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Tuesday, July 20, 1999 Published at 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK

World: Europe

New EU building spares no expense

The impressive exterior of the new Parliament hides problems within

When politicians talk too much in the new European Parliament building in Strasbourg, it will be even more obvious than usual.

The dome of the parliament chamber will light up as the noise level rises.

A lighting system made up of optical fibres is installed like a constellation around the dome of the amphitheatre, blinking more or less intensely according to the sound level of the parliamentary debates.

But with the feature designed more on aesthetic than ecological grounds, the building has not been welcomed by Europe's Greens.

[ image: The new building hosts MEPs from 15 countries - with room for more after future expansion]
The new building hosts MEPs from 15 countries - with room for more after future expansion
On the Parliament's first day in the new building, the Green bloc hosted a solar-heated breakfast, with coffee, tea and croissants warmed by the sun - via solar panels set up for the occasion.

The Greens wanted the new building constructed with recyclable materials and powered by renewable energy resources.

"Unfortunately nobody listened to us," complained Isabelle Zerrouk, spokeswoman for the 47-strong Greens delegation.

The party still hopes to have a photo-electric generator installed in the building.

Teething problems?

But there are plenty of teething problems to be sorted before embarking on any new projects.

The telephones and air conditioning are not functioning. And MEPs are finding that the most useful item in their welcome packs is the map of the building. There simply aren't enough signs to help them get around.

And orientation is not the only problem. With corridors extending over vast distances, one Dutch MEP took his bicycle to work in order to save time. But he was banned him from riding it down the corridors because he was wearing wheel-ruts in the new carpets.

No expense spared

The new building - designed to take account of the EU's expected admission of new Eastern European members - cost around $400m to build.

The steel and glass central tower is cradled by a lower building like a wedge of melon - the whole complex contains 1,133 offices. It was designed by Architecture Studio Europe, a Paris-based company.

But the lavishness of the building in Strasbourg, with cost overruns caused by costly construction blunders, has not improved the EU's reputation for profligacy.

[ image: The sheer size of the building is daunting for many MEPs]
The sheer size of the building is daunting for many MEPs
Construction difficulties included narrow door frames that had to be removed to install furniture, and the designer chairs so heavy they are as good as glued to the floor. Then there was uproar when it was disclosed that MEPs' offices were equipped with luxury showers costing $12,000 each, despite the fact that they were not allowed to stay overnight in their rooms for security reasons.

Even an EU insider - European Commission Vice-President Neil Kinnock - said the runaway cost of the building was "ridiculous."

"The Parliament must have decent conditions and modern technological facilities to do its work properly, but I just wonder whether this is the best way to invest 20% of the Parliament's finances," he said.

Two-centre parliament

The expense is the more galling for Eurosceptics, because the Parliament will only meet there for one week a month, and in August not at all.

The Parliament's other centre is in Brussels.

France lobbied hard in 1992 to maintain a two-centre operation and succeeded in securing a future for Strasbourg as the official seat of the Parliament.

There one good omen however. Before the MEPs moved in, the new building was tested by 1,200 schoolchildren and 200 soldiers in a single day - and it survived.

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