Q: What could this building in Strasbourg be? A: Another pleasure palace for our MEPs

The citizens of Europe should be happy that a man of Bryan Cassidy's calibre is representing their democratic interests. At least, that's what Mr Cassidy thinks. Member of the European Parliament for Dorset and East Devon, he believes that, in return for all his hard work, Europe owes him a good living. Mr Cassidy is currently insisting that the taxpayer should give him pounds 315, the cost of one day's pheasant shooting, which he "sacrificed" in order to travel to Belarus as an EU election monitor.

"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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Getty
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Manager - Business Support Transformation, 1 year contract

£550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Walthamstow...

Head Of Development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This excitin...

PHP Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: PHP Developer...

MIDDLE EAST CURRENT AFFAIRS OFFICER

£27,000-£34,000 per annum: US Embassy: An office of the US Embassy based in Be...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor