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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 November 2007, 05:48 GMT
MEPs get taste of people power
By Mark Rickards
Producer, BBC Radio 4, Brussels

European Parliament, Brussels
Citizens are petitioning the European Parliament in person
European politicians have to deal with a lot of funny questions, but here is one of the funniest: why, they were asked, are tomatoes in Greece watching television?

It was a problem noticed by a Greek farmer, who was so concerned he decided to take it to the European Parliament Petitions Committee.

It is an enshrined right of any European citizen to bring forward a petition to the parliament and, if judged admissible, it will be taken very seriously indeed.

The farmer's complaint was that all Greek electricity bills contain a payment towards the television licence, regardless of what the electricity is being used for. But why, the farmer asked, should he pay this portion when he was using electricity solely to heat a shed of tomatoes? They certainly were not watching television!

His petition was found to be inadmissible in the end, but it was just one of around 1,500 petitions considered in one year by the Petitions Committee, which sits regularly in the European Parliament building.

Lobbying MEPs

The committee encourages the petitioners themselves to come to the meetings to present their cases.

"We listen to the ordinary citizen and we have solved hundreds of problems that affect the daily lives of Europeans," says David Hammerstein, a Spanish Green MEP.

MEP Michael Cashman
Continual pressure does bring about results
Michael Cashman, MEP
"We are mediators. We will try to solve the problem without litigation and without taking it to European courts."

But he points out that, as a last resort, the committee can start legal proceedings in cases where European law has clearly been flouted. And it is the member state that will be in the dock.

Take the example of a landfill site in north-east England. I interviewed Daniel Grey as we stood on the edge of a giant hole, filled with waste and pools of stagnant water.

Choking on the dust and filth blowing in the air, he pointed out that, in the view of local residents, the landfill site contravened both the European landfill and groundwater directives.

A petition had been drawn up and this September Mr Grey went to Brussels in person to make the case.

In the spotlight

It would be easy to be daunted on arrival at the parliament building at the heart of Europe.

Members - MEPs - elected every five years by EU citizens
Votes on and oversees implementation of EU budget
Considers Commission proposals on legislation
Works with EU ministers on legislative decisions

Petitions Committee meetings take place in grand halls filled with MEPs, representatives of the European Commission and the many translators in booths around the edge.

When his turn came, ordinary citizen Daniel Grey switched on his microphone to speak to the hushed room.

He described the landfill in detail and its impact on the lives of local residents. His eloquent speech received a sympathetic hearing.

"We've already had a result in that we've been listened to, which is the first time ever," Mr Grey told me. "I am very pro-Europe now because I've seen how it works in the building. It's a much better system than people believe back in the UK.''

He is awaiting the committee's judgement.

Frustration in Verona

But not everyone is quite as enthusiastic as Mr Grey.

For more than 10 years, David Petrie has been pushing his petition on problems facing foreign-language assistants in Italian universities.

Mr Petrie is a Scotsman living in Verona whose complaint is that the Italian universities operate a two-tier system whereby they apply one set of rules to Italian nationals and another to foreign nationals.

Despite a number of judgements from the European Court of Justice and resolutions from the European Parliament, he still does not have a solution to the problem.

He took his petition to the European Parliament in October but with little hope of resolution. "People in the Petitions Committee work very hard but they are hamstrung by regulations which don't allow them to get quick solutions," he told me.

Despite appreciating their support over the years, Mr Petrie feels they need more clout. "After all, political pressure is only political pressure," he says.

MEP Michael Cashman serves on the committee but does not see the need for more powers. "Continual pressure does bring about results," he says, "and the final option is to take a legal case before the European Court of Justice."

With an ever increasing flow of petitions from 27 countries, the committee has its work cut out listening to the whinges of Europeans.

From funeral directors in Portugal complaining about unfair competition, to pensioners in Hungary who feel they are paying too much to use the public baths, it seems everyone has an axe to grind.

Europeans, it would appear, are none too satisfied with their lot - apart from Greek tomatoes, which will continue to watch their televisions in comfort.

Any Complaints About Europe? was broadcast on Radio 4 at 2245 GMT on Sunday 4 November. You can also listen online for seven days after that at Radio 4's Listen again page.


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