"I’m in the parliament chamber in Strasbourg. I can’t stand it anymore. I think something’s bound to blow before I get to the end of my term,” she bemoaned on the phone to a friend of hers a few weeks ago. Rachida Dati, who was once the prima donna of Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet and his justice minister, eventually fell into disfavour and was summarily sent off to sit pretty in the European Parliament. And now it’s a shame she forgot she was still wearing a microphone on her lapel and her whole telephone conversation was subsequently broadcast on the French TV channel M6.

During the plenary session, around noon, the chamber suddenly fills up, as if by a miracle, and for several hours the MEPs robotically vote on dozens, even hundreds, of amendments most of them know absolutely nothing about. Their hands remain poised on the electronic voting keyboards in front of them, their gaze fixed on the party whips, seated a few rows down, who call the shots: thumbs up means yea, thumbs down nay. Careful you don’t screw up – or, worse still, miss a vote. And the reason is simple, as Rachida Dati explains to her friend: the proceedings are subsequently made public. In other words, these voting lists are used to draw up reports on parliamentary attendance, which then serve at the end of each legislative period to single out the most zealous MEPs – and the most egregious shirkers.

Bored stiff

"I can partly understand why my colleague’s fed up,” explains Mario Mauro, who has been sitting in the Euro Parliament for 10 years on Silvio Berlusconi’s party benches: "Political life is 50% action and 50% communication. The work that gets done here is pretty obscure, not to mention that this place can seem frustrating, especially if you’re hankering after social life: in Strasbourg or Brussels you definitely won’t find the 'movida' that livens up political life in Rome or Paris." And yet, on paper, the European Parliament now has far more extensive powers than any national parliament, thanks, among other things, to the Lisbon Treaty, which has beefed up its lawgiving prerogatives. "When you vote on a law concerning electric power or transport and you know that could change the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the Union, you really can’t say you’re here to twiddle your thumbs,” points out Monica Frassoni, MEP for the Italian Greens. "But it is true you get bored stiff by some long-drawn-out voting on technical amendments you sometimes don’t know the first thing about. The same goes for some never-ending meetings where dozens of MPs ramble on in dozens of different languages without saying anything interesting for hours and hours,” she adds.

The typical MEP’s day begins early. In Brussels as in Strasbourg, the first meetings are slated for 8–8.30am. There are the meetings of the Standing Committees, 20 all told, and each MEP is generally a member of one committee and a substitute member of another. Then there are the political group powwows, followed by “representation” functions (the dullest of all, according to Monica Frassoni) with diplomats, for those who handle foreign policy or development aid, and with a slew of lobbyists who are dogging the dossiers the MEP is focussed in. Plus “intergroup” meetings with MEPs from other parties who are delving into the same issues.

Endless series of consultations

Not to mention the perusal of countless documents, drafting of amendments, and discussions with officials. And the endless series of consultations with one MEP or another to make sure they’ll back you up on one amendment or another. There’s hardly any time for lunch: you grab a sandwich or a plat du jour at the Parliamentary canteen, unless a formal luncheon is being held at the MEPs’ restaurant. Dinner, on the other hand, featuring Alsatian cuisine, is the choicest morsel of the MEP’s day in Strasbourg. This is where the best political deals are made – and some more or less short-lived liaisons kindled. None of the MEPs hangs around over the weekend, which is rigorously consecrated to wooing their constituencies, often thousands of miles away: any MEP looking to get re-elected has got to devote time and energy to their constituency. "Aside from the voting, the most tiresome waste of time is all that shuttling back and forth,” explains Gianni Pittella, leader of the Italian Democratic Party’s delegation. "I sometimes get the impression these trips monopolise the bulk of my time.”

But the boredom, many MEPs opine, is also and above all a consequence of the progressive dulling-down of European politics. Back when the European Constitution was hotly debated, for example, nobody got bored. But now the Barroso Commission and a series of administrations hell bent on preserving the status quo have been gradually sapping EU politics of any innovative élan. "The rejection of the European Constitution and the ups and downs of the Lisbon Treaty were grist to the mills of those who hold that Europe shouldn’t meddle, that Brussels, Strasbourg and the EU institutions should keep the lowest possible profile so as not to incur the wrath of the electorate,” explains one veteran diplomat. "The Europe of renewal, of change, of hope, has become the Europe of routine, resignation, caution, if not fear. The power, of course, remains solidly here. But it’s power without vision. A boring power.”