At lunchtime today, the two Committees formally welcomed the two hives and the honey bees installed on our seventh floor roof by organising a first tasting of their honey. I therefore donned a protective suit and went to the hives to smoke the bees and then lift out a frame (yep, that’s me in the picture) already miraculously full of honeycombs and honey (blog readers will remember that the hives only arrived on 7 May). During the process I learnt a lot. First, I had thought that the smoke was used to make the bees drowsy but that is not at all the case. I only gave them three puffs (the smoke is made from dried lavender pellets) and the purpose is to get them thinking that they might need to abandon the hive (because of fire). When this happens, the bees start to consume honey and when a bee consumes honey the bee’s abdomen distends, supposedly making it difficult to make the necessary flexes to sting. In any case, a sated bee is less aggressive and these bees are anyway particularly docile. The second thing I learned is that our bees have probably established a foraging area of about ten square kilometres and that they fly prodigious distances. The third is that urban bee communities produce twice as much honey as their country cousins. Now, as our President, Staffan Nilsson, pointed out in his speech for the occasion, the presence of the hives is a good thing in itself but they are also there to educate our members and staff about the fact that our bee populations are in worrying decline. The honey was deliciously sweet and it was oh so satisfying to be tasting it!
As part of the European Economic and Social Committee’s activities in the context of Green Week (for which the theme this year was water), our environment team offered staff and members the possibility of viewing an educational documentary film, Plastic Shores. At midday today I went along to watch a film that actually raises profound concerns and should be more widely known. It is basically about the growing amount of plastic waste in our seas. I hadn’t realised the sheer scale of the phenomenon. It takes some 450 years for a plastic bottle to degrade, and then it is via photo-degradation (UVF radiation from the sun) rather than bio-degradation. As plastic ages and weathers it becomes brittle and breaks into ever smaller pieces. The resulting fragments, dubbed ‘micro plastics’, can become as fine as sand. They are ingested by small fish and birds and transported up the food chain. Ingestion and degradation both lead to the release of chemicals with all sorts of harmful side effects for animals (the United Nations Environment Programme calculates that one million seabirds are killed each year by plastics), up to and including human beings, and this process of bioaccumulation has been increasing imperceptibly – only specific blood tests will reveal the quantity of persistent organic pollutants (‘POPs’) in our bodies. Altogether, there are eleven oceanic gyres and plastic waste of all sizes gets caught up in these floating spirals, sometimes for years, before eventually drifting away towards land or the sea bottom. Even samples of sea water from the middle of our oceans will be full of plastic waste (there is an average of 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean). And these plastics persist in our environment over a very long period of time. Beyond clearing up the mess that is already out there, on our beaches and in our seas, the solutions are simple: use less and use alternatives; re-use; and re-cycle. The pictures from poor Hawai, which happens to have two oceanic gyres on either side of it, were truly depressing…
This morning I gave a short welcoming address to a seminar of the EESC’s middle management on the theme of ‘ethical challenges for Heads of Unit’. Our human resources directorate is doing a great job in providing support for all colleagues, including those in management. This seminar was an example of their active support, the aim being to inform colleagues about the legal and administrative frameworks within which they must work (both rights and obligations) but also what support is at hand to help them in facing up to HR challenges. Indeed, a lot of the seminar was given over to working group discussions of case studies and I think a lot of the participants found the examples they worked on to be familiar. In her initial presentation the trainer, Katri Auvinen (Finnish), introduced us to a new technique, ‘pecha kucha’, designed both to facilitate the rapid imparting of information and to limit the potential for dreary powerpoint presentations. Curiosity piqued, I looked it up on the internet and was amused to discover that there are such things as ‘pecha kucha evenings’. The principle is simple: you talk to twenty slides, each slide showing for twenty seconds. Of course, it would not be appropriate to all situations but as the trainer showed it can clearly be an effective technique.
Today and tomorrow the European Economic and Social Committee is hosting the seventh meeting of the European Integration Forum in the form of a public hearing on the issue of the right to family reunification of third country nationals. Our President, Staffan Nilsson, welcomed European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström at the beginning of the meeting this morning. A series of thematic panels will discuss integration measures; the application process; asylum-related issues; and fraudulent practices. The European Integration Forum, launched in April 2009 by the European Commission and the EESC, brings together representatives of civil society organisations active in the area of integration of immigrants. It gives them an opportunity to express their views on these issues, in particular relating to the EU agenda on integration, so that they can give an important political input to its elaboration. The family reunification issue was the subject of a recent public consultation held by the European Commission. Given the high number of contributions received, it was decided that the Forum would be the most appropriate arena to deepen the discussion with representatives of civil society organisations.Therefore the meeting is in the form of a public hearing. All those who contributed in writing to the public consultation have been invited to it.
To the Bozar this evening to see the inimitable Laurie Anderson performing her latest creation, Dirt Day, an exploration, via personal experiences and reflections, of such themes as mortality, love, evolution, but also the social consequences of the economic crisis in the United States and the country’s constant search for an enemy against which to assert its own still emerging identity. The reflections were interspersed with and accompanied by characteristic soundscape passages and violin solos and Anderson once again used a voice filter to magic up the male voice that she describes as her voice of authority or of conscience. It would be mean to give away the comic one-liners and the plot developments, so I won’t. But this is definitely a show to catch up with whenever it is next performed in Europe (which apparently means Slovenia in June or London in early August, according to her website).
In December of last year the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions were the proud recipients of Eco-Management and Audit Scheme certification. This was a strong illustration of the unity between our Committees’ administrations and their political commitment to sustainable development, and highlighted the exemplary role we seek to play towards other administrations and the public. Indeed, since 2008, our Committees have been committed to setting up an environmental management system that complies with the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), in order to ensure that we operate in the most environmentally friendly way possible. We have for example managed to reduce our electricity consumption by 14,5% and our gas consumption by 25,5% with respect to 2008. We already achieved an initial success with the award of the Brussels Eco-Dynamic Enterprise Label in 2009, for which we obtained the maximum three stars. But, although winning certification was a great achievement, we must now maintain and constantly enhance our policies. Thus this afternoon I attended a meeting of our inter-institutional EMAS steering committee, a meeting that brings together all of the involved actors in the two Committees. We have plucked most of the low-hanging fruit but we are determined to continue to improve our act, for EMAS is a classic win-win proposition: an ethical good that brings economic advantages.
At midday today I met with Klaus Welle, Secretary General of the European Parliament, to discuss ways in which we could further enhance our two institutions’ cooperation in the specific context of the European Economic and Social Committee’s consultative function. It is no exaggeration to state that the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions have quietly revolutionised working relations between the two institutions, not just in the context of participatory democracy (where the EESC has provided a flanking role for the EP’s Agora initiatives), but more generally in regard to the Parliament’s legislative function. In a whole series of policy areas the Parliament now consults the Committee before embarking on its legislative work. As an advisory body, the Committee anyway has a vested interest in getting its opinion in upstream of the legislative process. But the Parliament also has to plan its legislative work and therefore needs to know with certainty when the Committee will deliver its opinion. That in turn means adapting and adjusting working methods (given that the institutions have to work with translation and interpretation deadlines). Today’s meeting was therefore about fine tuning our growing cooperation.
This morning I chaired the weekly management board meeting (delayed by one day because of yesterday’s Bank Holiday) with more than a little pride. Four of the participants, including the Secretary General and the Deputy Secretary General, had run Sunday’s 20 k, and we also had our star runner, Johannes Kind (1 hour and 18 minutes!) at the table. Now, that’s a pretty fit management board by any standards (and that is not to mention the deputy director who did 70 k on her bike on the same day). ‘Mens sana in corpore sano,’ as Juvenal put it. I do like to think that we are, collectively, a healthy administration with a good work-life balance. Nobody can say that the top brass doesn’t set a good example!
Tonight we watched an Orson Welles classic, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). To my mind, you can’t watch this sort of film without feeling sorry for Welles, as the studio (RKO) were determined to cut it down and into something he had never intended – and it shows (to read the list of deleted passages – over an hour’s worth – is painful in itself). Still, the film (based on Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, which I have never read, alas) does the business in portraying the evolution of American society from post-civil war grand families to pre-First World War industrialist dynasties. Welles’s script has some great one-liners. ‘The Ambersons were as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.’ ‘I thought everybody knew him. He looks as though everybody ought to know him.’ ‘The family like always to have somebody in Congress.’ ‘It’s indecent. Like squabbling outside the door of an operating theatre.’ When, in the end, the unbearably spoilt George Amberson Minafer gets his come-uppance the film has cleverly done enough to leave its audience ambivalent about the brave new world the industrialists have ushered in.
This morning, together with some 30,000 other enthusiasts, I ran the Brussels 20 k, getting around in a respectable two hours. There were a number of changes in the organisation of the race this year. Thankfully, the first of them was that we started at ten in the morning rather than three in the afternoon. I write ‘thankfully’ because it was a glorious day – and already very hot at the start. The second change was that the runners began not on the esplanade behind the cinquantenaire arch but on the lawns between it and the Rond Point Schuman. The third change was that the start was staggered into six different boxes and the boxes were allowed to empty completely before the next box was allowed to start. All of these made good sense. This was my fourth year in a row and I now know the course well enough to adapt my strategy to the conditions. Still, in cooler conditions I am sure everybody would have been several minutes faster. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. I would do it every year if only for the wonderful scenes in the rue de la Loi. The picture is ‘after’, with medals!