This evening I had a drink with a Scottish friend, a fellow high-up in another institution. Somehow we got on to a chat about the relative distance of war and he told a moving tale. In February 1917 his grandfather signed up to the Army, crossed the Channel and joined the British forces on the Western Front. He kept a diary of his experiences until he was wounded and invalided out in October of the same year. The diary (which I have now read) is full of laconic and ironic entries. Somehow, the short, terse, descriptions of the horror and terror he lived through render everything more vivid. The diary is also full of familiar place names. Seventy years later my friend came to Belgium for the first time and travelled through the landscape (around Armentières – that’s the station of Armentères in the picture) described in his grandfather’s diary. Now, viewed from the Thalys, it is pastoral land; vast fields, occasional copses, neat brick villages. Then, as his grandfather’s diary entries make clear, it was hell on earth.
This afternoon I gave my traditional closing address to new colleagues joining the European Economic and Social Committee’s staff. My talk comes at the end of a two day information programme, and I see my task as being to put everything in perspective. In the first place, the more I have come to know of the EESC, the more I am convinced of its unique role, derived from the authenticity of its members, who don’t get a salary and can genuinely be described as volunteers. In the second place, we put a lot of emphasis, collectively, on having a good and positive working environment in the Committee; it’s a good place to be and to work, with a happy, highly professional and efficient work force. In the third place, we are immensely privileged, both in terms of the quality of our work (working together with so many nationalities and in different languages is, of itself, I believe, a wonderful experience) and our conditions (a decent salary, a job for life and a pension afterwards is an increasingly rare phenomenon). Last but not least, we should never forget that our ultimate masters are the people, Europe’s citizens, on whose behalf we purport to work. Here endeth the sermon.
A working lunch today, at the invitation of former EESC President Dimitris Dimitriadis, with a delegation of the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce, headed by its President, Vassilis Korkidis. On our side, our President, Staffan Nilsson (in the picture with Korkidis), Vice-President Jacek Krawczyk, former Vice-President, Irini Pari and REX Section Chairman, Sandy Boyle. Korkidis explained that the delegation had come to Brussels to correct the misleading impression given by media coverage of the situation in Greece. Yes, things were grim, with tax over 40 per cent and wages slashed by 30 %, two-thirds of people living off of their savings, 1 million unemployed and 28% of the population under the poverty line. But most people were not rioting and over 80 per cent of the Greek people continued to favour membership of the EU and of the euro because they believed, despite all the pain, that it was the best alternative. Certainly, he insisted, no Greek businessman wanted a return to the drachma. The emphasis now must be on facilitating growth and enterprise. The Confederation had identified eight ‘rising star’ areas of economic activity (including tourism, wholesale retail, east-west trade, ports, shipping, recycling, agriculture and solar energy) where Greece had a comparative advantage and should be pushing hard. But, he acknowledged, all this was against a grim backdrop: by 2021 the Greek economy will be where it was in 2009.
After the keynote speeches I dashed one floor down from the Employees’ Group’s meeting to a public hearing organised by the EESC’s ‘ECO’ Section on the theme of the EU Budget 2014-2020, a topic on which the Committee is producing an opinion (rapporteur = Stefano Palmieri, Employees’ Group, Italy). The Chairman of the Study Group, Seppo Kallio (Various Interests’ Group, Finland), introduced EESC President Staffan Nilsson and two guest keynote speakers; European Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski (who was at the working dinner in the Parliament yesterday evening) and the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the multi-annual financial perspectives, Ivailo Kalfin. Both speakers highlighted a number of ironies: the EU budget is in decline (a projected 20% decrease between the 1990s and 2020) whilst national budgets are steadily increasing; that no deficits are possible, whereas a number of member states have run up massive deficits; and that administrative spending, at 6%, is very low compared with any national budget. The relative decline in the EU budget means that it is becoming less powerful as a tool and therefore must be carefully focused in order to enhance its impact, hence the Commission’s proposal to shift resources away from agriculture and towards innovation, research and education – areas in which the EU has a comparative advantage.
This morning I attended the opening session of an extraordinary meeting of the EESC’s Employees Group devoted to the theme of ‘Anti-crisis measures and the social situation – a low-carbon industrial policy.’ The meeting was opened by a keynote address by Bernadette Ségol, Secretary-General of the European Trade Union Confederation (which is organising a day of action tomorrow), before moving onto the presentation of specific studies about the situation in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy. This afternoon the meeting will consider a low-carbon industrial policy as a way out of the current crisis, including the participation of MEPs Yannick Jadot and Claude Turmes.
This evening I accompanied Michael Smyth, the President of the EESC’s ‘ECO’ Section, to a working dinner organised by the European Parliament and its new President, Martin Schulz, in the context of interparliamentary dialogue on the European Semester for Economic Policy Coordination. Pervenche Beres launched the debate. Other speakers included Martin Schulz himself, MEPs Sharon Bowles, Elmar Brok, Alain Lamassoure, European Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski and Bill Cash, MP. ‘Bill Cash?’ I hear you say. Yes, a delegation from the House of Commons was present and participated actively in the debate. Eurosceptic Bill Cash may be, but where all the participants in the meeting agreed was that, whilst the current economic and financial situation requires urgent measures, democratic parliamentary oversight should be fully asserted.
I had lunch today with an old friend, Hussein Kassim (picture), who is a distinguished professor of politics and head of school at the University of East Anglia. Hussein, who has written a lot about the European Union and its institutions has been leading a fascinating research project which has sought to find out more about the identity of European civil servants and, in particular, those working in the European Commission. Over several years he and a distinguished team of fellow academics have interviewed an impressively large number of Heads of Unit, Directors, Directors-General, cabinet members, political advisors and Commissioners in a quest to know more about their core beliefs, career paths and backgrounds. The fruit of this labour will be published by Oxford University Press in the autumn, but Hussein has been giving sneak previews to the Commission’s directors-general (and, over lunch, to this old friend). The fascinating findings scotch several myths and are generally, I found, reassuring. I won’t steal Hussein’s thunder but would just note that Jean Monnet would be happy!
What a weekend for a sports fanatic! In the six nations rugby there were excellent matches at Twickenham, where the Welsh form team deservedly won 19-12 and took the Triple Crown but an encouraging performance from the young English team (that might still have drawn the match in the closing minutes) showed that it has a bright future, and at Murrayfield, where only Scottish distraction and a handful of mistakes condemned Scotland to a 23-17 defeat against a fitful French team. And then there was the football. Not just Ryan Giggs marking his 900th appearance for Manchester United by scoring a winning goal against Norwich in the 90th minute, nor Arsenal coming back from 2-nil down to beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-2, but a wonderful Carling Cup final at Wembley in which Liverpool won their first silverware since 2006 after extra time and a penalty shoot-out against Cardiff City, with the latter keeping their hopes alive with an equalising goal three minutes from the end of extra time. It all came down to a penalty shoot-out that began and ended with a Gerrard miss: Steven Gerrard missed Liverpool’s first penalty and his cousin, Anthony Gerrard, missed Cardiff City’s last. Stevie G’s first act afterwards was not joyful celebration but to run across the pitch to console his cousin (picture). A scriptwriter could not have made up a better nor more touching finish to a rich weekend of great sport.
We visited two rich exhibitions at Wiels this morning. The first, Apperception, provides an overview of the work of Dutch artist Daan van Golden, from the early 1960s through to today. An ‘apperception’, the programme notes explain, is ‘perception that is assimilated to a reflection and awareness, as distinct from perception that is strictly the sensory ability itself.’ Van Golden’s view of the world reveals ‘the extraordinary concealed in the ordinary.’ He has been deliberately non-prolific and each work on display merits consideration as the product of intense, if concealed, reflection. ’Flagrant Delight’ is a retrospective of the witty and ironical work of German contemporary artist Rosemarie Trockel, as exemplied in her most famous work, ‘wool paintings’ and cooking rings (a wry commentary on the male-dominated art of the time). Both exhibitions are well worth a visit, as is the Wiels space itself (perfect for the minimalism of van Golden’s works). I always have a modest sense of satisfaction about Wiels. It is one of two buildings (the other being the Oxo tower in central London) that I helped, in a tiny way (I mean, by signing a petition and making a contribution), to save from demolition. When I was in Boston I was astounded to learn that the Old State House was almost pulled down by developers. In all three cases, in retrospect, you ask yourself how could they have done it? The truth is that much has gone and much more could still go. Vigilance and public support are the only answers.
I heard an interesting discussion on BBC Radio 4 this morning about Rick Santorum’s so-called sweater vests. He happened to like wearing these sleeveless pullovers but then became identified with them and so has apparently decided to turn them into a visual tag. Elio Di Rupo, Belgium’s current Prime Minister, long ago decided that his visual tag would be a red bow tie (unconsciously echoing the late Liberal politician, Willy De Clercq, but whose bow ties varied in colour). When I first started following the European Parliament, a German Green MEP (I have forgotten his name) would always attend plenary sessions in leather shorts and mountain boots. UKIP leader Nigel Farage, MEP, always sports a felt-collared overcoat. Nick Clegg, now UK Deputy Prime Minister, seemed always as an MEP to wear a pullover under his suits. Which brings me to this morning’s studio guest, former Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth, who was famous for his collection of outlandish jumpers. Brandreth observed that the pipe-smoking former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson frequently held his pipe in such a way that his wedding ring was visible. According to Brandreth, this was a subtle visual means of underlining the difference between him and his rival, Edward Heath, who was a confirmed bachelor. Could it be?