Q: What could this building in Strasbourg be? A: Another pleasure palace for our MEPs
Wednesday 19 March 1997
"Of course I should be reimbursed," he splutters indignantly over a whisky, after a day stomping the corridors of the Strasbourg Palais. "Of course you should," says his colleague, Edward McMillan-Scott (North Yorkshire. Con)."You know what the Dutch are saying about you, Bryan ... That you've been shooting peasants."
"I was pressed to Belarus at the very last minute," continues Mr Cassidy. "And bloody cold and miserable it was, too. You would have asked for your money back if you'd had to cancel a holiday due to work." Cheeks pinkening, Mr Cassidy (ex-Army, ex-publishing-exec) doesn't pause for long to worry about what his constituents would think about his attitude. The MEP's "subsistence allowance" of pounds 180 a day is barely enough "for two" (his wife, Gillian, is his assistant) to enjoy a meal at La Maison du Cygne, he says, citing the most expensive restaurant in Brussels.
"I don't see why we should have anything but the best. I don't care what the majority of my constituents can afford. I compare myself to people earning salaries of seven figures," he explains. Anyway, the Belarus election was "fixed", says the MEP, who scraped into his seat with a 2,000 majority after a 38 per cent turn out, so he should know all about democracy.
Mr Cassidy only has to glance out of the window to see pillars of European democracy being erected all around him. Here, twinkling in the evening light, the parliament's brand-new Strasbourg Palais is taking shape, at a cost of pounds 330m. Meanwhile, in Brussels, another parliament building is also nearing completion, at a cost of nearer pounds 650m. The total cost to the tax-payer is about pounds 1bn.
At the EU's Amsterdam summit in June, member states will decide to pool more powers in several crucial areas. In 1999 economic and monetary union is scheduled to start, the single largest act of European integration since the founding of the union. And early in the next millennium, enlargement to bring in Europe's eastern neighbours will begin. Given these events, Europe's leadership is under stronger pressure than ever to win the support of its citizens, to counter spreading Euro-scepticism, and to prove that the union is accountable to its citizens through a credible parliament.
To watch the cranes lurching through the sky above Brussels and Strasbourg one might think that Europe was responding to these challenges by building representative government on a grand scale. The truth is, however, that new buildings only highlight the impotence of the institution. The shimmering masses on the Brussels and Strasbourg skylines just symbolise the waste caused as MEPs try to lay a claim to power by building facts on the ground on a breathtaking scale.
The credibility of the parliament has always been undermined by treaty requirements, which have obliged it to operate from three centres. Under a deal carved up by member states, the parliament's plenary meetings must be held in Strasbourg, a city on the Franco-German border which the French, in particular, insist has everlasting symbolic value. The administration is in Luxembourg, while most ordinary parliamentary business is carried out in Brussels.
Many believe that dismembering the parliament is a deliberate ploy by member states to prevent the institution gaining real clout - clout that could lead to creating a truly federal body that would undermine the authority of national parliaments. Over the years member states have reluctantly allowed the parliament to amend some EU legislation. But MEPs' ability to influence important policy moves is virtually nil.
For its part, the parliament has long understood that if it wants to acquire real power and influence it must extract itself from Strasbourg and build a permanent base in Brussels, alongside the other EU institutions. To this end, the body assigned itself the funds to sign a 27-year lease on a parliament complex in Brussels, which is now nearing completion.
The building was designed as a conference centre and is in many ways unsuitable as a parliament. The Brussels regional authority is reeling at the traffic implications of the new building and is refusing to allow the parliament's demand of 2,300 car parking places, saying the limit is 900. The parliament says it wants to be "closer to the citizens" but blight around the Brussels edifice shows that citizens are moving away en masse. Nevertheless, MEPs remain committed to their Brussels home, despite the fact that every month they must up sticks and travel down to Strasbourg for their plenary. The parliament's 3,400 administrative staff join the monthly travelling circus and head to the Strasbourg session too. Because the existing Strasbourg building is expected to be too small for meetings after enlargement, the parliament is building itself a second brand-new palace here too.
As MEPs gathered for last week's Strasbourg session, fog was causing chaos at airports and Strasbourg City Council (keen as ever to keep the money-spinning institution) sent out fleets of chauffeur-driven cars to meet MEPs diverted to fog-free airports. "Let's see, I left home at 9am and flew from Stansted to Amsterdam and then on to Stuttgart where I had to get a car," says Robert Sturdy, member for Cambridgeshire. "The car was late and I finally got here at 6pm."
By midday on Tuesday, the circus transfer was almost complete. Trunks carrying papers and equipment down from Brussels were unpacked and dumped outside members' offices in Strasbourg, as corridors took on the appearance of a boarding school at the beginning of term. Outside a Belgian national front MEP stood before a TV camera arguing for repatriation of all immigrants, while inside the chamber, banks of interpreters were interpreting a contribution from Ken Collins (Strathclyde East) to the effect that Dolly was a "very happy sheep".
Whether any of the week's proceedings would appear in the newspapers was unclear. Since the parliament baulked at taking real punitive action over the beef debacle, journalists have lost interest. "Dolly, dolly. Who wants the Dolly vote?" cried a press officer across the virtually real press room.
There are CD-Roms on the IGC and video clips on MEPs. More than 110 permanent staff are employed keeping journalists informed of every development. Meanwhile, technicians are transmitting to Europe by satellite. Is anyone watching?
Journalists enjoyed the "sign on and sod off" story, but word is that the parliament's inquiry into expenses will be a whitewash. With salary and allowances, a British member can expect to take home about pounds 70,000 net - about pounds 100,000 net if he or she puts a family member on the payroll, as Mr Cassidy does.
MEPs (whose register of interests is voluntary) earn unspecified additional sums as an advisers to outside bodies. Mr Cassidy, who painstakingly declares his numerous interests, represents Union Carbide (which gave us Bhopal) and also trains lobbyists on how to lobby MEPs like himself. "I see training lobbyists as part of my job," he asserts proudly.
The rumpus on Wednesday did capture some media attention. Leaders of the 3,100 Belgian car workers, sacked by Renault, had come to hear how MEPs planned to back their case and reaffirm the "European social model".
"Next thing is, we'll have blokes in jackboots with tommy-guns up there in the gallery," said Roy Perry, the Tory MEP. As the workers passed through the foyer a choir of Greek clerics struck up a Gregorian chant.
"The chairman is a Communist," added Mr Perry, as if to insult Antoni Gutierrez Diaz, a Spanish post-Communist, who bears the scars of Franco's torturers on his neck. "We cannot open up the parliament like this - the next thing is we'll have them abseiling down into the chamber or marauding into the parliament building - it'll be just like Albania. It'll be mob rule," said the British MEPs, as TV monitors all over the building showed gangs of Renault workers marauding around the parliament building, declaring: "Capitalist Europe. Parliament for the rich".
"Don't be too hard on us," says Alan Donnelly, member for Tyne and Wear. "It is demoralising for those trying to do good work to read how ridiculous this place is in the press." Many MEPs assiduously scrutinise EU legislation and 1,000 parliamentary amendments have found their way on to the statute books. The parliament has achieved much in the field of emission standards, car crash safety and technical stands for lift harmonisation to aid the handicapped. "I would put my main achievement as ... lettuces," says Robert Sturdy. Otto Von Habsburg, an MEP from Bavaria, and son of the last Habsburg emperor, points out that the parliament is as yet "young" - the empire of his forefathers evolved over 600 years.
Even the carryings-on of men such as Bryan Cassidy could, perhaps, be viewed as somewhat trivial. During the Renault protest Mr Cassidy was seen by Labour MEPs gesturing to the public gallery "in an obscene, threatening and provocative manner in the international language of get stuffed". But one might find such behaviour in Westminster, too.
It is the member states, rather than the parliament, that should be blamed for allowing the erection of two such massive white elephants. Britain complains of Euro "waste" more forcefully than any country, but it has never called for a permanent parliamentary home. If Europe's leaders were to give the European Parliament real power, they and the citizens might find that MEPs behaved with real discipline. Yet there is no sign that member states will throw anything other than scraps of new powers to the parliament at the summit in Amsterdam. Governments which stand paralysed before the "democratic deficit" should recall that rot can eventually bring whole palaces tumbling down.
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