Colourful language of European democracy: Out of Strasbourg

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LORD BETHELL was adamant. 'Do not meet with this man, do not be photographed with him, do not give him the legitimacy he is seeking. He is an anti-democrat and he is exploiting our house to try to gain credibility at home.'

'This man' was Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Russian parliament, who was visiting the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The attacks from Lord Bethell, a Conservative deputy, in fact led to the visit getting far more publicity than had nothing been said at all. Indeed, Mr Khasbulatov seemed slightly dazed by all the attention. But then a visit to Strasbourg, where the parliament meets once a month for a week, is often a deeply bizarre experience, even for its elected members.

When individuals from a dozen countries in every political hue are forced together in one building, there are bound to be some odd scenes.

Only too often, however, it is used by politicians to bolster their position at home, or to fight out domestic battles. Many of the parliament's more piquant encounters come when national politics are brought into a European forum.

Perhaps the choicest moment last week came when Willy Claes, Belgium's Foreign Minister, presented his country's programme for the next six months. Mr Claes, a smooth performer, gave his speech in no fewer than three languages - French, Dutch and German - as befits the foreign minister of a trilingual state. It must have driven the interpreters beserk. It is hard to imagine Douglas Hurd doing the same in Gaelic and Welsh.

Some of the representatives from Flanders, however, were very unhappy about this. Karel Dillen, a member of the right- wing Vlaams Blok, was furious and lashed out at Mr Claes. How dare he speak French, he demanded. It was an insult to the Flemish population. How dare he talk of solidarity, when Belgium was robbing Flanders blind. It was a scandal.

Alex Falconer, MEP for mid-Scotland and Fife, fell foul of transnational politics in another way. He arrived to find his hotel room had been cancelled without his knowledge. He was forced to spend a night in the bed of a fellow Labour MEP (male) before getting his room back. As if this was not enough, he was woken the following night by a call from the reception desk. 'Your call-girl has arrived,' he was told.

Mr Falconer had not, needless to say, requested any company. These events may not be unrelated to his efforts to keep Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French National Front leader, out of Edinburgh last month.

Another victim of transnational politics was Derek Prag, the Conservative deputy from Hertfordshire. Mr Prag had only recently been elected chairman of the powerful institutional committee, but he resigned last week.

Mr Jose Gil-Robles is from the same political group as Mr Prag, the European People's Party, and he lost the vote for the post. But he has one advantage over Mr Prag: he is Spanish. It was to a Spaniard that the job was supposed to go, and so Mr Prag was eased out. The pressure from his own group members was 'pretty merciless', said Mr Prag, clearly hurt and upset. His colleagues in the Conservative party murmured sympathy, but did little to change matters.

That is the way things work in Strasbourg. The European Parliament, with its Babel of languages, complex political manoeuvres and sometimes theatrical politics, may appear strange, quaint even, and sometimes not very close to British ideas of democracy.

But imagine trying to explain the Maastricht debate in the House of Lords, to which Lord Bethell departed, to a Belgian. Anybody who was tempted to disparage the proceedings in Strasbourg had only to glance at these strange ermine-clad creatures flitting across the television screens. Here were people who were unelected, some of them not even resident in Europe, many only there because of the loose morals of their forebears or because they had been sacked from their previous jobs. And they were deciding the future of the European Parliament.

There was the bete noire of the European Parliament, La Dame de Fer, urging them on. Baroness Thatcher, without a vote to call her own, was telling the House of Lords that it was 'the people's turn to speak', and warning that power was slipping away to Brussels and Strasbourg.

There seemed to be a whispering in the air, a ghostly voice: 'Do not meet with this woman, do not be photographed with her, and do not give her the legitimacy she is seeking. She is an anti-democrat, and she is exploiting our house to try to gain credibility at home.'