It’s just past noon in the smoking booth of the members bar in Strasbourg’s European Parliament, and Nigel Farage is in familiar demonstrative mood. “Gentlemen, here’s to the first of the day,” he declares, raising his chalice of beer in one hand before taking a drag from a cigarette with the other.
Going by the amount of media attention the UKIP leader receives compared to his counterparts, you could be forgiven for thinking Farage is the only MEP the UK bothers to send across the Channel. Many people also believe this is all they do: quaff alcohol and take advantage of one of the few public places in Europe to have escaped a smoking ban, and all at our expense.
At a Brussels summit with other EU leaders, which concluded yesterday, David Cameron pushed for cuts to European red tape and even took a Brussels-funded colouring book for children about the life of “Mr and Mrs MEP” to dinner with him as an example of money-wasting.
He will return to the debate over Britain’s membership of the EU that is set to rumble for years until a referendum. But very few Britons know who our MEPs are; still fewer seem to know – or care – about what they do.
Britain has 73 MEPs, but a poll by YouGov for The Independent has found that 95 per cent of the British public could not name one representing their area. It doesn’t bode well for the European elections in less than a year’s time. So what actually goes on in the European Parliament? And would attitudes to Europe change if we knew more about how the EU works?
Sitting in his small office inside the Strasbourg parliament, Charles Tannock, a Tory representing London who has been ranked as the UK’s hardest-working MEP, is under no illusions about what most voters back home think how he and his colleagues spend their time. “Drinking champagne, milling around, having a good time and not doing very much,” he says, summing the up the eternal image of the European “gravy train”.
Numerous scandals over the years have bolstered that image. In 2010, several British MEPs were filmed turning up to the parliament to claim a day’s allowance – only to immediately rush to catch the Eurostar home. Four MEPs from other nations have since been caught offering to make law amendments for cash – leading to one, Austria’s Ernst Strasser, being jailed.
MEPs have also been criticised for employing their partners as researchers and office managers – though given how long Mr Tannock, like others, has to spend away from home and from his wife, the argument that working together is one of the best ways to remain together does not seem unfair.
As I follow him around the soaring wood-panelled building in Strasbourg, the 55-year-old former consultant psychiatrist appears a committed workaholic. He votes and makes speeches amid the Star Wars décor of the massive Hemicycle debating chamber; he attends committee meetings discussing policy minutiae on topics as varied as Gaza, Libya, Albania and the Horn of Africa; he negotiates with the Israeli ambassador to the EU and the Taiwanese embassy; he holds talks with the Foreign Office.
Specialising as a rapporteur in foreign affairs, he seems half-politician half-diplomat, dealing primarily with matters abroad. But even if Mr Tannock were knee-deep in matters more directly affecting domestic politics, would UK voters back home hear anything of his efforts? Probably not.
“There’s a lack of serious media coverage of the EU institutions,” he bemoans. “The tabloids, who spend their time slagging off everything that the EU does, don’t have a single journalist in Brussels, so they rely on hearsay and the rumour mill.”
MEPs are not helped by their constituencies being so big –some have to try to reach up to 10 million voters. Speaking to others, the same complaint of how hard it is to engage with voters – and even MPs from their own parties – returns time and again.
“I pay for newspaper advertisements and billboards but I receive almost no publicity about my speeches or other activities in parliament,” one says. Another adds the level of political and media debate on European politics in the UK is “appalling” with “very poor public knowledge, even though we have been members for 40 years”.
Even their counterparts back in Westminster don’t help, says another, claiming they “demean themselves” by “revelling in their own ignorance” of the EU.
But Nicholas Walton, the communications director on foreign relations at the European Council, doesn’t buy that argument. “I feel so sorry for the MEPs who still think that we should care much more about them. We shouldn’t – bollocks to them,” he says. “There are so many things we need to be aware of in this world; knowing about the exact machinations of what happens in Brussels and a bunch of – quite frankly – political also-rans is not that high up on the agenda. I say that as someone who is fundamentally pro-European.”
The “political also-rans” put-down is popular among Eurosceptics, who scowl at the number of MEPs who turned to Europe after failing to win a Westminster seat. Asked by The Independent what he thinks of his fellow Britons in the parliament, one UKIP MEP replies that he is “as impressed as I am by the meat-eating calibre of certain vegetarians”.
The parliament’s working arrangements do little to aid its image – especially the so-called “Strasbourg circus”. The immense parliament complex in this eastern French city was designed with exasperatingly little concern for anyone trying to walk from one part to another, but it is undeniably impressive to look at. Most of the time, however, it remains merely a monument, empty and unused.
The members, their assistants and the civil servants spend most of their time at the duplicate Parliament compound in Brussels. Once a month they travel en masse to Strasbourg to hold all their votes in “plenary sessions”. The vast majority of MEPs complain it is an immense waste of money, yet the French government insists Strasbourg must maintain its seat for historic symbolism of unity with Germany.
As for the level of bureaucracy – every Eurosceptic’s favourite complaint – one MEP’s assistant tells me it is indeed “astonishing”, saying: “There are 1,000 forms to fill out at all times, even to organise the simplest of meetings. Everything you want to do involves filling a form in.”
The paperwork can be surprisingly intrusive; on applying for his parliamentary pass, he was surprised to discover he had to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before he could take up his job. “Evidently they don’t want any sluts working for the EU,” he says – though perhaps it’s the desperate desire to break free from all this paperwork which means the parliament can be, in his words, a “massive fuck-fest”.
For all its faults, the thought of the UK pulling out of this hive of international cooperation feels irresponsible. Watching Mr Tannock hard at work chairing a meeting or battling for EU communiques to reflect British interests as far as possible, brings home what Britain would lose were it to leave.
Mr Tannock defines himself as a Euro realist – believing things need to change but: “It would be very humiliating for a country like Britain, with 60 million people, to have to adopt legislation without MEPs in Parliament,” he says. “Everything is more complicated than you think – the thought we could withdraw and get out of it is a myth. That’s a real democratic deficit.”
“This is the time for the Conservative Party to rally behind Cameron and show a united front, as he has delivered on a promise for an in-or-out EU referendum for 2017,” he says. “That will be the time – when the extent of British repatriation of powers, and eurozone integration, will have become more apparent – for the British people to settle this divisive issue once and for all.”
MEPs from other countries are only too aware of Britain’s uncertain position. Spotting The Independent’s photographer lining up a portrait of Mr Tannock, an ebullient Polish MEP strides forward. Beaming as he shakes Mr Tannock’s hand, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski faces the camera and says: “This is to mark the final moment before Britain leaves the European Union.”
Does he really think that will happen? “Absolutely!” he cries, “I look forward to it.” He appears to be joking. By 2017 – or earlier if our backbenchers get their way – he may not.