overcome but, in general terms, the Committee works, and it works well. In some considerable part that is down to the Rolls Royce of the administration; truly, a well-oiled machine.
In 1983, as part of a European University Institute empirical study of the European Parliament, I came to Strasbourg with a friend to interview the UK’s first directly-elected MEPs. Some were terribly busy and didn’t want to see us. Some – John Hume memorably among them – were terribly busy but still made time to see us. Some, seeing that we were scruffy students, wanted nothing to do with us. And some, seeing that we were scruffy students, pampered us with hospitality and meals. Janey Buchan, a fierce leftwing political activist (and a great anti-apartheid campaigner) whose reputation for taking no prisoners preceded her, fell into the latter camp. Janey (who passed away on the 14 January at the ripe old age of 85), always barefoot in her office, made me cups of tea and sandwiches and gave maternal advice. I remember the electric kettle on the floor and the teabags and fresh milk. Later, when I had become an official and represented an institution, the European Commission, with which she frequently fought, she remained warm and friendly towards me. I knew, as the obituaries have recalled, that she could be a ‘good hater’ but despite the fact that I disagreed with some of her political positions (starting with her euro-scepticism) she was never less than kind and friendly towards me. The invitations for cups of tea continued and she would regale me with anecdotes about musicians (Pete Seeger, for example) and politicians (Willy Brandt, for example) she had befriended. When she retired from the Parliament in 1994 I lost touch with her. Indeed, I don’t think I ever saw her again. But despite all of the notorious good hating that I have read about I’ll remember her as being kind, friendly and attentive.
He's got to go...
We finished watching the first season of The Wire this evening. It is an excellently written and gripping drama. It is also depressing in its basic message. An insistent detective is driven by his desire to assauge guilt rather than to combat evil. His unorthodox insistence forces the system into following his lead. But police department politics and incompetence lead to clumsy raids and blown opportunities and unnecessary murders and an attempt to boot everything up to the FBI level results in political hits but the dealers’ business continues. The apparent message is that if, as an individual, you want to change a system, you have to have the power to change the system. Otherwise, all you will do is change the individuals within the system…
The dog took me for the usual favourite walk out Berthem way this afternoon. Our habitual circuit passes a number of enigmatic abandoned huts lost in wooded ground. One of them, pictured, particularly intrigued us. We fantasised that a dust-covered Bugatti in pristine condition stood inside or an early model of a Massey Ferguson tractor, driven only once by the farmer and then forgotten. Today we saw that the door had either fallen down or been smashed open. Curiosity got the better of us so we picked our way through the bracken and the briars to take a look. The truth was more prosaic but just as interesting. Somebody – a farm hand or an agricultural labourer – once lived here. There was no water and no electricity. The hut (could it have been a Nissen hut?) had been emptied but the traces of a human life were there. He (clearly a he) must have had a stove of some sort but surely froze in the winter. In the remains of a garden a pit had been dug and was full of empty gin bottles. It seemed straight out of a Michael Frayn novel (I am thinking of this one). And then I got to thinking that two hundred years ago most people lived without running water or constant heating and certainly without electricity and artificial light.