MEPs contemplate life without gravy

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The Independent Online
AS THE European Parliament celebrated its 40th birthday yesterday, MEPs may have been forgiven for contemplating the future with dread. If France votes against the Maastricht treaty on Sunday, they may feel there is little purpose to their existence.

For much of its life the parliament has been sorely misunderstood and in this instance is even lying about its age. The first European assembly was created by the 1952 Treaty of Paris but there were no direct elections until June 1979. It is only in the past 13 years that the European Parliament can claim to be the only supranational body elected by universal suffrage.

Its 518 politicians and 3,132 staff have mostly made the best of that time, despite the weak hand dealt them by the EC member states. It is no fault of theirs that their time is divided between Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg: they are just the victims of a long struggle between Belgium and France.

But this three-centre approach to politics, the space and the research facilities have contributed to a perception that the European Parliament is where they paint, service, clean and repair the Euro- gravy-train. Attempts to glamorise its work, even the cinematic casting of Charlotte Rampling as an MEP, have largely fallen flat. The institution, dubbed by one wag as the 'mother-in-law of parliaments', generates as little affection as the relative.

The Maastrict treaty might change some of this. In the debate that the treaty has generated, the role of the parliament is largely overlooked amid fears of a bloated bureaucracy operating beyond democratic control. But since the signing of the Single European Act - the legislative framework for the single market that takes effect on 1 January - the parliament has acquired considerable powers of supervision. In 1987 the adoption of the 'co- operation procedure' gave the body a second bite at the legislative cherry. The Maastricht treaty extends these powers beyond the internal market to legislation in such areas as public health, vocational training, some aspects of research and development and consumer protection.

It is not much, but it is a start and more than most MEPs believed member states would sanction. The prospect has prompted the European Parliament to begin putting its house in order to counter criticism that its concerns are too parochial and its structures institutionally too immature to bear the extra responsibility. Efforts are being made to streamline procedures and prune the legislative agenda. A controversial reform of the parliamentary executive is also being considered.

Without the Maastricht treaty, such efforts are mostly pointless. Egon Klepsch, the president of the European Parliament, continues to be upbeat, insisting that it has a vital co-ordinating role to play, passing on 'to the national parliaments all the informaton at its disposal so that all national parliaments can exercise control over their respective governments at an early stage'.

But not all his collegues are as confident, and predict that a French 'no' on Sunday would deal a knock-out blow. 'It would be a return to the bad old days of the early 1980s, when nothing ever really happened, when all we could do was delay things and waffle a lot,' said one insider, adding: 'It would cut us down just as we are beginning to gather momentum; we might even run out of useful things to do. I'd start thinking about another job.'