We were invited by good friends this evening to a soirée musicale, organised by English composer Nigel Clarke and performed by the ‘Quatuor Ambiorix’, four gifted young musicians (two Poles, a Romanian and a Belgian) studying at the Conservatoire Royale. Pieces by Schubert, Mozart, Pachelbel and Beethoven were all on the programme but the ‘meat in the sandwich’, as Clarke put it, was undoubtedly Dmitri Shostakovitch’s String Quartet N° 3. In his introduction Clarke explained to us how the once-denounced and rehabilitated Shostakovitch had written the piece just as he was about to be persecuted again. The piece was played once, in 1946, and then withdrawn. Unusually, and perhaps as a way of making the music more accessible to his critics, Shostakovitch provided titles for the piece’s five movements and, though they cannot do the extraordinary music full justice, nevertheless speak for themselves: 1. Calm Unawareness of the Future Cataclysm; 2. Rumblings of Unrest and Anticipation; 3) The Forces of War Unleashed; 4) Homage to the Dead; 5) The Eternal Question. Why? And For What?. Our hosts had left the curtains open and as the music progressed we could see children playing in a park in front of the house and then the park emptying as night fell. It was a sobering backdrop for the fundamental question the persecuted and long-suffering composer put to us; why do we keep doing this to ourselves?
Earth Hour began in Sidney, Australia, in 2007. By turning off their lights for one hour one Saturday night close to the Spring equinox, some 2.2 million Sidney-siders and 2000 businesses showed their awareness of climate change and their commitment to combating it. In 2008, the organisers hoped to observe the same ‘Earth Hour’ throughout Australia but then the City of Toronto decided to follow suit and soon the event had gone global. Last year hundreds of millions of people across 135 countries switched off for one hour. This year, as last year, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions are participating by turning as many lights off as possible not just for one hour but for the whole weekend. So, if you pass by and notice the darkened buildings you’ll know why. And if you want to participate yourself, it’s tonight, at 20.30, for one hour. We can all make a difference if we want.
I have just learned, sadly, that one of my predecessors as EESC Secretary-General, Simon-Pierre Nothomb, has passed away at the age of 79, following an accident. Nothomb was appointed Secretary General in 1992, at a time when the Committee was still a sort of annex to the Council of Ministers and hence when SGs were appointed by the Council, rather than by the Committee itself. Scion of a Belgian political and literary dynasty (Charles-Ferdinand Nothomb was his brother, Amélie Nothomb his niece), Simon-Pierre was one of the youngest volunteers to fight in the Korean war (he was just 19) and would later become an ambassador for South Korea and Korean culture. He went on to study in Paris, Leuven and Geneva and was Director of Communications at Leuven University in the 1960s when it was decided to split the University. Indeed, Nothomb was the author of the title of the new university, Louvain-La-Neuve. A committed internationalist and European, Nothomb was behind several initiatives to create European university networks and his efforts led to him being awarded a doctorate honoris causa by the University of Coimbra.
Today, just two days before the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), one of the major innovations of the Lisbon Treaty, finally enters into force, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR) held a joint conference entitled ‘Time to Act!’ In the opening session CoR President Mercedes Bresso and EESC President Staffan Nilsson hosted European Parliament Vice-President Georgios Papastamkos and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in considering how the most can be made of this new democratic institution. The initiative enables one million citizens who are nationals of at least one quarter of the EU’s member states, to call directly on the European Commission to propose a legal act in an area within the competences of the EU. Expertly moderated by Euractiv publisher Christophe Leclercq, the Conference went on to consider case studies of participatory democracy in France, Italy and Sweden; how the ECI could be promoted in the member states; and how the two Committees could provide important roles as filters and facilitators and to act, as Staffan Nilsson put it, as institutional mentors. There was a great buzz to this well-attended conference. We really are on the eve of something new.
To the fifth floor of the Jacques Delors building this evening to join President Mercedes Bresso, my counterpart, Gerhard Stahl, and other colleagues at the Committee of the Regions to say farewell to Steen Illeborg, the outgoing Director of the Registry at the Committee of the Regions. In a previous incarnation I worked closely with Steen, each representing our respective institutions, and always enjoyed friendly and entirely productive relations, leavened by, I suspect, similar senses of humour. In his farewell speech Steen summed Danish humour: ‘Nothing so serious that humour cannot apply, and nothing so funny that there isn’t a serious side.’ He spoke also, echoing Dean Acheson in a very different context, about how he had been one of a handful of colleagues who had been ‘present at the creation’ of the Committee of the Regions. At an age when most of us would be happy to put our feet up for a while at least, Steen is off now to Copenhagen University to do a doctorate. I am full of admiration.
This afternoon the European Economic and Social Committee was happy to host the European Parliament’s new President, Martin Schulz, who had travelled back from Strasbourg to be present. In his speech, the President ranged across the challenges facing the European Union but remained resolutely optimistic and characteristically determined in his outlook. He also delivered an important post-Lisbon Treaty message to the EESC. This is, he declared, ‘a new beginning in the very necessary dialogue between the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee and organised civil society.’
Somebody sent me the picture accompanying this post because they thought it was nice. I remember the moment well. The European Economic and Social Committee’s plenary sessions are generally squeezed into two half days. Exceptionally, this session, which had a particularly heavy agenda, was extended to three half days. There are almost always surprises, requiring rejigging of the agenda and thinking on our feet. Among the surprises this time were new security control measures at the entrance to the building, creating considerable delay, and a small fire in a fat fryer in the kitchen back in the Jacques Delors building. The Committee’s staff rose magnificently, as always, to the challenges. In the picture, the President and his Secretary General are debating how to handle several opinions so as to maximise the use of the interpreters without risking running out of time. If we were a national body, working in one language, there would be less pressure. But we can only work with the help of our brilliant interpreters, almost seventy of them providing us with coverage in twenty-two languages. Indeed, part of the difficult art of managing plenary sessions is to calculate how much of their time we will need and making sure that we stick to that, no matter what surprises pop up on the day.
This morning the European Economic and Social Committee’s plenary session debated and adopted three inter-related opinions on: GDP and beyond; the proposal for a Financial Transaction Tax; and the European Union’s system of own resources. The author of the first two opinions was Stefano Palmieri (Italy, Employees’ Group) – in the picture – the third was authored by Gérard Dantin (France, Employees’ Group). The FTT debate was also taking place at around the same time in Strasbourg, at the European Parliament. All three opinions are strongly argued. Palmieri drew a convincing parallel with the stance Europe had taken over climate change. Somehow, the Union’s credibility is also bound up in veing seen to have found the right answers to what has occurred over the past three or four years.
Faithful readers of this blog will recall that the European Economic and Social Committee recently awarded the prizes in its annual video challenge (see my post here). This afternoon Vice-President Anna Maria Darmanin, who has particular responsibility for communication matters, presented the winners to the Committee’s plenary session. It was good to see the three winners again on a larger screen and all won enthusiastic rounds of applause. As the Vice-President explained, what was most encouraging about the entries was their basically positive message about Europe and the European Union. At the previous day’s Bureau meeting Anna Maria introduced a new presentational video about the Committee. You can see it here. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of members like Anna Maria, the Committee becomes ever younger and more dynamic, it seems to me.
Resolutions are a relatively rare instrument for the European Economic and Social Committee. This is because its basic working method is the patient construction of consensus. Nevertheless, there are occasions when the Committee is able and willing to react rapidly. At its February plenary session, for example, the Committee adopted a resolution about the economic and financial crisis and its consequences on the eve of the European Council meeting. This afternoon, by a very large majority and with no votes against, the Committee adopted a resolution against discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin. The resolution begins ‘On 8 February 2012, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) launched a website inviting people to express their grievances about people from Eastern and Central Europe working in the Netherlands. In a resolution of 15 March 2012, the European Parliament roundly condemned this denunciation website. As the representative of organised civil society, the European Economic and Social Committee denounces this action and the xenophobia and racism it embodies. The EESC calls on the Dutch people and the Dutch government to take decisive action against this initiative, which can no longer be tolerated.’ The rest of the resolution can be found at the link above.