As Secretary General I am frequently torn between competing activities and priorities. As my previous post pointed out, I should have been in Madrid today. But my enforced presence in Brussels enabled me to attend and participate in another important meeting. At the excellent initiative of our Vice-President with responsibility for communication, Irini Pari, the Committee this morning hosted groups of school students representing 19 of the 27 member states. Travel difficulties made it impossible, alas, for all of our invitees to be present, and so the groups from eight member states just couldn’t make it. The schools represented had been chosen from among 900 who had applied. As I write this, the students are busy in working groups considering a draft Committee opinion on a Commission proposal for an EU strategy to reduce alcohol-related harm. They are working just as our members would work, in study groups, with draft documents in translation and with interpreters. They have tabled amendments (of strikingly excellent quality) and this afternoon, in a plenary session, they will vote on the amendments and adopt their opinion. Throughout this process they are being accompanied by some of our ‘real’ members. By the end of today, they will have a very real insight into how the Committee works and why its work is important. So, because of that volcanic ash, I had the pleasure of being able to welcome them, together with Irini Pari and Georges Dassis, to the Committee and the workshop. It’s a simple idea but a brilliant one, and the students have taken to their tasks like ducks to water. I have posted a copy of my introductory remarks below. It was a pleasure and a privilege to welcome them.
16 April 2010 speech to the Conference ‘Your Europe, Your Say!’ (An assembly of school pupils representing eighteen different Member States)
Thank you, Irini, and a very good morning to everybody. In England we have a saying that every cloud carries a silver lining. Well, I should at this moment be in Madrid – indeed, I was supposed to be chairing part of a meeting at a conference being organised there. But yesterday at Zaventum I saw my flight disappear off the screens and so the silver lining in the volcanic ash cloud is that I can be with you here today and I am really, truly very happy to be here and to be able to participate in Irini’s excellent initiative.
My name is Martin Westlake. I am English. My mother used to say that we were completely English. She has passed on now, bless her, but her younger sister has been carrying out genealogical research and has discovered Norwegian, Italian, Welsh and Irish blood among our ancestors, so I suppose you could say that I am typically European! You are looking at a very lucky man because I come to work every day with a happy heart. I truly enjoy my job. Indeed, I consider myself to be immensely privileged. Today, I would like to tell you about ‘Europe’ in ten points.
The first point is that Europe is necessary. There is only one sky above our heads; only one environment around us; only one continent beneath our feet. And we are now so inter-connected that truly we must work together.
My second point is that Europe is working – constantly. In a sense, Europe is about countless meetings, in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and elsewhere. The people participating in those meetings are ministers, Commissioners, MEPs, MPs, ambassadors, EESC members, Committee of the Regions members, officials, and so on. And all of those meetings are like the one you will be having today, bringing together representatives of different member states, involving different languages and with the provision of interpretation. Indeed, ‘Brussels’ is a hive of activity and through your meeting today you will gain an insight into just how Europe is working all the time.
My third point is that Europe works – constantly. Every day is full of success stories: of meetings that have delivered results; of meetings that have fostered better understanding between people; of problems resolved.
My fourth point is that the Europe that works is largely invisible in your daily life. Take the euro. The creation of the single currency was a brilliant technical achievement. It was a magnificent economic and political achievement. If you live and work in the euro zone, you now take it for granted – it is, quite simply, the euro in your pocket. And we have now forgotten what it was like to live in a world of exchange rate fluctuations. Take the ease with which we now travel around the Union. I can remember when to travel by car from here to Italy was a monstrous undertaking, with queues for customs and passport controls at the Luxembourg frontier, at the French frontier, at the German frontier, at the Swiss frontier… Now, we drive through almost without realising that we have changed country. What all of that means is that you tend to hear about ‘Europe’ when it doesn’t work, when there is a problem; but that should not obscure the fact that most of the time Europe works and works very well.
My fifth point is that Europe is working for you. It is your Europe. You are our bosses. Europe doesn’t work on its own or for itself. What is being done is being done because your leaders, your legislators, your representatives, wanted it to be done – for you.
My sixth point is that Europe is better than no Europe. Imagine what life would be like if there were no single currency; no single market. Imagine if there were no European rail or motorway networks; no European air control. More profoundly, imagine if we did not have the mutual understanding that has been fostered and developed over the past fifty years. I like to say that even in the most boring meetings – and, yes, we do have some boring meetings! – it is consolation enough for me to look at the nationalities around the table; so many countries that were, so recently, at war with one another; countries that knew dictatorships; countries, in central and eastern Europe, that knew occupation and repression.
My seventh point is that Europe is brilliantly rich, culturally speaking. As you all know, England won the World Cup in 1966. We were four brothers, and we lobbied our parents hard to get a television for the final. They gave in and hired a television, and so we watched the final and I will never forget it: 30th July 1966; England against Germany at Wembley; two-all at the end of ordinary time; extra time; that third, disputed, goal, and then the fourth to seal the victory as the celebrating crowd had already started to invade the pitch. It was an unforgettable experience and I still have very warm memories of the moment. But – here’s the thing – the television in question was a small box. The images were in black and white. We had no aerial on the roof, so there were diagonal lines of interference drifting across the screen. It didn’t matter. It was a great experience. Now, as you know, England is going to win the World Cup again this year and it will be a similarly brilliant experience. However, if you asked me to watch the match in black and white I would be very frustrated. That is the metaphor that I, somebody who did not even travel abroad until I was 21, like to use about Europe – to me, it is like coloured television in comparison with the monochrome nature of a mono-cultural life.
My eighth point is that Europe is setting an example and should be proud of this. As Irini has pointed out, one of the constant underlying narratives of Europe is the avoidance of war. When I was a kid we played in a bombsite a few streets away from where we lived – that is, a hole in the ground where a house had once existed, destroyed by a German bomb. I remember the shreds of wall paper and the fragments of a broken sink. The way we have found, of avoiding war, of doing things together, is an example to the rest of the world. We should be proud of our Europe – not arrogant, but proud, and we should help others to follow our example.
My ninth point is that Europe is about fun and friendship. There are so many different cultures, but they are all part of the same culture. To give a concrete example, I just happen to have three Greeks sitting to my left. When we were in Athens for a meeting dear Charis showed me the cave in the side of the Acropolis where Socrates had once lived. Just two days ago dear Georgos hosted a wonderful meeting in the heart of the Belgian Ardennes at which we were delighted and astounded to discover that he is an excellent player of the bouzouki! And dear Irini, in accordance with Greek custom, gave me a lucky pomegranate charm when I took up my duties as Secretary General – here it is (I keep it always in my wallet). Now that’s just three people from one member state that happened to be sitting beside me; imagine that being constantly multiplied by all those meetings and encounters I spoke about earlier – fun and friendship! Moreover, there are so many beautiful people and things in our Europe – indeed, creativity (all that art, all that architecture, all that music!) is one of our strong points. And there is also so much goodwill. We together observed a minute’s silence at the beginning of this meeting in commemoration of the victims of the Polish air disaster. Just two days ago there was a deeply touching ceremony in the European Parliament which I attended, together with my President, at which representatives of all of the institutions and all of the member states were present. And President Buzek told us how important this solidarity was for the Polish people. The whole of Europe is with Poland in its hour of grief. That is how we are, we Europeans.
My tenth and last point is that Europe is yours. The way you behave, the way you look at the world around you, will determine the way Europe evolves. In effect, you already have responsibility for the Europe of tomorrow. Europe is yours, so please look after it!