At the (Prague) Group III extraordinary Bureau meeting I was scheduled to say a few words of welcome for the guest of honour and keynote speaker, Michael Kocab. In my speech, which you can read below, I explained how I and my wife had managed to get to Prague in the middle of the Velvet Revolution back in December 1989. The day after we arrived, Alexander Dubcek was appointed speaker of the Federal Parliament and Vaclav Havel became President of the Republic. The minister’s eyes flashed with enthusiasm for, in those heady days, he had been standing alongside Vaclav Havel (and, indeed, Havel remains one of his closest friends). There’s more than a hint of the Tim Smits about Kocab. He started life making films and still now plays in a rock band (you can hear some of his music on his website at the link above). But what all of that generation have is a priceless experience, of having lived through the birth of democracy. Already today, young Czechs have little idea of what the previous regime meant. In that context, the Czech Government has produced a special information film for the young precisely in order to explain to them why what happened was so important and how ‘Europe’ made such a difference to them. It is one of the ironies of the integration process that its advantages rapidly become invisible. (Other Kocab web pages are available here and here.)

Welcoming words at the 13 March 2009 Extraordinary Meeting of the Bureau of Group III in Prague by Martin Westlake, EESC Secretary General

Minister, President, honourable members, ladies and gentlemen, it is an immense pleasure and privilege for me to be here in this beautiful city this morning and for me to be able to say these few words of welcome.

In fact, I have five reasons for being particularly happy to be here.

The first relates to my experience in this city in 1989, in a series of events in which I know that you, minister, were intimately involved. I should explain that in November-December 1989 I was a young official working in the European Commission. I was determined to get to one of the Central or Eastern, European countries before the revolution but, of course, I had a job to do. So it was that I and my wife set off for Prague from Paris, in a train full of excited and animated Czechs, arriving in Prague – here – on 21 December 1989. It was too late for the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, alas, but the next day Alexander Dubcek was appointed Speaker of the Federal Parliament and Vaclav Havel became President of the Republic. I remember sitting up near the castle, up near where we stayed yesterday evening, at Uvoz (the prolongation of Nerudova), and gazing out over this city and feeling the thrill of true history in the making. So, minister, dear guests, it is always an immense pleasure for me to return to this city and this country, for they illustrate what Europe and the European Union is all about.

The second reason relates to a period in the European Commission in which I was responsible for a number of higher education exchange programmes, including Tempus. The whole logic of the programme was to ‘help’ the partner countries (including the by then Czech Republic), but what I very soon found out is that if material and logistical support did flow towards the partner countries the traffic flow was by no means in one direction only. Indeed, in addition to the extraordinary intellectual and academic contributions that Czech universities were able to bring to their ‘Western’ counterparts, there were also the best practices they were able to demonstrate in terms of university organisation. Put another way, in the field of university administration, the Czechs had less catching up to do than had been imagined and, moreover, western universities had some catching up to do as well!

The third reason is altogether more personal. My younger brother came to Prague to live and work and, in the way of these things, fell in love with and married a beautiful young Czech doctor. So I am now the proud uncle of two Czech nephews and a Czech niece. For that reason also, it is always a pleasure to be back here!

The fourth reason relates to the Czech members of the European Economic and Social Committee, many of whom are here with us this morning. They are among our most active and dynamic members and they bring a great contribution to the Committee’s work. It is always a pleasure to work with them. This morning I would particularly like to thank Roman Haken and the Centre for Community Work in Central Moravia who, together with team for a sustainable future, the Visegrad Fund and the award for local democracy support on cooperation with NGOs, are co-hosting this event, and I would also like to thank Ludvik Jirovec and the Czech Chamber of Agriculture for the generous and delicious meal that they offered us yesterday evening.

The fifth reason relates to the Czech Presidency – a rite of passage for all member states. Minister, a member of the public might think of a Presidency in terms of what she or he sees in the newspapers, and it is true that there have been all sorts of headlines, as there always are. But – and here I speak as a Secretary General, as a bureaucrat – we know that a Presidency is about much more than that. A Presidency is above all about all of that largely anonymous preparatory work that is carried out behind the scenes in the Council of Ministers; the many COREPER meetings and the countless working party meetings, all chaired with a view to bringing solutions to the Council table. Minister, I have had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting your Permanent Representative and I have also attended various meetings in the Council and I can assure you that, when the inevitable academic articles come to be written, the Czech Presidency will be adjudged to have been a good one.

Before handing you the floor, Minister, I would like to say just a very few words about the role of the European Economic and Social Committee in this testing period. I would argue that participatory democracy and civil dialogue are even more important for the European Union at the moment, and I would argue that the EESC is well-placed to provide the forum for the structured dialogue with civil society that the Lisbon Treaty will impose as an obligation upon all of the EU’s institutions. Indeed, I would argue that we need to reinforce that dialogue already. And it is therefore a great pleasure to note that the Bureau of the Various Interests Group of the EESC has decided to bring that dialogue here to Prague today.

Minister, the floor is yours.