“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
For the last two days I took part in the European Child Forum meetings. It was better than most of the EU meetings I was part of in the past but still far from what is needed. There were some good discussions but we are still well stuck in wrong habits.
The Commissioners and high level bureaucrats and representatives of the governments came and lectured to the experts and the lower level bureaucrats that deal directly with the issues. People who should listen and learn lectured to people that should be teaching them. There was little discussion taking place afterwards – mainly focused on diplomatic niceties. With one exception the speeches were carefully sanitized, as expected full of jargon, generalities and ambiguities meant to please as many as possible and avoid any risk to upset anybody.
This was followed by a second part of the conference where most important discussions took place. The panels were dominated by a second tier of bureaucracy of different intergovernmental organisations that have limited exposure to the grassroots, academics and leaders of European Networks. It was very unlikely for any of those to bring in discussions the most critical issues as, again, those risks to upset some of the high level people in the room. Courage, discussing failures and finding together solutions was prevented by a much safer, polite but rather impotent discussions on jargon, documents, research, directions, recommendations and sharing of positive practice. These discussions have little effect but proved in the past to preserve or advance careers of many.
The very weak institutional mechanism to deal with the very complex and hugely important issues related to children within the European Commission was not discussed. Neither were the very inefficient ways most of the little money available is spent. Inability or unwillingness to discuss critically and openly about the discrepancy between rhetoric and budgets at the level of Member States and the very low priority that children issues get from the most powerful within the European Commission were all things that we needed but failed to address .
The dedication and hard work of a handful of people within the European Commission and Fundamental Agency cannot replace the lack of budget, mandate and leverage that neuter the European Commission’s impact on the subject. Concrete solutions for getting more people to work with the most vulnerable children were barely discussed and got lost in sometimes bombastic and empty rhetoric.
Far too many loosing routines are wrongly but solidly entrenched institutionally within the EU project. Very weak senior leadership is in my opinion to be blamed.
Leaders should be validated by the excellent things they do and not by the positions they have or rhetoric they or their speech writer produce. Good deeds make good people. Good words and no deeds make just good sociopaths.
Leaders should be exceptional good people – therefore people that do extraordinary good things. The fact that our EU political and civil society elites are dominated by exceptional blabla-ers incapable to listen to anybody but themselves is a dangerous habit and not at all one that can bring the much needed and in my opinion deserved excellence to the European project. Even worst is that we as Europeans encourage openly and reward the production of words/jargon rather than deeds. In order to have an inspirational Europe you need inspirational leaders that do inspirational things. In this particular case I would have loved to listen a lot more to people that work with children and not those that work with words.
At the forum there were some amazingly good people. The saddest thing was to understand how far away these are from the decision power. In order to fix institutions we need to fix ourselves. And that requires courage not compliance.