Page last updated at 07:50 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

My week as an MEP - Tuesday

Brian Wheeler
BBC political reporter Brian Wheeler is spending the week living the life of a Member of the European Parliament. The aim is to find out what they do and what they are for. Are they powerless and enjoying the ultimate gravy train or working round-the-clock to make the world a better place? He is shadowing MEPs from all the British parties with the hope of finding the answer. Follow his progress via regular despatches on this page:

Tuesday 10.45pm... What is the EU's point?
Sandwich

What is it with MEPs and Strasbourg? I've just had a bite to eat with Alyn Smith, one of the SNP's two MEPs, in the Meadow bar, a canteen area for staff with a bilious green carpet that is meant to represent an English meadow.

He neatly sums up the attitude of all the British MEPs I have met: "Pretty much all of the MEPs are united in that they don't want to come to Strasbourg at all," he says.

"It costs 200m odd euro a year. It's bad for carbon emissions. We just don't want to be in Strasbourg. We've got a perfectly good hemicycle building that's sitting in Brussels that works fine and as a way of actually organising ourselves, I think at Strasbourg you actually see us at our worst."

Strasbourg has symbolic value, as a town on the German border that was taken and re-taken during the Second World War and it is also the home of the European Court of Human Rights.

Alyn Smith's theory is that the Parliament continues to sit here because the EU officials, who mostly live in Brussels, enjoy a trip out each month.

He also has an answer to the question asked by many of you - what is the point of the EU?

"The EU is the best war avoidance mechanism ever invented. It locks a number of countries that are more used to shooting at each other into constant, dull, technical negotiations."

It looks like things are winding up in the chamber for the evening, so it's time to head off. I think I may be in danger of breaking the working time directive...

Tuesday 10.00pm

If you think the European Parliament is a minefield of strange terms and obscure groupings, try the Round Table.

I had lunch earlier with members of the Shirley Late Knighters, a branch of the 41 club from the West Midlands - an association for former members of the Round Table who have surpassed its age limit.

They were also on a fact-finding mission to Strasbourg, as guests of Tory MEP Malcolm Harbour.

I briefly became part of the tour when I was introduced as "the man from the BBC" and then instantly put my foot in it by calling them Round Tablers. From Solihull.

Apologies accepted, they turned out to be a very friendly and well-informed bunch. They got to meet MEPs from Germany and France as well as the Tory group and went away happy with what they had seen, clutching European Parliament goodie bags. All good PR for the canny Mr Harbour.

Tuesday 6.15pm... Behind closed doors
Cup of coffee

As several correspondents have pointed out, the real work gets done in Brussels (every British MEP you speak to is fed up with the monthly trek to Strasbourg). The chamber is packed out for voting, but more sparsely populated the rest of the time.

There is a lot of activity going on behind closed doors, as the different party groups hammer out their differences. I've just sat in on a meeting between Lib Dem MEP Sharon Bowles and representatives of the German government.

There is a stand-off between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers over the amount of capital insurance companies should be made to hold. The Germans, despite initially backing the council's position may be shifting towards the MEPs' view.

They were discussing tactics ahead of trialogue - a three way discussion between MEPs, the council and the commission. These meetings can go on all day before an agreement is reached. On one occasion they even carried on talking after the lights had gone out.

Mrs Bowles is a former European patent lawyer and seems to relish the technically complex nature of her brief. She admits it is not stuff most of her constituents would easily understand, but it is something that is important to them, she insists, particularly in the current economic climate.

She is a shadow rappoteur for the liberal ALDE group on the insurance company solvency issue as well as a member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs. She reckons this gives her the equivalent power of a junior minister at Westminster.

Your comments, questions and suggestions

Pesticides voting: It's not that complicated so, with respect, don't feed the beast by calling it so. The Commission (eg. an executive, like the government - albeit unelected but chosen by the elected governments) proposes a law (usually with the consent of the big beasts UK, France, Germany), the Parliamentary committee responsible reviews it and proposes amendments (like House of Commons Committees) and, in the end after that bingo vote, the Council of Ministers (namely in this case our Agriculture Minister and 26 others) says yes or no to the compromise hammered out by the three institutions. Commission proposes, Parliament amends, Council decides. By the way, any UK MEP will have more impact on legislation than their equivalent MP simply because they can guide a law through. Try doing that in the House of Commons.
Pedro, liverpool

When is this ridiculous junket going to end? Please someone in Europe have the guts to tell the French that Strasbourg Parliament has got to be scrapped. Brussels is bad enough but to have two Parliaments is outrageous.
Brian, Haywards Heath, UK

The European Parliament building is located in the hub of European democracy, and there are no factories nearby so I don't know where the reporter saw an "industrial estate". It is next to the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Pharmacopoeia, the Alsace Regional Council and within a stone's throw of all major permanent representations and embassies. Hardly what one imagines when referring to an "industrial estate", I would think.
Chloe

This is a really good idea for a feature, but readers should bear in mind that to see the European Parliament at its most interesting - and where almost all its real decisions are made - you should do a parallel feature on a committee week in Brussels. It's less glamorous than a trip to Strasbourg, but it's also where you'll get to see MEPs debating legislation in depth, taking political stances, defending their constituencies and making international, cross-party alliances.
Alex, Uxbridge, UK

Tuesday 3pm (French time)... Voting. Or Bingo?
Vote and ballot box
I witnessed my first voting session earlier. Very strange. The chamber was packed, with the MEPs - including Robert Kilroy-Silk making a very rare appearance, sitting in the non-aligned section with Jean Marie le Pen et al - parked behind their computer screens in semi-circular rows.

The whole thing happens at breakneck speed, with the vice president of the Parliament calling out the different amendments ("vote is open, has everyone voted? vote is closed"), which flashed up on a giant screen as they scrolled through. It was like a giant bingo game - and very difficult for the uninitiated (i.e. me) to work out what was going on.

The Conservatives lost their attempt to limit the extent of a ban on pesticides. But that was expected. The voting process is, as Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour said to me earlier, really just a piece of political theatre. The real decisions are made in the group meetings and committees in Brussels.

But whatever you do, don't say the MEPs are just rubber-stamping legislation by the European Commission. That is the quickest way to upset an MEP, says Mr Harbour. They have much more input into the final shape of the legislation than they used to, although it does still originate from the Commission.

The pesticide legislation, which will ban the use of certain toxic chemicals on farms, originated back in July 2006, when the European Commission sent an initial legislative proposal to the European Parliament for a first reading. There was then a full year of committee hearings at the Council of Ministers, with officials from the different member states, including Defra in the UK, battling it out to reach a "common position".

Then it was back to the European Parliament for more wrangling between the MEPs and the ministers, before a second reading. Finally, there is more committee scrutiny by the MEPs before a common position is agreed on.

The party groups then put down amendments and decided which way they were going to vote. A Rappoteur, in this case a German Green MEP, is in charge of steering the legislation through the European Parliament and it is they, rather than the party group leaders, who wield the real influence over legislation.

It is a tortuous process, and although the MEPs have significant input into the final legislation, it is the Council of Ministers, which is not directly elected, who have the real power. The pesticide legislation is in the form of a directive, which means it will have to be incorporated into UK law, and that of other member states, although it is unlikely to come fully into effect until well into the next decade. I hope that's all clear...

Tuesday 2pm (French time)... Ode to euro controversy
Euro
It is 10 years since the euro was launched. But instead of singing happy birthday, MEPs were treated to a rendition of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Europe's official anthem. (I almost wrote national anthem - I think Strasbourg is starting to get to me. I must have a chat with someone from UKIP soon).

It is, we are told, the first time the tune has been played during a formal sitting of the European Parliament, although it gets played all the time at ceremonial occasions, euro officianados tell me.

Still, not everyone is filled with joy at the idea. Timothy Kirkhope, the Conservative group leader, thinks the playing of anthems in Parliament is "a bit pompous".

"It would be like playing the national anthem in the House of Commons," he tells me. "I don't mind the European flag being flown on various occasions," he adds.

Labour's MEPs take a more relaxed view. "For us it is not a big deal," says one of their team. "It is only controversial for the eurosceptics."

But has there been an Ode to Joy stitch-up? The UK Independence Party are crying foul at the apparent last minute rescheduling of the anthem's playing.

UKIP and its friends in various other parties around Europe, including some Conservatives, were planning to sing the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, during the Beethhoven tune.

UKIP singing the French anthem - how did that come about? "We originally planned to sing our own national anthems, but that would just be a cacophony, so we thought we are in France, it's a tune everybody knows, so let's sing that," explains a UKIPer.

But their plans were scuppered after the European Parliament authorities decided to play the anthem at 12.20pm, after most of the MEPs had disappeared for lunch after voting, rather than at the 11.15am after the debate on the euro's 10th anniversary.

"They were scared we would ruin it," claims the UKIP man. This place is truly a madhouse.

Tuesday 1030 (French time)... Special occasion
It's a special occasion this morning - the tenth anniversary of the euro. The head of the European central bank, Jean Claude-Trichet, is addressing the Parliament.

We are told there will be some sort of event after that. Hopes are running high in the press room that there might be a cake. Or at least something to photograph.

The other main event this morning is the vote on pesticides. British farmers are up in arms about the plan to cut the use of some pesticides. I am spending the morning with the Conservative group, who will be voting against the pesticides plan and, I suspect, will probably not be breaking out the bubbly for the euro's birthday.

Your comments, questions and suggestions
If the EU was serious about saving the planet and energy they would stop this charade of moving between Brussels and Strasbourg; it is a nonsense
rob, chesham, bucks

I would like to correct David's (St Albans, Herts) misconceptions about EU mobility rules. Britain does not have to offer access to anyone who asks for it. That is simply not true. Only people who can find work within three months are entitled to stay and only people who have worked in Britain are entitled to benefits, just like anyone else. And the good thing is the same rules apply for UK citizens who want to work on the Continent, which might come in useful with the current economic mess in Britain. So just think about the benefits of an open and free Europe!
Nicolaas, Luxemburg

Great idea to look into the EU Parliament. I didn't even know there were speeches, much less they were limited to a minute. Not expecting much from that middle east resolution though.
Jude Kirkham, Vancouver Canada

Good journalism! For the hat-trick, you should do a day in the life of a Brussels Ambassador - the Permanent Representative - and of a real eurocrat/euro-Humphrey, a Commission Director General...
robert, brussels, belgium

How come people are not aware of what the European Union means and has meant - we live in Europe in prosperity, peace and harmony. Anyone over 40 must remember the pathetic frontier controls and the other menacing inconveniences of traveling. have we all forgotten the wars we had? Or the chaos the national governments made of their countries, especially when meddling with their currencies. Anyone keen for 16% interest on their mortgage? Or for good old protectionism, did you experience driving an Austin Marina? Stop bashing Europe, please.
Jan Willem, Brussels, belgium

What percentage of the last 20 laws that have passed into English law were formulated in the EU parliament? Knowledge of this should demonstrate the importance or no of the EU parliament
Richard, London


Tuesday 8am (French time)... Strasbourg
Sprout
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". 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.

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