Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

My week as an MEP - Monday

BBC political reporter Brian Wheeler is spending the week living the life of a Member of the European Parliament. Here are his reports from Monday:

Tuesday 8am (French time)... Strasbourg
Euro MPs debated a planned crackdown on changes to pesticide rules (which, ironically, could devastate Brussels sprout production) until 11pm on Monday evening.

As in the House of Commons the parliament was fairly sparsely populated - most MEPs don't arrive until Tuesday I'm told - but this is an issue that British farmers have concerns about and their views were highlighted by British MEPs present.

The basic case is that some believe the pesticides could cause cancer and other serious health problems. British farmers' leaders - backed by Labour and Conservative MEPs - oppose the change saying the change could have a "devastating impact" on them. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says the changes would harm food production "without noticeable benefit for human health". the Confusingly the vote did not take place at the end of Monday's debate. I'm told the vote actually happens later today.

I will be keeping an eye on all this - I'm told that MEPs are likely to vote in favour of the pesticides curbs - and I will endeavour to explain whether or not the vote by MEPs means that the change is definitely going to happen, or whether it is just a 'symbolic' demonstration of opinion. Read more about the pesticide vote.

Thanks for all your e-mails so far. On the issue of expenses, which a few of your brought up, I will try and get some answers out of the MEPs.

The ones I've spoken to so far have more or less admitted the system needs to change but claim it will be tightened up after the next election.

Later this morning, I'm meeting Timothy Kirkhope, leader of the Tory group, which has had its own problems with expenses in recent months, so I'll ask him about that.

Some of you wanted to know what benefit we get from the EU. Again, I'll try and get some answers on that one.

Steven Crawford thought it would be a better idea to send a member of the public to Strasbourg rather than a "possibly already privileged BBC reporter". I am trying to come at this from an outsider's perspective but hopefully my experience of covering politics in the UK will mean I can ask the right questions. Keep the e-mails coming.

Monday: 6.30pm (French time)... Strasbourg
European Parliament building in Strasbourg

Just had my first taste of the infamous "one minute speeches".

MEPs are given precisely 60 seconds to make their point, with no comebacks or right to reply.

On the strength of tonight´s half hour session, they mostly seem to be a forum for airing national grievances or reading out what amount to press releases about local issues.

Among the topics aired this evening were the unfair treatment of Hungarian interpreters, job losses at a computer factory in Ireland and GM Foods. There was also a fair amount of Turkey-bashing, including complaints about that country invading Greek airspace.

And they really take the one minute thing seriously. There is an electronic screen counting down the time and anyone who goes on too long receives a ticking off from the chair.

Anyone who has sat through some of the windier contributions from MPs in the House of Commons would dream about such a device.

But it does make for bizarre viewing - and does not leave a lot of room for debate.

Monday: 6.00pm (French time)... Strasbourg
Flags outside European Parliament building

Victory for the Greens!

Group leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit has just succeeded in getting a resolution on Gaza. After a fiery speech from the floor of the chamber (never thought I'd be writing that), MEPs voted by 105 to 86 for a resolution to be passed on the situation there.

The Parliament is due to debate the issue on Wednesday but there were no plans for a resolution to be issued.

The Greens want the resolution to condemn Israel and call for an immediate ceasefire on both sides, although that may be watered down by the time an agreement has been reached with the other groups - that's how it works out here.

The Socialist group wants to model any resolution on the UN's recent statement, but the Greens want to go much further, including possible trade sanctions and a halt to plans to officially upgrade the EU's relations with Israel.

Should be interesting to see who wins.

Monday: 4.48pm (French time)... Strasbourg
Eiffel Tower

Jean went straight into a group meeting.

The parties at Strasbourg band together into broadly sympathetic groupings, although it is not obvious to the outsider what the Greens have in common with the other members of the European Free Alliance, which include representatives of "stateless nations" such as Plaid Cymru and the SNP as well as Basque politicians.

But she did have time to give me a bluffer's guide to the Parliament. It is nothing, repeat nothing, like Westminster. There is no ruling party and no opposition and nothing we would recognise as Parliamentary "debate".

MEPs of other nations are "genuinely shocked" by the behaviour of some members of the British contingent, who have been schooled in the adversarial, yah-boo ways of British politics, says Jean.

It is all about compromise at Strasbourg - a dirty word at Westminster. It is sometimes difficult to tell when a decision has been made.

But Jean is proud of the work she has done over the past 10 years, particularly in the field of human rights and immigration but worried that she will not be re-elected in June though, as the number of MEPs representing London is being cut.

The first plenary session, on new laws restricting the use of pesticides, kicks off shortly. In fact there goes the bell - assuming it's not a fire alarm. Time for my first dose of European democracy.

Monday: 3.15pm (French time)... Strasbourg
European Parliament in session

I don't know what all the fuss is about. There are far worse journeys in the world than a glide through frost-covered rural France in an SNCF train and Strasbourg seems to be a charming little town.

The European Parliament building, in an industrial estate on the outskirts of the town, is futuristic and vast. The debates take place inside a giant dome, known as the hemicycle. The Louise Weiss building next door, where we are based, is a doughnut-shaped affair, not unlike a more modern version of the BBC´s Television Centre.

But unlike that building, here there are glass lifts everywhere and expensive-looking stripped pine flooring. It's all walkways and open-plan levels inside. Miraculously, I haven´t managed to get lost yet, but it's early days.

The atmosphere is a little like the first day of a party conference, with people milling around in their hats and coats, catching up with gossip.

The only difference is the variety of different languages being spoken. You enter the Parliament by walking over a dry moat, which apparently comes in handy if there is a demonstration massing outside.

Monday: 1pm (French time)... Paris
Excellent journey so far. The Eurostar to Paris was packed with people heading to Strasbourg for the week and after an excellent traditional British breakfast on board I hooked up with Jean Lambert - the Green MEP whose journey I am 'living' today - in Paris. It's a crisp cold day here in the French capital - there was snow as we travelled across Northern France - and Jean suggested we walk from the Gare du Nord to Paris East where we caught the train for the second half of our journey to the European Parliament. Turned out to be a do-able walk even with the gear we are lugging. We had time for a coffee in a Paris cafe before setting off again. Jean tells me that for most of her ten years as a Euro MP she flew to Strasbourg from London City Airport, but the new faster trains had made the journey more practical now by train.
Your comments, questions and suggestions

"Strasbourg, the junket capital of Europe? Hardly. It's a nice enough place to live, but the weather is too cold or hot for 4 months of the year (it's been -9ºC for over a week now), the air travel connections are dreadful, and when the circus is in town, nobody else can get a hotel room for 20km in any direction. Still, if you want the address of the best couscous restaurant in town, let me know."
Nick, Strasbourg, France

"Good luck. I spent five days some years ago as a guest of a Labour member. And it is a junket! I hope you ask about MEPs expenses, how they have invested their housing allowance (paid for by the taxpaper) into an extra pension fund because there is such a large surplus and finally, you might want to find out how they fiddle their mileage allowance by travelling by car (shared) while claiming train or plane fares. The list is endless."
Martin, Rayleigh

"What I'd really like to know is what actual benefit we get from membership to the EU. We have to offer access to anyone who asks for it, pay them benefits, house them and any children they might choose to have, give them free NHS care and what do we get in return? Absolutely nothing except woeful rubbish collection, unnecessary recycling targets and more tax?"
David, St Albans, Herts

"I don't know who came up with this idea but surely its long overdue. Not only do most people not know what the MEPs do, most people do not know what the EU does - apart from the straight banana tabloid stories. All it leads to is the feeling that the UK government is giving away control of the country to unelected, unrepresentative bureaucrats who know nothing about this country and as a result most people feel we would be better off out of it. We might ask why political parties seem to have no interest in changing that perception. Isn't it time we, the people, understood the whole thing instead of looking down our noses at it in that 'not invented here' way? Best of luck..."
Rod Main, Newhaven, UK

Monday: 6.45am... St Pancras station

Alarm clock
Lesson one: you need a decent alarm clock to represent people in the European Parliament. Luckily mine did its job and I managed to hook up with the Green Member of the European Parliament, Jean Lambert before the Eurostar left London. Glad to see it's not as cold a start as over the past few days. This journey to Strasbourg takes forever - seven hours or so, including the transfer across Paris. The only hitch so far was the ticket machine deciding not print to print Jean's ticket. We had a quick chat before getting on the train. Jean expects the situation in the Middle East to dominate the week in Strasbourg. We'll meet up again in Paris - like most MEPs, she will be travelling business class, while I will be in standard class. At least the Greens were happy for me to travel out to Strasbourg with one of their MEPs. Some of the larger parties we approached were sniffy about the idea. They said they didn't want it to look like they were on some kind of junket. Perish the thought...
Sunday: 10pm... London: Why am I doing this?
Brian Wheeler

It is the assignment every reporter dreams of - an all expenses paid week in Strasbourg, the junket capital of Europe. Join me as I sip vintage champagne, dine in the finest restaurants the Alsace region of France has to offer, embark on pointless "fact-finding" missions to exotic locations, travelling first class, of course - and all at your expense.

Of course it's not really like that. But mention Europe or the European Parliament and that is the image that comes to many people's mind in Britain. And who is to say there is not some truth in it?

The fact is, beyond those people who are paid to cover it, few people in Britain really know what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg.

There are 78 British Euro MPs but most people would be hard-pressed to name one of them, with the possible exception of Robert Kilroy-Silk, let alone the ones that are paid to represent them, in their region.

Most of the time people only tend to take notice of the European Parliament when there is an election on, as in June this year, or when a British MEPs is embroiled in a financial scandal, or when there is a story about crazy Eurocrats and their silly rules - the "straight banana" syndrome as exasperated MEPs call it.

The European Parliament amends, approves or rejects EU laws, together with the Council of Ministers.
The process of "co-decision" - by which a law is only passed when approved by both bodies - applies in areas including consumer protection, the single market, workers' rights, asylum and immigration, the environment and animal welfare, but not foreign policy or agriculture.
The parliament also shares authority over the EU budget with the Council of Ministers and supervises other EU institutions, including the Commission. It vets new commissioners, and can sack the commission en masse.

Is this lack of attention because the day-to-day workings of the European Parliament are too complicated or because the parliament and its members have no power? Whatever the reason, few could really say they know what these well-paid elected representatives actually do.

As a Westminster-based reporter, I am as guilty as the next person of knowing little about how these Euro MPs spend their time. But all that is about to change.

This week I am going to live like a British MEP. I will travel with them, dine with them, watch them at work and play and, hopefully find out a little bit more about what makes them tick.

The plan is to spend time with MEPs from each of the British parties represented in the Strasbourg Parliament. That's Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein.

The MEPs themselves will, no doubt, be on their best behaviour, going out of their way to show how hard-working and diligent they are - and how unlike the popular stereotype. I do not expect to uncover any major scandals.

But, as an outsider to the European political scene, I do want to try and get under their skin and ask the questions they would not normally get asked. Which is where you come in. What do you want me to find out? How much do they claim in expenses? What do they consider their role is? What do they do all day?

Send in your questions using the form below and I will do my best to put them to the MEPs as the week unfolds.

And join me as I clamber aboard the train for Strasbourg - the town in eastern France that the entire Parliament decamps to from Brussels each month, in one of those rituals critics of the EU, and, to be fair, the majority of MEPs, love to criticise so much.

My companion for the journey will be Jean Lambert, of the Green Party, who has agreed to meet me at St Pancras on Monday morning for the journey to France. Wish me luck.

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