MEPs – It’s life, but not as we know it

Earlier this year, BBC journalist Brian Wheeler travelled to the hushed corridors of the European parliament at Strasbourg. While he was there he kept a blog. Welcome to the occasionally surreal universe of Eurodemocracy.

Published on 22 May 2009 at 09:22
 | European Parliament, Strasbourg

“Join me as I sip vintage champagne, dine in the finest restaurants the Alsace region of France has to offer, embark on pointless “fact-finding” missions to exotic locations, travelling first class, of course – and all at your expense.”

For the British, Europe and its parliament is often the focus of rampant speculation, reason for which Brian Wheeler, BBC’s correspondant at Westminster, recently decided to go to Strasbourg to find out just how EU democracy works. The resulting blog is aimed at an audience unlikely to know even the name of the M.E.P it will vote for this 4th June (Britain traditonally votes on Thursday). Wheeler wanted to ask three key questions – Who are these people ? What do they do all day long ? And, above all, how much do they earn and what sort of astronomical kickbacks do they get for their so-called “subsistance” allowance i.e. hotels, food and course, vintage champagne ?

In that vein of English comic writing abroad typified by Stephen Clarke, Wheeler crosses the Channel and discovers to his amazement that “over there”, they do things differently. Accustomed to loud debate in the House of Commons, in which Labour and Tory MP’s yell at their “Honourable friends”, Wheeler is struck by the gentle ways of Strasbourg’s 780-odd parliamentarians who, with just a minute’s speaking time, address issues as diverse as the crisis in Gaza, cancerigenous pesticides and ill treatment of Hungarian interpreters to respectful silence. “It is all about compromise at Strasbourg,” he writes, “a dirty word at Westminster.”

Something of a euroreluctant himself, Wheeler meets MEP’s from his home country- Labour and Tory first, then Greens and the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru – the latter two sitting side by side in parliamentary grouping the European Free Alliance for reasons “not obvious to the outsider.” All complain that upping office, secretary and hard put upon interpreters every month from Brussels to Strasbourg and, one week later, moving them back, is a chore. Unsurprisingly for Wheeler (“they will, no doubt, be on their best behaviour…I do not expect to uncover any major scandals.”) MEP’s are low key on the tricky question of their notorious subsistence allowance (€287 per day), but agree in these hard times that the system might be in need of reform.

Proud of their work, they point out that most laws passed through our own national parliaments have already been round the block over here. Come parliament voting day Wheeler himself is amazed at the blistering speed with which one amendment succeeds another on a flashing electronic board “like a giant bingo game”. “Political theatre,” sighs one Tory M.E.P . Real power, our correspondant concludes, lies with the oddly named Brussels based “rappoteurs”. For members of UKIP, the europhobic party which landed nine seats in the elections of 2004, voting is just part of the eurofarce. They themselves, however– as Wheeler notes with some relish – have a sense of spectacle worthy of Monty Python. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the launch of the euro this January 1st, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy rang out in the parliament building for the first time thirty minutes earlier than scheduled, much to the chagrin of the royalty loving English nationalists who plotted to break out into a few bars of that paean to the aristocracy that is….the Marseillaise…

Wheeler leaves Strasbourg, still quite puzzled by this parallel universe in a futurist building that “feels a little like being on the set of a 1960s science fiction film”. In this glass maze he detects a metaphor for the European project : “you can see where you want to go but you have to spend ages working out how to get there.” Nevertheless, after ten days, he nearly slips up and calls Ode to Joy the national anthem…. God save the EU, anyone ?

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