At the Kaaitheatre tonight we saw the sublime fusion of Steve Reich’s music (Drumming) and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker”s choreography. Drumming is mesmerising. The dancers ebb and flow, dwindle and reappear, dance alone or in seemingly unconnected groups, and all the while the percussionists work their way through the phases, from drums to xylophones and back. The fact that such path-breaking pieces of music and dance are so freely available at such a high level of quality is a good example of why Brussels is reservedly renowned as one of Europe’s great cultural capitals. Long may it, and Belgian choreography, continue to prosper!
The dog took me running out at Berthem this morning and I heard my first Belgian cuckoo (I heard my first cuckoo of the year in Italy over the Easter break). That’s late and, as this article in last Sunday’s Observer explained, the lateness and the singularity of the call are both potentially worrying. Some European cuckoo populations are declining and nobody knows why. There was a theory that in some regions the bird was running out of nests in which to lay its parasitic eggs but populations of the reed warbler, its favourite victim, are on the rise. Although the experiment the newspaper article described involved just five birds it was nevertheless revealing. Cuckoos, like swallows, winter in Africa but nobody knew exactly how they got there or back. The answer, in part, is that some head down to the toe of the Italian isthmus and then cross the Mediterranean and the Sahara before reaching the Congo. But others traverse Spain and the Gibraltar straits and follow the African coast down to Senegal before turning inland towards the Congo. There may be other routes. In this particular experiment, one of the five birds died whilst still in Africa and the four others were returning late. Again, nobody knows why. Still, when I heard the cuckoo this morning I was a little more knowledgeable about how he probably got there.
I gave a talk this afternoon to a group of consultants and lobbyists. It was a fun occasion because I was invited to talk about pretty much whatever I wanted and on the basis of ‘Chatham House rules’ (that is, off the record). ON the record, I spoke about the European Union’s institutional landscape post-Lisbon Treaty and about my concerns that the twin challenges the 2001 Laeken Declaration had identified (pending enlargement and the gap between the EU and its citizens), and which the Lisbon Treaty was intended to meet, had not in fact been met. If anything, as we know, the gap with the citizen in particular is growing. So what is to be done? I speculated that we were in a transitional phase where our politics had not yet adapted to the scale of a continent and an embryonic federation. But the current debates about how to deal with the crisis suggest the outlines of a future such system. Do we need more or less Europe? Should more be done by ‘Brussels’ or by the Member States or not done by any state at all? Is a centralised budget an unnecessary imposition or an efficient multiplier? Should the budget be larger? If we look across the Atlantic we can surely see similarities. On a different note, the lady in the picture was in my audience. Her name is Sophie Westlake. The surname ‘Westlake’ is of Devonshire origin. The Westlakes slowly spread to Cornwall and Somerset and then to the rest of England but still remain relatively rare. Some also migrated to Canada and Australia and the name is quite common in Eastern Canada. But until now there was only one Westlake in Brussels – me. Not any more!
Our young guests have indeed been having fun. This afternoon I loaned them the head of my secretariat, Miguel Colera, to act as the Secretary General in their simulated plenary session. As I handed him over, at Vice-President Anna Maria Darmanin’s invitation, I said a few words about what Europe meant for me. I used the parallel of two World Cup finals that I very much enjoyed. One, in 1966, saw England win at home. The other, in 1982, saw Italy win in Spain but, at the time, I was living and studying in my adoptive Italy. In both cases I remember the thrill and the joy of those final matches and victories. But – here’s the rub – in 1966 I watched on a black-and-white screen within a small wooden box, the image constantly blurred or obscured by ‘interference’. If somebody had asked me to watch the 1982 match on such a box I would have been bemused and frustrated. Europe to me, I argued, was like colour television. It was fun. And the miracle of working in the EU is that although those colours and cultures remain bright and vivid, nationalities disappear.
With spring now well under way it is time for the two administrations to get their Bike Fridays up and running again. The idea is simple; to encourage colleagues to think of coming to work on a bicycle rather than using the car, if at all possible. We offer a bio breakfast and, on this occasion, invited in a mechanic to service colleagues’ bikes. Brussels is rapidly becoming very bike friendly. It used to be hard and take some courage to ride a bicycle around the city but now there are cycle lanes or cyclist-designated spaces in most roads and the biggest discouragement is the hill that separates the uptown and downtown city. Still, using your bike (or walking) is a win-win solution; you don’t pollute the environment and you get fit into the bargain.
In the evening I joined the President, Vice-President Anna Maria Darmanin, the Group Presidents and various members to welcome the youthful participants in this year’s edition of Your Europe, Your Say!. Selection of the lucky participants took place in early December with names being drawn at random, from among 933 applicants. The 27 chosen schools (one per country from every Member State of the EU) were invited to send three pupils and one teacher to take part in a simulated plenary session of the Committee, at our Brussels headquarters, and today they arrived. Tomorrow will get the opportunity not only to have their voices heard at the heart of Europe, but also to discover friends and allies among their counterparts in every EU country. The event itself is just one part of the programme. Between January and March 2012, EESC members in every country made personal visits to these schools, to explain more about the European Union and the Committee itself, and encourage the involvement of a large number of students. It’s going to be fun!
When the two consultative Committees, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, inherited their current buildings in 2004, they also inherited an old, delapidated building on the corner of rue Remorqueur and rue Belliard. This was pulled down and replaced by a new, attractively light and airy, office building. It was too small an area to build underground parking, and so the architects left a large underground basement space with no designated function. After discussions between the two administrations it was decided to turn the space into a room equipped for us to be able to receive visitors’ groups (growing each year in number) in more comfortable and better-appointed circumstances than had been the case until now (basically, administration meeting rooms with no natural light). Today, I visited the resulting new visitors’ room together with my Committee of the Regions counterpart, Gerhard Stahl. We are very satisfied. Although the space is largely underground, the architect’s use of light-stained beechwood and energy-efficient LED lighting has created a bright and welcoming space that any university would be happy to have as a lecture theatre, I am sure. And all of this has been done on a very modest budget. Well done, our Logistics Directorate!
The second day of the EESC’s April plenary session saw seven opinions successfully debated and adopted. Themes covered included: sustainable production and consumption in the EU (an exploratory opinion for the current Danish Presidency, rapporteur = An Le Nouail, Employees’ Group/France); public procurement and concession contracts (rapporteur = Miguel Angel Crabra de Luna, Various Interests Group/Spain); recognition of professional qualifications and administrative cooperation (rapporteur = Arno Metzler, Various Interests Group/Germany); and European Venture Capital Funds (rapporteur = Anna Nietyksza, Employers’ Group/Poland). Some of the subjects and certainly some of the amendments were potentially controversial but President Staffan Nilsson’s wit – at work in the illustration – gentlily defused even the thorniest issues. And so the plenary ended on time, leaving us all with a gentle sense of euphoria and relief. Thanks to the members and the colleagues, another job well done!
Invidious though it may be, I would like to single out one opinion from this afternoon’s plenary session debates. ‘Book publishing on the move,’ is an own-initiative opinion (rapporteur = Grace Attard, Various Interests Group/Malta; co-rapporteur = Hilde van Laere, Employers Group delegate/Belgium) produced by the EESC’s Consultative Commission on Industrial Change. I learnt a lot from this wide-ranging opinion. The publishing industry is a prime example of a sector undergoing profound change as a result of technological advances and changing cultural habits, with knock-on effects for economies and jobs. Attard’s opinion bows to the inevitable, in that it acknowledges that these changes are here to stay, necessitating all sorts of adaptations. But I was interested to learn that there are almost inadvertent discriminatory fiscal regimes that favour online books against the printed version. In the US, for example, online publishing is tax-free. We should hardly be surprised that sales of Kindles and electronic books have rocketed!
In this afternoon’s plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee President Staffan Nilsson welcomed European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, responsible for regional policy, and Michel Delebarre, former President of the Committee of the Regions and currently President of its Committee on Territorial Cohesion Policy for a thematic debate on the Commission’s proposal on cohesion policy for 2014-2020, a policy area that represents no less than one third of the EU’s budget, or EUR 350 billion over seven years. The background to the debate was a cohesion policy package consisting of five opinions, setting out the Committee’s position on the European Commission’s October legislative proposal. President Nilsson noted that cohesion policy is one of the most visible aspects of the EU’s work and the results are there for all to see: the four cohesion funds have created an estimated 1.4 million new jobs, funded 47 000 km of motorway and provided wastewater treatment for 23 million people. There is no doubt that cohesion policy has a direct impact on citizens’ daily lives, yet still it is also one of the least talked-about policy areas. The EESC is keen to change that, bringing the debate and the implementation of the policies closer to citizens. “Citizens’ needs and interests must be at the heart of all Community policies, so it is essential to apply the partnership principle in the EU’s cohesion policy in a way that enables all stakeholders to play a full part,” he argued.