From Brussels with love
I suppose I will lose most of the sympathy I won from my last post about the working day of the average don, when I say that I am spending three days in Brussels – being an “evaluator” on a new scheme of European Research Council grants for young European scholars. This has meant interviewing 17 candidates over two days so far, and we are now about to discuss our recommendations.
Brussels is a much nicer city than you ever imagine (though not, I have to say the bit we’re in); the weather is glorious (though all we’re seeing of it is through a seventh floor window); and if, like me, you have a taste for mussels and chips, then the food counts as pretty good too.
That said, my experiences with the European Commission provide fodder for both the most loving Europhile and the most sceptical Eurosceptic.
Lets start with the Europhiles. I have to say that getting together with colleagues to award large research grants, Europe-wide, is something that would have been unthinkable in my subject only a decade ago. And the benefit is not only for those thirty-somethings who are going to be lucky (and clever) enough to get their projects funded.
We grey beards are getting a lot out of it too, I think. You hardly ever get to know people so well as when you are on a selection committee with them. In other circumstances, I might have met many of my fellow panellists in passing at conferences here, there and everywhere; I might have read their books or heard them lecture. But right now, I’m actually thrashing out different views of intellectual talent, academic priorities etc, with historians and archaeologists from France, Hungary, Italy, Poland and more.
I’m sure this is going to come across as uncharacteristically sentimental, but this kind of thing begins to give me a real feeling that we just might be able to carve out (and actually believe in) a European intellectual identity. It might even be fun.
Don’t worry, I’ve seen the other side of the Euro-machine too. I mentioned in my last post that I still hadn’t got paid my travel expenses from when I came here in June. Well I still haven’t and it turns out that most of my fellow evaluators haven’t either. An organisation which takes more than four months to get you your reimbursement is hard to love.
And the new euro-building in which we’re meeting isn’t very lovable either: a new nine-storey block (you can see it above), bizarrely called “Covent Garden”. Tue, there is a bit of foliage on the ground floor – but otherwise, I’m afraid I’ve missed the reason for the name.
Maybe it’s because it isn’t quite finished yet, but the panoramic restaurant on the ninth floor only serves pre-packaged sandwiches (plus, to be fair, some good coffee). And the hundreds of computers available for us look good, but don’t live up to appearances. Their relationship to the internet reminds me of what it used to be like having a dial-up connection from home: you spend ten minutes getting the page you want to reveal itself, then after 30 seconds it’s gone again. We’re all wanting to do our email (it’s the middle of term, for heavens sake) and not one of us has actually got through.
So at the end of the day, we head back to the hotel and sit in the Reception (which is wi-fied), zombie-like – laptop in one hand, glass of wine (in my case, at least) in the other.
The conclusion may be unfair but is pretty obvious: if these guys can’t get their own infrastructure working, no wonder they’re having trouble with the Common Agricultural Policy.