Magazine article The Spectator

Strasbourg Goosed

Magazine article The Spectator

Strasbourg Goosed

Article excerpt

ONLY now, as the European Parliament settles down to some routine work, is the grisly truth beginning to sink in. It was easy enough to feel important during the ceremonial opening speeches. Discovering our office suites (complete with showers) and secretarial allowances (6,743.44 a month) was undeniably good for our egos. And how we swelled with pride as we chided the new Commissioners for failing to answer our questions properly. But, now that the excitement has passed and the cameras have withdrawn, it is impossible to fight off the realisation any longer. MEPs - there is no easy way to say this - have very little actual power.

To the outside observer, no doubt, the Strasbourg Parliament seems very grand. Its members receive a package of expenses which I am reluctant to set out in full for fear of being dragged into the elegant oval courtyard and given a good kicking. Our speeches are translated into nine languages. Our committee work is written about in several in-house glossies. Last week we were issued with a laissez-passer which gives us diplomatic immunity, not just within the EU, but in the applicant states, too. Granting MEPs their full privileges is evidently a prerequisite of being allowed to join.

And our amour propre is further bolstered by the many well-known politicians who have joined our number. The vote on the new Commission last week brought them out in force. There was Jacques Santer, now one of Luxembourg's six members, raising his croaky voice in favour of the new Commissioners. And here was Silvio Berlusconi, the television magnate and new member of the media committee, also lending his support to Signor Prodi (who, back in Italy, was one of his bitterest rivals).

There, in the hemicycle, was Ian Paisley, his heavy eyelids fluttering as he tore into the appointment of Chris Patten. Outside the chamber, typically, he was less raucous, expressing gentle surprise at quite how far Mr Patten had gone to appease the IRA (`Sure, I've often had dinner with him, the same fella'). And there, wringing his hands over East Timor, was the octagenarian Mario Soares, whose disastrous decolonisation programme contributed in no small measure to the problem.

Emma Bonino, who presided over the Common Fisheries Policy in the last Commission, has re-emerged as an MEP for the Italian Radical party. In perhaps the oddest development of the session, the pro-drugs and pro-abortion campaigner has been trying to link up with Jean-Marie Le Pen. One of the more corporatist aspects of the Parliament is that you're not allowed to do anything except as part of a registered transnational group. The idea is to force people to sit with foreigners, so building a sense of European consciousness. For most parties, this is straightforward enough: socialists sit with other socialists, Greens with other Greens, and so on. But the far-Right parties refuse to form a single group because, amusingly enough, they regard each other as too extreme. Monsieur Le Pen was therefore delighted by Madame Bonino's offer, and Madame Bonino, who need not worry about her anti-fascist credentials, was happy to explain that the alliance would be of a wholly technical nature. But the rest of the MEPs were having none of it, and voted against allowing the new group on grounds of ideological incompatibility.

It is little wonder, with all these famous faces, that the Parliament is thought to be immensely significant. …

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