Euro-folly reaches new heights

The EU/ parliament builds a power base
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The Independent Online
ON THE skyline they are building European democracy. All around is a shimmering mass of glass and steel. Cranes lurch through the air bearing vast girders, and on rooftops men in boots wade through seas of cement spewing over the second largest building site in Europe, after the Channel tunnel.

If architecture denotes power, then Westminster beware. The European parliament is making a grandiose statement, to the tune of pounds 800m, billed to the European taxpayer. In scale the site is comparable to Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

"This is the future," says Klaus Hansh, president of the parliament, as he surveys this extraordinary heaving creation. Mr Hansh, an affable German, sits in in his air-conditioned office at the top of the building: the figurehead of our democratic future.

Last week MEPS took their campaign for more power one step further, passing resolutions which call for the parliament to be more involved in European decision-making and to be given the right to choose its own permanent seat. This call will now be at the core of next year's inter-governmental conference, when EU member states will decide how to make their institutions more effective and more accountable to the public.

Britain, along with several other member states, is determined that the European Parliament shall be denied the oxygen of power. The 650-odd MEPs must continue to pick from the scraps: a little consultation here, a little co-operation there. It is enough, say the British, that the parliament provide a meagre cloak of democratic respectability for Europe's undemocratic institutions. The parliament must never be able to challenge the authority of the Council of Ministers, the main decision-making body, in which Britain still wields the veto.

Theoretically, the parliament may nowadays block the appointment of European commissioners. But Britain says it should never be able to propose legislation, which is at present the job of the European Commission, the EU bureacracy. And above all, the European Parliament must never take powers from national parliaments.

The glass edifice is going up none the less, climbing inexorably higher and higher. The parliament is determined to put down the roots it has been denied in Brussels. And nowhere is the metamorphosis of European government more fantastic to behold than in the bowels of this building.

Let's start at the beginning - or is it the end? You can never be sure in this sealed hothouse of egg-yolk committee rooms, double-decker bridges and luke- warm croque-monsieurs. "The end", says a sign at the beginning of a tunnel - well it would be the end from the other beginning.

European parliamentarians meet not in chambers but what are called "hemicycles". And here in the Brussels hemicycle, the furnishings have been fitted with eco-friendly materials, which let off bad fumes, causing a health scare. The state-of-the- art electronic voting system is sophisticated enough to whip through hundreds of amendments in a matter of minutes. But the acoustics are so poor the interpreters complain they cannot understand the proceedings. Even Mr Hansh is unhappy with his hemicycle. "It is too big," he complains. "And it can only be reached by lift. What is the point in that?"

The parliament worries that nobody understands it. So a cavernous press room has been installed, with ranks of television screens ready to transmit debates "live". But so far there has been scarely anybody in it to watch, and press pigeonholes spill over with unread amendments to proposals that may never be reported. In the European Parliament there are no majorities, only pluralities. There are no winners or losers. There is nothing simple enough for an ordinary being to understand. So there are guidebooks in the bookshop - but they probably won't do any good. "Disintegration, integration and the union", might give some clues.

To navigate the building you can grapple with the maps and decipher the symbols, or you can follow the colour-coded carpets and hope for the best. Or you can use the telephones, positioned every few paces, for help;or just browse along the line of jelly- like sculptures representing each member state. Since the labels have been removed, nobody knows which one is which. But that winged blob is purportedly Britain.

Visitors last week might have asked: Where are the MEPs? In Strasbourg, of course, which is really the seat of the European Parliament; which is precisely why this building has been constructed in Brussels.

Like a giant travelling circus, the European parliament, with its 3,500 staff, is constantly on the move. The plenary sessions - or meetings of the full chamber - have always been held in Strasbourg, on the insistence of the French, who jealously guard the symbolism of the European Parliament on the French-German border. The administration, however, has always been based in Luxembourg. And MEPs have their offices in Brussels and hold their committee meetings here. The dismemberment is in large part a cunning ploy to delegitimise the institution. The idea, devised years ago by mean member states, was to ensure the parliament could never settle down in one place long enough to make any sense of itself.

In 1992 MEPS grew tired of the circus and voted to build a permanent home. In effect, they were laying down the gauntlet to their political masters by establishing permanent "facts on the ground". The gamble was a calculated one. Europeans had been complaining about the "democratic deficit" - the lack of accountability of European institutions. More power for the parliament, said the MEPS, was the only way to correct this and the only way for a democratic Europe to go. But first it must have a permanent home.

Dipping into its own budget, the parliament allocated its own funding for a building and began looking for a site. In the centre of Brussels, developers were starting work on a giant conference centre. The parliament saw its chance and offered to take over the complex on a 27-year lease, with an option to buy at the end of the term.

So far member states have refused to acknowledge parliament's claim to its Brussels seat, which means the parliament must still migrate to Strasbourg for most plenary sessions, with only a token few in Brussels. As a result, in addition to the building here, a new hemicycle is also being constructed in Strasbourg, where the existing one is too small to seat MEPs from the new member states.

"The hidden agenda has always been to force us to waste lots of money by keeping us on the move, so that of course we appear as wasteful as possible," says John Tomlinson, MEP for Birmingham West and a leading member of the budgetary control committee. "And, of course, to make us appear ridiculous."

The parliament knows its survival depends on its continuing growth. But it also knows that if doesn't soon win the powers it is demanding, its new building in Brussels may become one vast white elephant in the sky.