The vote for Europe: Flawed parliament holds last debate - on MEPs' expenses

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The Independent Online
AS THE final days of a ground-breaking political session approached, MEPs in Strasbourg held one of their most agonised discussions on an issue of critical importance.

However, despite months of prior negotiation and hours of private debate, the parliamentarians failed to agree on the proposal on the table: an early reform for their legendary and lavish expenses.

It was hardly the ideal conclusion for a parliament that put itself on the map by forcing the resignation of the European Commission over allegations of sleaze and cronyism.

"The timing could hardly have been worse," conceded one official, speaking as the parliament's multi-million-pound building in Strasbourg opened for its first viewing.

Here, in a nutshell, are the two faces of the European Parliament. To its defenders the Strasbourg assembly is a sleeping giant that has woken to assert its democratic rights against the might of Europe's arrogant and remote bureaucracy. To its critics it is a self-regarding irrelevance, a body more interested in enjoying its perks than exercising its power.

Neither picture is entirely accurate, but the parliament is at a crossroads as Europe goes to the polls. Its horizons have never been broader but, conversely, never has reform been more urgent to enable the assembly to fulfil its potential.

Despite the success of its crusade against fraud in the EU, the parliament is a flawed institution, its work divided between sites in Brussels and Strasbourg, necessitating a regular commute of parliamentarians and their documents. And these, needless to say, are voluminous, much of its paperwork being translated into the parliament's 11 official languages.

And while juggernauts thunder between the Belgian capital and the Franco- German border, fleets of limousines prepare to ferry parliamentarians from their homes to receptions and dinners.

Inside the parliamentary chamber, much of the work is equally incomprehensible to outsiders. Not only is the procedure (like that of most legislatures) complex, but the political alliances bear only a passing resemblance to those at national level.

Take the British MEPs. Labour members sit with the "socialists", a tag dumped by their party colleagues at Westminster years ago. Tory MEPs, meanwhile, sit with the European Peoples' Party, with whom they have an arms-length relationship under which the Conservative Party is not, technically, affiliated.

This allows the Tories to dissociate themselves from the EPP's federalist policy documents, including its manifesto for the Euro-elections. None of this prevents the two sides enjoying endless point-scoring against each other when their pan-European political alliances split.

But the Strasbourg parliamentarians are becoming steadily more influential. The sacking of the European Commission was an indirect result of the parliament's powers of scrutiny. And, if the pyrotechnics of the Commission's expulsion was a one-off, behind the scenes the parliament is accruing new responsibilities.

The Strasbourg assembly has the right to approve the appointment of the new Commission president, and to vet each of the incoming commissioners. It may yet gain powers to sack individual commissioners: at the moment it can only dismiss the Commission en bloc.

Strasbourg already has increased powers of "co- decision" which expand the influence of MEPs into new areas of law making. The parliament's committees grow steadily more powerful, and amendments tabled by MEPs have a much better chance of being accepted than those of backbenchers at Westminster. Instead of being mere lobby-fodder, the average member of the Strasbourg parliament has genuine power.

One rather surprising convert to the importance of the Strasbourg assembly is John Carlisle, former sceptic Conservative MP and now the director of public affairs at the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association.

A regular visitor to Strasbourg, he believes: "You ignore the parliament at your peril ... In the early 1990s we thought that if you shouted loud enough the parliament would go away and that, anyway, it didn't really matter. MEPs were a joke: we did what we could to keep them out of the Members' Dining Room at the Commons.

"But now I've had a very different insight into the importance of the European Parliament. I would have been a better informed MP if I had known how far it has moved in importance in commercial terms," he declared.

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