MEPs angry over new `Alcatraz' HQ

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The Independent Online
A TIDE of criticism over the futuristic pounds 250m home for MEPs in Strasbourg dogged the new parliament's first meeting yesterday, overshadowing the election of the first female President of the assembly in 20 years.

Parliamentarians across the political spectrum united in anger at the shortcomings of the building dubbed "Alcatraz" by some French socialist representatives. Despite the election as President of Nicole Fontaine, a 57-year-old French barrister, most MEPs were preoccupied with the building's logistical nightmares - some calling for a return to their old site.

Neil Kinnock, the European Commission vice-president, whose wife, Glenys, is an MEP, described the new project as "ridiculous", adding: " I have great reservations and I have to say, since all of the pounds 250m that the edifice cost was paid by the French taxpayer, if I was the French taxpayer I would not be too happy about it." Rent on the building this year will be pounds 14m.

Mr Kinnock's views were echoed by MEPs of all political persuasions as they battled to accommodate their staff in confined office space, and to navigate their way around the maze of corridors. A breakdown of interpretation services, the failure of lifts and complaints over access for disabled people were among a catalogue of teething problems to dog the new building.

A newly elected vice- president of the parliament, the Conservative MEP James Provan, declared: "Many people are very dissatisfied with the office accommodation and are really questioning whether it was necessary. I am sure the old building could have been adapted. The competition between Brussels and Strasbourg [the two sites of the parliament] is getting out of hand."

In 1992, EU governments decreed that the parliament should have two main sites. Alan Donnelly, the leader of the Labour MEPs, who said the new building was "inexplicable to the public", blamed John Major for agreeing to its creation.

Complaints about the building overshadowed the parliament's first session, when Europe's centre-right domination was made clear by the election of Ms Fontaine. The 230-strong European People's Party won backing from the Liberals to defeat the socialist rival, the ex-Portuguese premier Mario Soares.