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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
'Strasbourg circus' takes its toll
European Parliament in Strasbourg
Strasbourg sessions last just three-and-a-half days
Angus Roxburgh

UK Labour Party leaders in the European Parliament are dropping like flies.

This week Simon Murphy, leader of the 28-member group since January 2000, could scarcely keep the smile off his face as he stepped down from the job in order to "spend more time with his family".

"I know that's usually a euphemism for being sacked," he said, "but it's really true - I felt that my 21-month-old son, Jonathan, was growing up largely not in front of my eyes, and it was the travelling that was making a normal family life impossible."

The trouble with being group leader is that it adds a fourth port of call - party headquarters in London - to the three that all Euro-MPs have to endure:

  • Their homes, where they do constituency work

  • Brussels, where their main offices are

  • And Strasbourg, where they have to attend sessions that last just three-and-a-half days each month.
Mr Murphy will leave the European Parliament altogether at the next elections in 2004, cheerfully admitting he does not know what he will do next.

'Stop the nonsense'

His predecessor, Alan Donnelly, resigned in 1999 citing the same reasons - the strains of an MEP's peripatetic life.

It's not good for the public image of the parliament, it's not good for the efficiency of the parliament and it's not good for the health of parliamentarians

Gary Titley
New UK Labour group leader
So how will Mr Murphy's replacement, Gary Titley, cope? The 52-year-old member for north-west England has been doing the "Strasbourg circus" since he was first elected in 1989, and says he is fortunate that his children are grown-up and have left home.

He says he will continue, though, to campaign to stop the "nonsense" of splitting the parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg.

"I think it's not good for the public image of the parliament, it's not good for the efficiency of the parliament and it's not good for the health of parliamentarians," he says.

The system makes MEPs' lives a misery. Pat Cox, the Irish Liberal who is currently president of the parliament, had to leave home in the early hours on Monday morning in order to reach Strasbourg early evening, in time to open this week's session.

Many MEPs from outlying regions spend the entire day getting here, with several flights, and long bus or car journeys.

Strasbourg is not well served by international airlines. Delays are common. This Monday, two British members, one of them the Earl of Stockton, were stranded at Gatwick airport after being turned away from an overbooked flight.

The offer of 450 euros (285) compensation did not go down well.

Major's deal

The trouble is, France likes having a major EU institution on its soil, as do the hoteliers and restaurateurs of Strasbourg, who do very well out of it, one week out of four. The French spent millions on a brand-new, state-of-the art parliament building.

Brussels parliament building
Brussels also has a multi-million dollar glittering glass building
France's right to have the parliament is written into the EU's treaties and can only be changed by a unanimous vote of all 15 heads of government - impossible so long as France resists.

Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, who co-founded the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform, recalls that former British prime minister John Major agreed to France's right to co-host the parliament at a summit in Edinburgh in 1992, in exchange for an opt-out on the EU's "social chapter".

The Labour government has since signed up to the social chapter... but Strasbourg remains.

"Nobody would ask the Westminster parliament to sit in Carlisle for a week every month," she says. "If this parliament wants to be taken seriously it needs one site, and that should be in Brussels."

Lorry trip

The disruption is immense. Every Friday before a "Strasbourg week" MEPs' assistants in Brussels pack huge metal trunks known as "canteens" with the hundreds of documents that might come in handy during the Strasbourg session.

Being an MEP requires more than political acumen - you need sheer stamina, and a forgiving family, too

They are then ferried down the motorway on lorries - at an estimated cost of 140m euros a year. "Even so," says one MEP, "the document you really need is never there!"

On one occasion an entire debate had to be rescheduled to another day because one of the European commissioners, David Byrne, could not fly down from a fog-bound Brussels to be present at it.

If the session had been held in parliament's Brussels headquarters (also a multi-million euro, glittering glass building), he would just have had to walk round the corner from his own office.

The sorry tale of this parliament with two homes looks likely to continue. But it is becoming clear that being an MEP requires more than political acumen - you need sheer stamina, and a forgiving family, too.


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12 Mar 01 | Euro-glossary
12 Mar 01 | Euro-glossary
20 Jul 99 | Europe
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