Europe’s first major refugee crisis was the mass exodus of panicking Belgians in August/September 1914. My wife’s late grandmother, then a teenager, was among the human tide. She washed up in Brighton, on the other side of the Channel, and she recounted to me how, when she first heard the big guns on the Western Front, she thought it was distant thunder. Later, a Zeppelin flew low overhead on its way to London and she was afraid of the bombs. My late parents both lived through the London blitz. My father’s tenement building was destroyed by a landmine and he lost many of his friends. My mother’s family sheltered in dark, dank tunnels leading down to the Grand Union Canal and she suffered for the rest of her life from claustrophobia. Both recounted being transfixed with fear when the motors of V1 ‘doodlebugs’ cut out overhead; where would the bomb land? Tonight at a friend’s dinner table a fellow guest recounted how, whilst on a road holiday in Israel, she had lost her way somewhere in the north and overnighted in a hospitable kibbutz in the mountains. She was awoken during the night by what she thought was distant thunder. The next day the penny finally dropped when she was forcefully dragged into an air raid shelter. She went on to describe graphically the psychological effects of living in constant fear of bombardment. The process of European integration and of international cooperation more generally came into being to stop people having to suffer that sort of fear and worse. I understand that ‘the avoidance of war’ doesn’t seem particularly relevant to young Europeans who, in large part because of European integration, have never known conflict between European nations. But surely we shouldn’t abandon the explanation entirely. If young Europeans heard the lady telling her terrifying tale tonight, or my parents’ account of their experiences, or my wife’s grandmother’s, they would surely understand.
This morning and lunchtime I accompanied my Vice President with responsibility for budgetary and financial matters, Jacek Krawczyk, my (Maltese) Vice-President with responsibility for communication matters, Anna Maria Darmanin, and my Director of Finance, Freddy Smet, in meeting Dr Louis Galea, a distinguished Maltese figure and, currently, a member of the European Court of Auditors. Dr Galea has particular responsibility for administrative expenditure and therefore, among other institutions, for auditing the European Economic and Social Committee’s budget. The meeting went well. As a general rule, the Committee practices complete openness and transparency with regard to the European Court of Auditors, the European Ombudsman and OLAF. We see such bodies as being there to help, and acknowledge that there is always room for improvement. Dr Galea was particularly interested in the cooperation agreement and arrangements that the EESC enjoys with its sister consultative body, the Committee of the Regions. Together, the Committees achieve major economies of scale through an innovative system of pooled resources and joint governance mechanisms. I believe we are setting an example that other institutions will have to follow.
At a dinner party this evening we got onto the subject, for a while, of fateful errors and opportunistic assassinations. Perhaps the most fateful was Leopold Loyka’s 28 June 1914 error in taking a wrong turning in Sarajevo. He was Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur and had already saved the Archduke’s life that day by swerving to avoid an assassin’s bomb. Commendably, the Archduke insisted on visiting some soldiers injured in the ensuing explosion. In Wiki’s words, the hospital ’was off the planned route and Lojka had not been informed of the change in plans and was not familiar with the new route. Consequently, as he was driving away from the hospital to head out of Sarajevo, Lojka took a wrong turn down a backstreet. Realising his mistake, Lojka began to reverse out. However, it so happened that Black Hand assassin Gavrilo Princip was sitting in a café on the street just as Ferdinand’s car began to pull into it. Princip seized his chance and ran out of the café with his pistol. Spotting him, Lojka attempted to reverse faster, but his foot missed the accelerator pedal. As a consequence, Princip shot and killed the Archduke and his wife.’ The rest, as we know, was ghastly history. Of course, you have already to be of murderous intent to benefit from such coincidences. We started to cite other such potential ’accidents’. I recalled a personal experience where I was once mistakenly invited to meet the Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street in the cabinet room in the mistaken assumption that I was an ‘angry farmer’ (this was during the BSE crisis). I still remember the surprised expression on John Major’s face and the crestfallen expression on some poor secretary’s face as she realised that I was not, in fact, the leader of the ‘angry farmers’. In 1985 an American friend, seeing a scrum around one of the entrances to the European Commission’s Berlaymont building, got closer to see what was going on. He was grabbed and shoved into a lift by security guards. Pushed out of the lift, he was given a glass of champagne and, backing away, bumped into somebody. He turned around to excuse himself to find himself facing Pope Giovanni Paolo II…
Once again, today the EESC’s enlarged Presidency – the President, the two Vice-Presidents, the three Group Presidents, together with the SG – met to discuss a series of political and budgetary issues. In the morning the enlarged Presidency alone met but at the working lunch and in the afternoon it was joined by the Presidents of the Sections and the Consultative Committee on Industrial Change, together forming what the house likes to call the ‘enlarged enlarged Presidency’. Until now I have used the image of Howard Taft to illustrate posts about the enlarged Presidency, but how on earth do I illustrate the enlarged enlarged Presidency? Anyway, for the record, the day’s meetings went very well.
The annual discharge procedure for the European institutions is getting under way. Today I enjoyed an amicable working lunch at the European Parliament with Spanish S&D MEP Ines Ayala Sender, who is rapporteur for the discharge procedure for the Committee’s 2010 budget (the procedure is always delayed by two years). The EESC seeks to run a tight ship. In addition to our internal audit function and strict financial verification we are subject, like all of the institutions, to external audits and random checks by the European Court of Auditors. We practice complete openness and transparency with the EU’s budgetary control mechanisms and we seek always to be a ‘learning organisation’. We always follow up on recommendations from the European Parliament in the discharge context and we draft our annual financial report in such a way that the Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee can see exactly what we have done. In regard to the 2009 discharge procedure, the Parliament made two recommendations and the Committee has followed both of them up. The lunch went well and I hope that, as in previous years, the Parliament will vote the Committee discharge.
The prospect of Croatian accession to the European Union in July 2013 comes ever closer. This morning I chaired the third meeting of the EESC’s Croatian Accession task force. We plan for the smoothest possible integration of our Croatian observers and, as of July 2013, our nine new Croatian members. That includes making sure that translators are in place in good time to translate essential documents (Rules of Procedure, for example) and thus, because translation is a Joint Service, also necessitates close cooperation with our sister advisory body, the Committee of the Regions. We considered the transition from the current Joint Consultative Committee (which will stand down). We also considered more esoteric issues such as whether the Committee’s structures need to be changed (probably only slightly, we think). All is on course for the happy arrival of our nine new members from what will be the European Union’s twenty-eighth member state.
On 27 December 2011 the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions were officially informed that, following the final external audits, they had been awarded with the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme and ISO 14001 certifications. The auditors found that our joint Environmental Management System fully complies with the EMAS regulation and that there are no outstanding non-conformities. Among particularly positive points highlighted by the auditors were the active involvement of staff, the strong support by management and the Committees’ determination to continue awareness campaigns addressing both working and private life. This afternoon my CoR counterpart, Gerhard Stahl, and I participated in our first EMAS Steering Committee meeting since the good news was received, for it doesn’t stop there. We are determined to keep ‘greening’ our Committees. Nevertheless, both Committees’ administrations deserve a big pat on the back; after a lot of hard work, we’ve done it!
Today I had a working lunch with an old friend and colleague, Jens Nymand Christensen, who is a director in the European Commission’s Secretariat General with responsibility for relations with the European Economic and Social Committee. In addition to the Treaty’s provisions, relations between the two institutions have been governed by a Protocol of Cooperation, first signed in 2001, and updated in 2005 and 2007. With the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on participatory democracy now being more fully implemented (particularly regarding the European Citizens Initiative), and with the Committee eager to play to the full its role as an institutional intermediary between civil society organisations and the EU’s institutions in the more general context of participatory democracy, it is high time that the Protocol were updated and so negotiations have been under way between the two administrations (a similar negotiation process is taking place with the Committee of the Regions). The negotiations are far advanced and lunch today provided a possibility to address the few outstanding points. It was also an opportunity to catch up with a good friend and on Commission gossip!
Shortly after reading a reader’s letter in this morning’s Financial Times about dropping the €500 note (did you know that 20 per cent of the notes, equivalent to €60 bn, are estimated to be in circulation in Spain?) I did a little shopping and couldn’t help but notice (and pick up!) quite a few 1 and 2 cent coins left on the ground and also note some customers waving away their small change. Of course, in Finland business and banks employ ‘Swedish rounding’ and, although they remain legal tender, the government has decided to remove 1 and 2 cent coins from circulation. Curious, this; a currency that simultaneously has denominations too big and, apparently, too small. This got me thinking about other situations I had witnessed where people were indifferent to coins on the ground. I could remember two. The first was Italy in the late 1970s. Five and ten lire coins were still theoretically in circulation but rare. The Standa supermarket chain regularly used teabags and sweets as substitutes for small change and a lady friend swears she was once given a tampon in her change in a chemists’ shop. Occasionally, I would see those tiny coins in the street where, presumably, they had been thrown, being considered practically worthless. The second was in the mid-1980s in East Berlin, at Friedrichstrasse station, where day visitors to the East would return through the checkpoint. It was illegal to take Ost marks out of the DDR. I ignored that edict, risked the wrath of the border police and now have my souvenir coins, but most people spent as much as they possibly could and then threw what remained on the ground, pfennigs and marks. It was a very strange sensation to watch people literally throwing away their money and I shall never forget the dull chink of the cheap aluminium alloy coins as they hit the tarmac.
My first day back at work included a long catch-up session with my President, Staffan Nilsson. I never tire of pointing out that the particular authenticity of the European Economic and Social Committee is derived from the fact that its members do not spend most of their time in Brussels but, rather, live and work in the ‘real world’. In Staffan’s case, he is a dairy farmer, with thirty head of cattle back home. As usual, his skull bore bruises from where he had bumped himself on the bonnet of his tractor (which is forever breaking down). He told me about the effects of a great windstorm that affected northern Sweden on the night between Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Fallen trees led to a general powercut. This meant that he couldn’t milk the cows. Ultimately, power was restored, but not before Staffan had scoured the region for an emergency generator. Of course, we didn’t only talk about Staffan’s travails on the farm but having heard this particular story it was obvious to me why Dacian Ciolos, the European Commissioner with responsibility for Agriculture, insists on frequent visits to the EESC, for the Committee’s members genuinely know what they are talking about.