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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 21:59 GMT 22:59 UK
The British invasion
Sketch
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter, in Brussels

"Welcome to the madhouse!"

Ashley Mote, columnist, author of Overcrowded Britain: Our Immigration Crisis Exposed and newly elected MEP for the South East region, is in his element.

Robert Kilroy-Silk is interviewed on his Brussels visit
Kilroy-Silk called the European Parliament depressing
Standing in the third floor cafeteria of the European Parliament building in Brussels, Mr Mote can only marvel at the evidence of profligacy and waste all around him.

He and his 11 fellow UK Independence Party MEPs have been in the home of the European Parliament for less than 24 hours, but already he has seen enough to convince him that the place is just as he imagined it to be.

The only disappointment so far has been the attitude of the other MEPs.

"We were almost made welcome. It is quite extraordinary. Someone this morning even said it's nice to have a proper opposition for a change."

'Empty spaces'

UKIP is in Brussels for a brief familiarisation visit, before travelling to Strasbourg next month for the first full meeting of the European Parliament.

The party is still high on its success at the ballot box earlier this month.

And - like holidaymakers arriving to find the hotel half finished and the pool empty - the new intake competes to run down their new place of work.

The UKIP team in Brussels on Wednesday
There are now 12 UKIP MEPs
"There are too many empty spaces. It doesn't look like a place of business. It looks like what it is - a place full of hot air," sniffs Mike Nattrass, a chartered surveyor and small businessman from Birmingham.

"It is depressing," Robert Kilroy-Silk, the party's tanned star MEP tells a news conference.

"When I went to Westminster it was exciting and invigorating. I was part of something that meant something to the British people. We felt we could change things, change the country, and we did.

"But here it's anonymous, remote, distant - not in touch. I don't feel it has any connection to me, to my constituents or to my country."

'In or out'

UKIP knows it can do little to bring about its aim of an "amicable divorce" between Britain and the EU through its activities in the European Parliament.

Only the British government at Westminster can do that.

But it can put pressure on the main parties.

Mike Nattrass, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Roger Knapman
Reporters are taking an interest in the UKIP arrival
And, according to Mr Kilroy-Silk, it will campaign hard to turn any referendum on the EU constitution into a vote over whether Britain should be "in or out" of Europe.

Its tactics in the European Parliament, says newly appointed group leader Nigel Farage, will be to block and frustrate legislation when it can - and siphon off as much of the allowances and funds given to it by the Parliament to fund campaigns at home.

"We will be using that money, within the rules, to further the objectives of the UKIP back in Great Britain," Mr Farage tells reporters.

He adds: "If we as a group can stop or delay legislation we will do so - in the knowledge that every time we do that British companies will be cheering."

Multi-national bloc

It is after all, the party argues, British taxpayers' money in the first place.

UKIP's funds will be boosted by the fact that the party's team will sit in Strasbourg as part of a bigger multi-national bloc of MEPs.

As a result, it will receive extra cash for secretarial and administrative back-up.

I am not interested in making this place work, although I respect it as a parliament
Robert Kilroy-Silk

"We are hoping to be part of a political group of 40 or more members, all Eurosceptics, some of them reformers and others, like us, believing withdrawal is the best option," said Mr Farage.

The group, likely to be confirmed on Tuesday, will include MEPs from about seven countries, including Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Asked what the name of the new grouping would be, Mr Kilroy-Silk suggests: "The Out Of Europe Group, or something like that."

'Wreck' claim

But he is unlikely to play much of a part in its activities.

"I think I will be more effective in Britain. I am not going to take part in the committees here," he tells reporters later.

"I am not interested in making this place work, although I respect it as a parliament."

Mr Kilroy-Silk also rows back from his earlier claim that he wants to "wreck" the European Parliament.

And he says he has no plans to stand in forthcoming by-elections in Britain, although he will not rule out entirely standing for a seat at Westminster.

He will be campaigning instead against the EU constitution and John Prescott's plans for regional assemblies.

Celebrity signings

He also hints at further celebrity signings to boost the party's image among the young.

Its MEPs are, after all, exclusively male, in their late 50s or older - chartered surveyors, small businessmen and academics.

The party's whip Geoffrey Titford describes them as "enthusiasts for the cause", but perhaps lacking in finer points of party discipline.

"I hope they hang on to some of that vibrancy," he says.

Mr Kilroy-Silk looks at home in their company, seemingly happy to play second-fiddle to the UKIP leadership on the news conference platform.

Only afterwards does the former chat show host come into his own, as the camera crews crowd round him.

He lays into the "waste and mismanagement" of the EU and, slightly disconcertingly, rounds on BBC News Online, claiming to know what I get up to in my leisure time when asked about claims UKIP has a "Little Englander" attitude.

"I do the same things you do. I go to the same places on holiday. I go to the same restaurants as you," he says, fixing me with a beady stare.

Upside to Europe

That's very flattering, I am about to say, but there is no cutting him off in full flow.

The only difference, he argues, between himself, with his holiday home in Spain and his love of European culture, and the rest of the "liberal" British media, is that he does not want the country to be ruled by Brussels.

Mark Croucher, UKIP's affable press officer, also does not want the country to be ruled by Brussels.

But as he climbs into his 4X4 at the end of the morning's events, he can at least see one upside to Europe.

He tells me he is off to load up on "cheap fags and booze" before heading back to Blighty.




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