European Politics in Different World; A JOURNEY THROUGH MAZE OF THE BRUSSELS PARLIAMENT FINDS POLITICIANS PUTTING CONSENSUS FIRST AND HECKLERS GETTING LOST IN TRANSLATION

Coventry Evening Telegraph (England), November 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

European Politics in Different World; A JOURNEY THROUGH MAZE OF THE BRUSSELS PARLIAMENT FINDS POLITICIANS PUTTING CONSENSUS FIRST AND HECKLERS GETTING LOST IN TRANSLATION


Byline: Fiona Scott

THEY ARE famous for regulations on bendy bananas, straight cucumbers and, of late, banning breast implants for under-16s. Political Editor FIONA SCOTT goes to Brussels to see how it all works.

YOUNG political assistants joke about it being like Darth Vader's Death Star in Star Wars - and to many people it is as remote and unfathomable.

Like the screen anti-hero's home, the European Parliament in Brussels has a vast maze of anonymous corridors and grand, high-ceilinged halls.

At first sight that is the only similarity. But sit in a debate in one of the circular committee rooms and you begin to see the comparison.

People from 15 different countries make their contributions, overlooked by a galaxy of glass-fronted booths for interpreters.

Every seat - including the public gallery - is equipped with headphones and a dial stretching from zero to 16.

A Scottish MEP with the sonorous tones of Chancellor Gordon Brown speaks - and immediately his emotion, intensity and background are obvious.

To English speakers, that is. Flick through the channels on your simultaneous translation service and a different picture emerges.

The German, French and Italian translators are women. So are the Dutch, Danish and Greek. The words' meanings are the same, but the passion is lost.

Tuning into the English channel - no 2 - a woman's crystal voice delivers the words of a Greek man. She translates different MEPs - each interpreter has to speak at least four languages, so the same voices come on time and time again.

The whole atmosphere is very different to Britain's Parliament, with its jeering and booing, heckling and adversarial politics. Europe is all about consensus.

Heckling simply doesn't work. Interpreters can't keep up. Hecklers are left gabbling away, their words lost to anyone who doesn't speak their tongue.

This suits the politics of Europe - a far less aggressive system than Westminster where the opposition relies on shouting down and talking Bills out of time.

Tory MEP chief whip Timothy Kirkhope said: "It's the politics of consensus - everyone aims here very, very strongly to try to get agreement. It's far away from the confrontational, sit two swords-length apart kind of politics we are used to in Westminster.

"I can remember when I was an MP being asked in the corridor to go in and speak on a debate for 40 minutes with no notice, just to keep it going because the minister hadn't turned up.

"Someone else was once asked to do the same - but the whip forgot to tell him what the subject was! He started by saying: 'The subject before us is of the greatest importance' and just kept going."

"Some MPs come out here from Westminster and are lost," said Philip Bushill- Matthews, the MEP who looks after the Coventry and Warwickshire area for the Tories.

He was a businessman until he got fed up with red tape and decided to head for Brussels in 1999.

"It's very different to Westminster," he says. "There are no front-bench and back-bench MEPs here - everyone has a say."

What MEPs do not do though is think up new rules. That is done by the 12 Commissioners and their civil servants. Britain has two Commissioners, Labour's Neil Kinnock and Conservative Chris Patten.

Their ideas are then discussed by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers - a grouping of top government ministers from member states. If they both agree, the proposals becomes law.

If they don't, the European Parliament takes a second look at a compromise, which can be rejected, passed to become law, or amended.

If amended, it goes back to the Commission and the Council of Ministers. If they agree, it becomes law. If they don't, they either reach another compromise in a special conciliation committee or reject it.

Confused? …

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