Parliament that is lit up by hot air

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The Independent Online
THE FUTURISTIC new home of the European Parliament, boasting restaurant space for 1,200 and a dome that lights up as the sound level rises, opens today, sparking another debate about the costs of the EU's only elected institution.

The vast, ultra-modern, riverside complex with 1,133 offices, cost 423m euros (pounds 275m) and is designed for a parliament destined to grow as the EU enlarges eastward. The lavishness of the building in Strasbourg, with its costly construction blunders, is seen as evidence of the gravy train image parliament says it wants to shed. The construction has been paid by a public works company in Strasbourg and leased to the parliament under a complex financial arrangement that means regular payments, including 21m euros this year.

The scale of the 45,000sq metre project is a provocation to the hair- shirted Eurosceptics. It is spread over 20 levels - 17 above ground and three below - with office space for 665 MEPs and 468 administrative staff. The oak and cedar amphitheatre, cockpit of parliamentary debate, will seat 750 with a public gallery accommodating 330.

Translators will occupy 15 booths. Press accommodation holds 275 journalists and includes editing space for 20 television stations.

Europe's legislators will be fed and watered in four bars and three restaurants. The parliamentarian dining room is built to seat 600, 200 more than a separate room for civil servants. Even the visitors' restaurant can accommodate 200.

The architects say their "lighting system of optical fibres is installed like a constellation around the dome of the amphitheatre, blinking more or less intensely according to the sound level of the parliamentary debates".

Construction difficulties included door frames that had to be removed to install furniture. And the designer chairs are so heavy they are impossible to move any distance. They have been taken from the press area because they blocked aisles of working space.

The parliament will have two main sites: in Strasbourg, and Brussels (home of a more expensive pounds 700m building). That involves a regular commute of staff and papers. (MEPs will have all-weather access to the old parliament through a 60-metre tunnel.) Heads of government agreed to the two-centre parliament - with 60 days a year in Strasbourg - at a summit in 1992. A contract for the Strasbourg parliament was signed in March 1994 and work began three months later. Finally, on June 29 this year a test run of the parliament using 1,200 schoolchildren and 200 soldiers passed off without incident.

Last week the parliament's supporters were defending the innovative architectural style of Europe's new political palace.

"This should see us through the 21st century and the costs will be written off over time," one said. "I am sure when the House of Commons was built there was outrage at the expense. The press probably said, `That Pugin wallpaper is very vulgar'."

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