Anna Blundy meets the MEP gofers, a bunch of hoorays who shine in Brussels
"AS IT HAPPENS, I have a very small penis," says Edward, cheerfully settling himself into a group of pink-faced girls on a Brussels roof terrace. Ferguson, the American, has turned his baseball cap round and is pulling kebabs deftly from the barbecue as the champagne in everyone's plastic cup reaches boiling point under the afternoon sun.

From down below, among the sprawling roofs and staircases, bedraggled looking Moroccan children squint up to see where the loud music is coming from. "This is a terrible area," says Rose, twirling a salted cocktail biscuit. "Moroccans everywhere. That's why it's so cheap."

It is a party for the young graduate researchers of Members of the European Parliament in Brussels. Elizabeth, who shares the flat with Rose, has been asked to leave by her MEP because he is unwilling to pay a tax contribution for her and she is sick of being "an illegal". This may be her farewell barbecue. A surprising number of MEPs' researchers are "illegals", a fact which makes them nervous, while the legals are resentful of their friends' larger salaries.

Each MEP receives a basic salary of pounds 32,538 and a secretarial assistance allowance of pounds 5,826 per month. This is designed to allow for two assistants on a salary of around pounds 20,000 a year. In fact, the assistants tend to receive less than that, and if the MEP fails to pay the employer's tax contribution, he or she will make a profit.

"The money is paid directly into the MEP's account and they employ us personally, so they see it as part of their salary and they don't want to give it away," explains Edward, himself an illegal. "Few are generous," he says, "and those with their hands in the till are pretty clever about it. The most generous I know of, and the most corrupt, are both, strangely, socialists."

Lucy Rundle, who has now left her entirely legal position with Conservative MEP James Elles, says: "Everyone's on the same gravy train. The MEP's get pounds 155 a day just for signing in here, and all their travel is paid for. A lot of them sign in and get the first plane home again. They also get pounds 2,340 a month for office management, but the office, fax and telephone are all free. That money is basically just for paper." How, one is moved to ask, do those we have elected, reconcile this with their conscience? "They are politicians!" chirp the researchers in giggling unison. "What conscience?"

There is a pervasive feeling among these expatriate Brits that although they work in politics, political orientation is barely an issue. The socialists and Conservatives are divided but it seems to be more on a basis of class distinction and hairstyle than serious conviction. One notice board bulletin reads: "On Thursday 22 June, the Tories fought their way back to a 21- 19 victory over the socialists in a well-attended conflict on the European Parliament's weekly softball circuit ... Conservative Daryl 'Bon Jovi' Jones smashed home John 'Green Beret' Stearns ... The win clearly shows the Tory Party's ability to adapt, unite and overcome ... whatever the odds may be."

Apart from the farcical performance of hiding from the tax man, a researcher's life is enhanced by illegality because it means, simply, more money. "No one pays tax in Brussels." said one illegal researcher. "That is why tax levels are so high. It's a joke. Some people pay it in Britain instead, but most don't pay it at all. There's no need - the Belgians don't pay either."

It must be hearsay about the Belgians because integration doesn't seem to be a high priority. "It's a very incestuous community," admits Lucy. "Desperate Dave has been here five years and still hasn't met a Belgian! He can hardly even speak French, let alone Flemish, but he knows the voting times in Strasbourg by heart." They all agree that Brussels, or "Europe" as they refer to it, is not a place you would want to stay in for long. "Everyone tries to get out after a year or so," said one researcher. "Even if you are not very bright you can be a star here just hanging around long enough so you do get some sad people who get stuck and are just MEP's gofers for ever."

The frightening possibility of failing to get off the gravy train is reflected in the zany party invitations researchers send each other. The Sunday after the roof terrace barbecue, the same crowd will be gathering in the park to play cricket in celebration of Edward's birthday. The "no thank you" option you were invited to tick if necessary read: "I am a sad and lonely bastard leading the life of a hermit. I have no friends and find daylight a problem. I will pretend I have a prior engagement to get out of this."

The groups cling together almost hysterically at the weekend, within their political parties (the Tories hugely outnumbered by the socialists since the last European elections). They shun enemy gatherings, and they dine, dance, drink, and gossip together, linking up by phone in the brief intervals designated to ablutions. "Bonsoir, c'est l'inspecteur du taxe," is the telephone quip of the moment, leading after a brief pang of fear, to the terrifyingly complex arrangements for the evening's entertainments. Fridges full of champagne will first be emptied into dry throats and windows on to balconies will be thrown open before the gaggles of Brits take to the foreigner-friendly streets of Brussels. Brussels is a multicultural city that reserves its contempt for poorer immigrants and resents wealthy foreigners only for pushing restaurant prices up with their expense accounts. An average dinner for two will cost at least pounds 50 almost anywhere the foreigner dares to venture.

Mostly they try to venture where Belgians are not - the Tom Tom Club, the Wild Geese bar where the staff are Irish, Le Carre where they have a laser show, or Belle's bar. "It's a pretty hot social life," one British girl said. "Bit of a meat market, though, because everyone's so lonely here." The dating pages in the English language weekly The Bulletin are packed with pathetic pleas from men in grey suits. But there is always that hope that if they stay out late enough something might happen. And things do go on late here as crowds of homesick office workers meander from place to place singing in mock gaiety. They have all the time in the world because, apparently, "there is no such thing as urgency in Europe".

Lonely male diners from Denmark, Norway or any one of the drinking countries think nothing of sauntering over for a chat as you are trying to tuck into your cripplingly expensive plate of moules frites, and no one is expected to go to bed sober. "There is nothing to do here but drink," explains anyone you care to ask.

By the time the crew had gathered for cricket on Sunday, after a heavy Saturday night, some of them looked slightly dishevelled. The sun was shining, the Buck's Fizz was bubbling in a swingbin and the wicket (a cardboard box and three champagne bottles) was up, but no one seemed quite in the mood. The Americans, who had increased in number since the barbecue, couldn't understand why it was such a boring game and the Brits were fully occupied with muttering nasty things about each other and each other's MEPs under their breath.

"God she was drunk. It was disgusting. She was throwing herself at everyone," someone whispered.

"She's depressed because her MEP has been in Brussels all week," came the defence. Reason enough, in their view, to do anything you like, so the conversation turned to other matters and the defendant, sombrely eating a slice of melon, was unknowingly pardoned.

The assembly raised its head to say goodbye to an Edinburgh student who had flown over for a weekend prior to coming to work in Brussels during her year abroad. "I've had a wonderful time," he said. "I had champagne every day."

Heads turned back as Desperate Dave was bowled out. "Did you go to the French party?" someone shouted across the throng without bothering to remove the newspaper from his face. "No! Full of frogs," replied another prostrate heap. Unfortunately for the diminishing community of young xenophobes in Brussels, that goes for most of the coolest expat parties in town - and they are not invited.

lAll researchers' names have been changed

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