Gremlins take over Euro parliament

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AFTER ALL the disputes about expenses and the peddling of influence, the European Parliament's first meeting in its new futuristic building was an excellent opportunity to signal a fresh start.

However, the newly elected President's pledge to clean up the gravy-train image was greeted with complaints from all parties that the first act to be cleaned up should be the parliament's own premises, which have already been dubbed "Alcatraz" by some MEPs. Technical breakdowns blighted the opening of the parliament's pounds 250m home in Strasbourg: there were jammed security doors, confusing corridors, broken lifts, failed air conditioning and telephones that did not work.

Even the new President, Nicole Fontaine, suffered the chaos at first hand, and opted to climb nine floors on foot rather than risk the lifts, as she took possession of her impressive office.

"We did not dare get into the lift because we were afraid we would never get out," explained Ms Fontaine, the first female President of the assembly in 20 years. Echoing the concerns of many of the 626 MEPs, she told a news conference later that she wished architects had put as much effort into the interior of the building as they had on the towering steel and glass exterior.

Fresh-faced deputies tried to overlook the problems as mere first day hiccups. But one of the most experienced MEPs, Giorgio Napolitano, may have been less forgiving after the intepreter's headsets in the new 750- seat chamber gave out during his speech.

Green deputies said they were concerned that the building was not ecologically sound, while journalists, in Strasbourg for the Parliament's first meeting of a new five-year term, waited and waited for telephones as overwhelmed technicians struggled to cope.

The EU assembly's building, likened to a spaceship from a Star Trek movie, has been a constant source of embarrassment. The Parliament only sits for 60 days a year in Strasbourg and had until recently shared the building of the unrelated Council of Europe, a pan- European organisation that deals with cultural and human rights issues. Rent on the new building will be pounds 14m this year.

The long-running campaign to end the "tale of two cities" suffered a setback in 1992 when EU leaders named Strasbourg as the permanent home of the European Parliament. By then MEPs had already started renting an pounds 800m complex of buildings including a debating chamber in Brussels and hoped to make the Belgian capital their only home.

But the French authorities were anxious to hang on to the prestige and spin-off income of staging the European Parliament's monthly sessions in one of its key cities.

Neil Kinnock, the European Commission vice-president, whose wife, Glenys, is an MEP, described the new project as "ridiculous".

"I have great reservations and I have to say, since all of the pounds 250m that the edifice cost was paid by the French taxpayer, if I was the French taxpayer I would not be very happy about it," Mr Kinnock said.

The Conservative MEP James Provan declared: "I am sure the old building could have been adapted. The competition between Brussels and Strasbourg [the two sites of the parliament] is getting out of hand."