Letter from Strasbourg

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis shouldn’t have missed this show. In fact, the entire Greek government should have been present to watch those 20 «green» pensioners sing their hearts out, not outside the Employment Ministry in central Athens, but this time on the stage of the Strasbourg National Theater. They would have loved it. Although not expressly celebrated for their resourcefulness, our ruling conservatives could have thought of some exceptional way to reform the pension system which experts say will collapse in 15 years due to our aging population. The [email protected] Chorus, some holding walking sticks, sang quite a repertoire of contemporary pop hits in «Road to Nowhere,» the most recent production from the American group. They covered everything from Frank Sinatra to the Clash, by way of Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and even the Rolling Stones. They even dared to dance disco, in the style of «Staying Alive.» A striking seminar on life. The members of this extraordinary ensemble, in which the singers are aged between 71 and 93 years old, were invited to perform in Strasbourg, where I saw the show. They are all residents at the Walter Salvo House, a retirement home in Northampton, Massachusetts. A show that raises real questions about the place of senior citizens in our society, it no doubt gives ideas for perhaps the biggest reform of our social security system as well. Yet the recent history of reforms in Greece has been one of good intentions, badly thought out and gradually abandoned. For proof, look at what our young government has and has not done. Now to serious business. Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament. A beautiful city with a famous cathedral in plum-colored stone – which when completed in 1439 was the world’s tallest building – and a lovely, albeit kitschy Christmas market illuminated by fiberoptics of very questionable taste. There is a treaty which obliges members of the European Parliament to meet here 12 times a year. This is quite insane, because everything else – and everything of importance – takes place in Brussels. It is only once a month, for four days, that a fleet of trucks, MEPs and assistants criss-cross the continent to change places, causing so much cost to taxpayers in this way. Sadly it can hardly be changed. According to the Amsterdam Treaty, it could only be overturned if every EU head of government agreed. And, of course, the French would never concede. But this is bound to change. European Union leaders meeting in Portugal last week have agreed on an historic treaty to reform the entire organization. The new Treaty of Lisbon, signed on December 13, is designed to replace the failed European Constitution. Under the new treaty, elected MEPs will elect the president of the European Commission, so the holder of the post will reflect the views expressed through European elections. The next European Parliament election will be in June 2009. In practice, this election will be a collection of little referendums on ruling parties. In Greece, as in most countries, the poll falls midterm, so conventional wisdom has it that opposition parties will do well from the protest vote. The Treaty of Lisbon has replaced the hapless European Constitution, which was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005. In the meantime, EU leaders have spent the last two years scrambling to agree on a scaled-down treaty that is designed to make the administration of the bloc easier by streamlining many functions. It is also hoped this will allow the EU to act with more unity on global issues. The new treaty replaces the system of rotating six-month presidencies with a president who will serve a two-year term. There will also be a stronger foreign policy chief. The treaty gives the European Parliament equal legislative power with the Council in most areas. In particular, MEPs see their «co-decision» powers extended to the internal market, economic policy, border control, asylum and the fight against illegal immigration. Troubled with other – more important? – thoughts (a cold front sweeping across northern Greece, the resignation of Employment Minister Vassilis Magginas, and mothers abusing their children and making them sex slaves), Greeks did not seem to especially care whether starting in 2014 EU members will make decisions in the European Council according to the «double majority» voting system, or which countries still have a representative on the European Commission. Sharp criticism that the treaty strips member nations of too much power and describing it as a «badly produced play» came mainly from the Greek Communist Party MEP in Strasbourg. Yet Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis seemed fully persuaded: «Our country has played an active and substantial role in these efforts, and we are satisfied with their successful outcome. This development reinforces European institutions, and makes the European Union more capable of responding more effectively to new challenges,» Karamanlis underlined. «Now the endorsement of the treaty by the parliaments of member states, and even before the 2009 European elections, constitutes the common target. Greece intends to endorse the Treaty of Lisbon as soon as possible.»