Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

Diary - My week as an MEP

Brian Wheeler
BBC political reporter Brian Wheeler has spent the week living the life of a Member of the European Parliament. The aim was 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 shadowed MEPs from all the British parties with the hope of finding the answer. Find out how he got on via his regular despatches on this page:

Friday... back in the UK
Good morning. Sadly, this will be the final entry in the diary, as I am now safely back in London.

Nigel Farage proved to be an amusing and surprisingly informative travelling companion. I certainly know a lot more about the battlefields of World War One than I did when we set off.

Like the other small parties I have met, the European Parliament provides a platform for UKIP, although some of its ex-members, including its founder, hate the idea of it being there.

Mr Farage believes the role of the party he leads is to be the voice of opposition and he says he is proud of what he has achieved in bringing together other eurosceptic parties, from France, Greece and elsewhere, in the Independence and Democracy Group. He also tries to bring what he believes is some much-needed fun to the place.

Thanks for all your comments and suggestions over the past week. I have really appreciated your input and encouragement - and your tolerance of my occasional faux pas. As I explained at the start, I am new to the world of European politics.

I don't think I appreciated just how different Strasbourg is to the Parliament at Westminster and I also realise I have only scratched the surface of what goes on there.

Most of the diary entries were written in snatched minutes between meetings and I have a lot of material that I did not have time to write up.

I will be writing a more considered piece over the weekend, summing up my thoughts on the Strasbourg Parliament and the role of the British MEPs.

And next week I'll be putting together with colleagues more guides and features explaining - as best we can - how Europe works and why it is - or isn't - worth bothering with the European Parliament elections in June.

Looking back, it has been an exhausting but strangely exhilarating week. I have learned a lot (including the fact that I never want to set foot inside a glass lift ever again).

I managed to get hopelessly lost on more than one occasion and at one stage got mixed up between the Tower and the Winston Churchill building (Strasbourg veterans will know what I mean).

I also learned a few new words. I think my favourite was "trialogue", which captures the spirit of the place.

Sadly, thanks to my somewhat ambitious plan to try and meet someone from every group, I probably did not spend enough time in the chamber. Sorry, the hemicycle.

And I definitely did not spend enough time, or indeed any time, looking round the city of Strasbourg itself. Perhaps another time.

I never really managed to board the gravy train either, although I came tantalisingly close on a couple of occasions.

Thanks, finally, to the MEPs and their staff who, without exception, were friendly and helpful and put up with what must have been a highly irritating line of questioning ("So what exactly do you do all day? Is it a gravy train?") without complaint.

If you ever get the chance to visit the European Parliament, whatever your views of Europe, do take it. It really is a different world.

Your comments, questions and suggestions
I am pleased you enjoyed your week and have added some important details but you have not convinced me that it is value for money. Taking your figures it looks like about 400K Euros per MEP and that does not include any costs for the army of Eurocrats. Every other organisation is cutting back - the EU (and national Parliaments) will be the last to shed jobs. The "gravy train" rumbles on!!
Nigel, Petersfield

This kind of article is a good start for unveiling to the public what is going on. However it must not be forgotten that MEPs are not the only influencers, there are the Dr's who produce the reports that contribute to decisions, there are the 1000's of translators, there are the administrators, and all the functioning bodies of the EU, all that are highly educated, and know what is going on, as well as dealing with their own important internal politics. It is not a fluke or mere luck that people have these jobs that may indirectly influence the way you live, and they are paid adequately not overly for their unselfish intellectual contribution to the EU, and of course you still have your power to vote so use it!
Tony, Oxon

I think this diary is very interesting and well done the BBC for taking it on. The UK public know very little about what happens in Brussels. Like every parliament some MEPs work hard and do contribute in specialist committee work while others deliver very little if nothing and should not claim any money for a zero service. The Strasbourg sittings are very expensive and times have moved on and taxpayers savings are needed in this instance.

Margot Parker, Kettering UK

I notice you talked almost exclusively to British MEPs. Yet this is a European Parliament. With the Brits having a majority of Tories and UKIP, you will have had a strong anti-EU bias in what you heard.

Richard Corbett

Nathan from London may be talking about UK civil servants getting free accommodation, but EU ones certainly don't. Simple matter of fact, they rent and buy like everyone else. And what's the problem with "unelected civil servants" - would you really like to elect every civil servant working in the EU, Inland Revenue or FCO?!
John, Perth, Scotland


I can't believe I am paying the salaries of these numpties. I am sick of politicians and civil servants who get paid huge wages, have cushy perks and achieve absolutely nothing!
Craig, Glasgow

6.20pm (French time)... Exodus from Strasbourg

It was indeed a decent lunch with the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage, who was on good form letting off steam at the end of what he says was a tough week. I particularly enjoyed the crab which the staff at the members' dining room had saved for him...

It is incredible how quickly the European Parliament building emptied after lunch. The place echoed to the rumble of suitcases being wheeled along as MEPs and their staff made their dash to the train station.

Debate was still going on in the parliament's chamber - the Hemicycle - but most people seem to be on their way back to their home country.

It is fitting that, as I am living the Euro MP's life this week, I have joined the exodus and am now on the train to Paris (after the thick freezing fog forced us to abandon plans to fly back). I'll file again later. In the meantime here are a few more of your e-mails...

It's not just the MEPs that are the waste of money, it's the army of unelected civil servants that go with them. I know one of them, who accepts their job is quite pointless but is happy to accept the free 3 bed apartment in central Brussels (a lot of room for one person you might say). And not having a home in the UK to pay for, it amounts to an extremely valuable perk. Most people don't get their accommodation paid for by their employer while they are at their normal place of work, so why do they?
Nathan, London

This reporting is just the sort of work that the BBC should be doing, shedding light on an institution that has a major influence on our lives. What I would like Brain Wheeler to do is explore the topic, raised by the MEPs, of the lack of coverage of the EU in the British media. Nobody asks the public, what gets covered, we just have to suffer what we are given. The huge dominance of Westminster politics is presumably an easy and mutually cosy arrangement between the politicians and the media.
David, Nottingham

Good Stuff. I'd like to see more of this. Reporting proceedings is part of a healthy democracy, and Europe could do with more democracy. Also interesting to see the side-effect of the reporting - the anti-EU stance of some of the Brits being rebutted, something which rarely happens in the UK. Yes, I'm well aware that this is part of the BBC balance: still I wonder how many Brits would actually, forthrightly defend the EU. Nobody in the UK seems to be "selling" or defending Europe. For all of Blair's supposed pro-Europe stance, he never tried to show the benefits.
Roger, Cardiff

If their accounts are as "transparent" as the beneficiaries of taxpayer funded EU largesse claim, how come they continually fail to get their audited accounts signed off... the whole thing is a waste of money and time and as for "preventing wars", we're only 60 years in. I think you'll find a post Napoleonic arrangement called the Concert of Europe achieved the same nearly 200 years ago. The sooner we in the UK can disassociate ourselves from the whole sorry business the better.
James, Manchester

From what you say, being a UKIP MEP seems quite easy. Their meetings to decide how to vote can't last long, and they seem to enjoy the "EU gravy" that they so vehemently oppose.
Peter, Plymouth

Enjoying your series of blogs so far - I'm hoping a similar series of entertaining and explanatory jaunts around our parliament and national assemblies is planned. Is it possible to illustrate your pieces with photos, rather than just clip-art? It would be interesting to see who you've been speaking to, and what some of these buildings and institutions look like.
Stuart, Tunbridge Wells

For John, regarding the list system for electing British MEPs, the cynical among us look at that as a ploy to get those favoured by the party leaders into the cushy jobs. I have always preferred to vote for individuals, because then I know who they are and it's easier to unseat them if they do a bad job, whereas if the lame duck is top name for a major party in a list system, they're virtually guaranteed to get elected.
Dave, Cambridge, UK

A fascinating article, having spent time at Euroscola last year I have a much greater appreciation for the work of the parliament. Those who take the time to look into it instead of euro-bashing would too! Europe gives all citizens a wealth of opportunities and just like every political system it can't please everyone, perhaps those disgruntled euro-sceptics are just those who are used to getting everything they want out of government?
Ashleigh, Belfast

I note the long hours of "work" claimed by MEPs as needed to fulfil their "duties". Does this not exceed the limit, voted by them, on the hours us mere mortals are allowed to work in the rest of this "paradise on earth" called the EU.
Peter, Redditch

Although the work of UKIP etc is very laudable I still fail to see what the purpose of the EU actually is. What has it achieved since its inception apart from a burgeoning bureaucracy ?
DJ, London

On Friday, please go to the signing-on office when it opens and see how many MEPs nip in to claim the 287 euro allowance for "subsistence" before immediately leaving for the weekend - even better, why not publish the names of those who don't stay in the Parliament until it closes on Friday afternoon so that we can have transparency of who claims money for nothing....
Nick, Bristol
(Sorry Nick I'll be back in the UK on Friday - maybe next time!)

Thursday 12.30pm (French time)... The UK Independence Party
Nigel Farage
Say what you like about UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage (and plenty do) but he is very good copy. He has been keeping me entertained with his views on the other members of the European Parliament ("dullards") why the British press should cover the European Parliament more ("so that people can find out the truth") and how much he loves Strasbourg (the place, not the Parliament).

He shares a flat here with fellow UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, when the Parliament is sitting.

I also sat in on UKIP's daily vote meeting, where six of their nine MEPs sat round a table and went through the list of resolutions (including one on the equal treatment of men and women that caused a snigger or two) and decided which way to vote.

Their general strategy is to vote against everything, as they believe decisions should be made in national Parliaments, but they will vote yes when the resolution is about cutting bureaucracy.

They see their role, and that of the Independence and Democracy group, of which Mr Farage is joint leader, as being the official opposition in the Parliament, and they seem to relish their professional irritant role. (Mr Farage is particularly pleased this morning to have upset the Greeks with a speech he made on what he predicted will be their imminent exit from the euro and the threat of violence on the streets because of the state of their economy).

It is a very short voting list (they are all in the 'hemicycle' voting on it as I write this), mostly concerning foreign affairs, so UKIP decided to abstain on most of the issues.

They just had time for a good laugh at a joke Mr Bloom made in the hemicycle (the chamber) earlier about the French eating horses before they cantered off to exercise their democratic rights.

Mr Farage is now going to treat me to what he promises will be a decent lunch (the members of UKIP's Gadfly Club dined on roast suckling pig washed down with plenty of free wine on Tuesday night, apparently).

Thursday 11am (French time)... What an unaligned MEP does
Some of you have asked for more nitty-gritty detail about the work MEPs do. I've just had a meeting with Jim Allister, who replaced Rev Ian Paisley here in 2004 but quit his party over its decision to power share with Sinn Fein.

He now sits with non-aligned MEPs, which including a surprising large number of British members, mostly disgruntled or expelled former members of UKIP such as Robert Kilroy-Silk, Tom Wise and Ashley Mote. Far right figures such as the French MEP Jean Marie Le-Pen are also among the non-aligned.

Being non-aligned gives him more time for constituency work, although he does sit on committees as well. Among the issues he is dealing with at the moment are constituents who have fallen foul of cross-border tobacco smuggling rules and others who have bought properties in Spain, only to have them repossessed by the authorities there (Alyn Smith, of the SNP, also said he was dealing with this issue).

Far from being sidelined, he says being a member of the non-aligned group has given more opportunity to speak in the chamber. Speaking time in debates is allocated according to the size of the group the MEP belongs to, which means the centre right EPP group, which the Tories are currently trying to leave, get the most time.

He deals with a lot of agricultural issues on behalf constituents. Ironically, for a self-confessed eurosceptic he actually finds the civil servants at the European Commission more helpful than their British counterparts. On the Spanish property front, he says there is a Danish proposal to sort the problem out, but it will take time.

He also showed me the large white trunk he, like all the other MEPs, and his assistant lug over from Brussels each month which contains all of his paperwork. I will try to post a picture of it later, if anybody is interested...

* I've just hooked up with the human whirlwind that is Nigel Farage. The chain-smoking UKIP group leader has just talked me through a You Tube video of his speech in the euro debate on Tuesday. He particularly enjoyed the bit where the other MEPs started booing him!


Thursday 9.30am (French time)... Gravy train thoughts

OK. Gravy train time. Many of you have asked about MEPs' allowances and I have done my best this week to get some answers.

First some facts:

MEPs get paid the same as politicians in their national parliaments, which varies widely. In the case of British MEPs it is £63,000 a year. From July MEPs will have the option to have their salary paid in euros, which at the moment would give them a pay boost of up to £20,000.

But it is not MEPs' salaries which normally cause controversy, but their allowances and perks.

Basic pension arrangements for MEPs and MPs are the same, but MEPs can also choose to contribute to an additional, and very generous, European Parliament pension scheme.

They get paid a 287 euros allowance, to pay for hotels, taxis and food for every day they work in the Parliament.

They are also reimbursed for weekly travel from Britain for the cost of an open economy ticket plus an allowance for distance travelled. This was worked out in an era before low-cost air travel and opponents say it can amount to a tax free bonus of £10,000 a year for each MEP.

The European Parliament also pays 190,000 euros a year towards staff costs. They are also entitled to £36,000 a year to run their offices in their home countries.

Here's what the critics say:

Chris Davies, of the Lib Dems, who has been campaigning for more transparency, says the biggest abuses happen in the secretarial allowance.

He leaked details of a confidential audit last year, which he said demonstrated "embezzlement and fraud on a massive scale" in the £100m a year allocated to staff costs.

Here is what the European Parliament is going to do about it:

After June's elections, MEPs will have to produce receipts for their travel and will be banned from employing relatives (although they that will only apply to new employees) - and their staff in Brussels and Strasbourg will have to be employed under the EU staffing system.

The secondary pension scheme will also be phased out. And a full breakdown of how much MEPs are entitled to claim in each category will be published.

But is it enough?

I had a conversation with Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson last night, one of the longest serving MEPs and the only British member to be elected as a Quaestor.

These are six shop steward figures, who act as a link between the MEPs and the Parliamentary authorities, and take care of issues such as building security and MEPs' conduct.

He was on the committee charged with bringing in the new allowances regime and he told me of the howls of protest from some MEPs, who sadly he declined to name, at the reforms.

"It did not make me a popular man," he told me.

It was also a bit of a nightmare trying to harmonise the rules across 27 different tax systems, he says, but he believes reform was necessary, to save the reputation of the Parliament if nothing else.

"I am sure that what we have done will not be seen as enough, but we have come a long way and achieved a lot," he said.

He is right there. Chris Davies, who publishes a full breakdown of his expenses on his website, says that until all other MEPs do the same the Parliament will never clean up its image.

I have brought up the issue of allowances with every MEP I have met. Most agree that reform is needed. But even those that want greater transparency have baulked at the publication of a breakdown of their own expenses.

Alyn Smyth, of the SNP, got elected on anti-sleaze platform, but now says he now regrets allowing his name to be used to attack Labour and Conservative rivals over alleged expenses abuses, now that he has seen how MEPs actually work.

"Actually the system is pretty straightforward, it s pretty transparent. Where there are bad apples, they get found and they get hauled over the coals and they need to pay the money back."

He has his expenses audited by a chartered accountant, but says he would not be in favour of having a detailed breakdown published, as be believes the press would use it to unfairly attack him.

Labour's Linda McAvan has also pushed for greater accountability, but she also says there is no need to publish a detailed breakdown of expenses for similar reasons.

Conservative group leader Timothy Kirkhope was brought in to clean up his party's expenses regime in Brussels and Strasbourg. He winced every time I used the phrase "gravy train".

But he was adamant that most MEPs were straight with their allowances and the situation was not helped by the complicated bureaucracy administering it in Brussels.

He told me: "We have just toughened things up a lot ourselves. I think partly in response to the general situation, but also because the party as a whole has decided to make sure we are as transparent as possible over issues like this where, as you rightly say, we have had odd problems. I am overseeing that at the moment and I am determined to make sure that works very well."

But he added: "I don't think the amount of abuse is at the level some people think it is, either here or indeed in Britain, or indeed in any other country. But there is that sort of perception and I think if there is a perception of that kind then I think we have a certain duty to make sure it is not justified."

It is a murky issue and not one confined to MEPs. But because of the way they work, far from the prying eyes of the British press pack and with lots of foreign travel, they are always going to be under more suspicion than MPs.

Plenty of people would argue that voters are right to be suspicious and that they have got away with too much for too long.

I am not, realistically, going to uncover any evidence of a major expenses scandal on a trip like this and the fact that I have not seen examples of outrageous profligacy may simply mean I am not looking in the right places.

But the pressure is certainly still on MEPs to get their house in order, even with the new reforms.

Your comments, questions and suggestions

You say "and that's hardly surprising given the huge areas represented and the fact they are elected on a party list system - where you vote for a party rather than a person". You may wish to point out that this, like many aspects of the EU that are criticised, was decided by London. The rules merely state that a form of PR must be used - Finland uses open lists, essentially voting for an individual, Ireland uses single transferable votes. The anti-democratic closed list on huge constituencies was a British decision.
John, Bristol, UK

Has anybody done any research into the carbon footprint of MEPs relocating to Strasbourg 12 times a year?
Malcolm, Isleworth

One thing I don't like about the EU (and I'm generally positive about it) is the complete lack of media coverage it gets in both the countries I'm interested in - the UK due to my nationality, and Spain, which is where I live. It's interesting that I find them to be on completely opposite ends of the political coverage spectrum, British news is generally light on politics due to an uninterested and somewhat apathetic electorate, whereas in Spain, there's political news overdose, and you can't open a newspaper without seeing at least two pictures each of the president and the leader of the opposition, however important or banal the day's issues are, and who in general boringly contradict each other point for point. However, it's rare to see any EU coverage at all in either of these countries' media. Why do the MEPs you talk to feel this is, and what do they think can be done about it?
Giles, Mallorca, Spain

Ian from London (see Wednesday comment about Belgium being unable to hold itself together) - Strange comment from someone from a country that has "lost" most of its Irish territories and looks closer and closer to seeing Scotland go as well. And ask the Welsh how they feel about London rule. If you don't show the full picture, you better keep quiet.
Diederik, Antwerp

You keep saying things are long-winded and tortuous. Surely, only to those that aren't used to it. Surely the British parliament is just as confusing to an outsider (e.g. voting at a different time to the debate, bills going back and forth between the two chambers, endless committees etc...).
Andrew Wilson, Dundee, UK

I believe that this blog and your experiences can be especially helpful to people in the US who might not understand the way the EU or British politics work or who don't have a great understanding of either of the two. Thank you for your blog. (It is also very amusing to read)
Miriam, Miami, USA

Wednesday 8.30pm (French time)..
Champagne

Three days in and I have finally had my first glass of champagne - and it was with members of the Socialist group. I promised their press officer I would not make the obvious gag, but come on, I'm only human...

Anyway, they had a good excuse to break out the bubbly. They were celebrating East Midlands MEP Glenis Willmott´s victory in today's Labour group leadership contest.

Glenis - who has been a member of the European Parliament for just three years - was still waiting for her congratulatory phone call from Gordon Brown (he had got through earlier but the line was bad).

But she had received a congratulatory text from Europe Minister Caroline Flint. They go way back apparently.

It was a very close-run election - she got ten votes, to East of England MEP Richard Howitt's nine, but it seems to have been a fairly even-tempered affair.

Mr Howitt was in the members' bar to toast her success anyway. She replaces Gary Titley who is standing down at the June election. She is very upbeat about Labour´s prospects in the poll, citing a YouGov poll which suggested the party might gain an extra five MEPs, and is planning to fight a campaign on bread and butter issues like the economy.

She wants her MEPs to speak in plain English and avoid euro jargon. Hopefully, it will catch on...

Wednesday 7.00pm (French time)..
Woman holding cigarette

I couldn't help noticing there was a large smoking section in the MEPs' members' bar.

How can this be when smoking in public places is banned in France?

Apparently the Parliament authorities had tried to ban it but MEPs and their staff were determined to puff on with impunity. One law for them etc...

Wednesday 6.00pm (French time)...

I've finally managed to find an MEP who holds constituency surgeries. Labour's Claude Moraes, one of the London MEP's, says one of the best things about the British political system is the close link with constituents and he wanted to preserve that.

So he holds surgeries where you can meet him face-to-face, if you book in advance, at his Islington office. He does not criticise those MEPs who don´t hold surgeries.

"It is a very tough job when you have such a large region to cover," he says.

But he does agree with my suggestion that it helps keep MEPs honest. He also has some interesting stuff to say about the rivalry between Westminster and Brussels.

MPs don't particularly like MEPs, it seems. And as a former aide to top Labour MPs he ought to know what he is talking about.

Wednesday 3.20pm (French time)... New Labour leader
Glenis Willmott
A bit of breaking news from Strasbourg - Labour MEPs have elected Glenis Willmott as their new leader. Mrs Willmott, who represents the East Midlands, is the party's first female group leader for 16 years.

The former trade union organiser has been a member of the European Parliament since February 2006. All 19 Labour MEPs were entitled to vote. Ten voted for Mrs Willmott, nine for East of England MEP Richard Howitt.

An MEP answers the what do they do all day question
Here is how Phillip Bushill-Matthews, a Tory MEP who is standing down this year, describes his day:

"My job as employment spokesman and indeed social affairs coordinator for the largest political group is to help guide colleagues from right across other member states how they should vote on a point-by-point basis on employment and social affairs dossiers. So there is work to be done right up until the voting sessions as well as in the voting session itself.

"In-between times, there are lots of meetings, either with individuals, with journalists, either friendly or unfriendly, with lobbyists, with constituency workers who are coming out here. Every day is different but our main job at all stages, certainly our job when we are in the European Parliament, is to help shape European law. We have real powers in that area and that is what we do.

"This evening I'll be dining with half a dozen colleagues in my hotel in Strasbourg, where every Wednesday we just get together and try to avoid talking about politics but - what a surprise - we always end up talking about political issues."

Wednesday 1pm... Euro MPs' workload
Stopwatch
Some correspondents have asked for more information on what MEPs do all day. By trying to meet up with representatives from all of the British parties, I am inevitably getting something of a fractured picture. The one thing they all have in common is that they meet in the chamber once a day to vote, normally late morning.

The different parties all arrive with a particular issue they are working on. For the Conservatives, it was pesticides, for the Greens it was Gaza. So they will meet members of other groups and try to push their case and agree common positions. Some may be scheduled to speak in debates.

There are also group meetings, which seem to take up a fair amount of time.

Believe it or not (and I know some of you will not) some of the MEPs I have met seem to be rushed off their feet. Although almost all seem to look upon Strasbourg as an unwanted interruption to their normal working lives in Brussels. Some do not arrive here until the Tuesday morning and are on the train back by home by 2pm on Thursday.

I am told there is not the same social scene there is in Brussels and a couple of the MEPs I have met have genuinely seemed at a bit of a loose end of an evening. They seemed to spend most of it in their office on their own, catching up on paperwork.

Having said that there are, of course, plenty of dinners and receptions going on to keep our elected Euro representatives from the luxury of their hotel rooms.

* One curious fact is that of all the MEPs I have met so far, not one has a young family at home in the UK. They do not have children or their children have grown up and flown the nest. This does not appear to be a family-friendly job.


Wednesday 11.15am (French time)... Representing you?
Vote and ballot box
One of the problems for Euro MPs is connecting with their constituents. Few British people could name their MEP.

And that's hardly surprising given the huge areas represented and the fact they are elected on a party list system - where you vote for a party rather than a person.

From my conversations so far it seems that few of the UK MEPs now hold constituency surgeries, arguing that it is not practical, given that they represent millions of people.

Some have experimented with mobile surgeries but most seem to restrict their contact with constituents to letters and e-mails - and meeting the lobbies from industry and farming that are a big part of life in Brussels and Strasbourg.

I saw first hand evidence of that sort of link with the British members seeking to stop the pesticides crackdown being approved on Tuesday.

Graham Watson, the Lib Dem candidate to be next president of the European parliament (see below for more on that), insists most MEPs are in close contact with their constituents and will take on individual cases.

But at the same time he says they are not a "universal aunt" in the way that MPs are to the people who elect them.

Wednesday 11am (French time)... Presidential bid
Graham Watson
Just had a very interesting chat with Graham Watson, who has launched a bid to be the first British president of the European Parliament since the 1980s (the Conservative Henry Plumb since you ask).

Mr Watson has been a Lib Dem MEP since 1994 and has been head of the ALDE group, one of the biggest party groupings in the Parliament, for the past seven and half years. He believes it is in serious need of reform: "One of the things that frustrates me about this place is that it has never quite convinced me as a Parliament."

He believes the Parliament lacks the self-confidence to punch its weight and says it needs "to be a little bit more citizen-friendly and little bit more open". Crucial to this, he argues, is greater openness and accountability on allowances.

At the moment Britain's 78 Euro MPs get paid the same as MPs, £63,291, but that could go up by as much as £20,000 in July, when they will be paid in euros, thanks to the strength of the euro against sterling.

MEPs also receive an office allowance, a secretarial assistance allowance, an annual travel allowance of up to 4,000 euros and 287 euros per day subsistence allowance for every day they are at the Parliament in Strasbourg, to cover hotels, taxis and food.

The current European Parliament President, Hans-Gert Poettering has reformed the pay and expenses regime to clamp down on abuses - after the next election, MEPs will have to provide receipts for their expenditure and there will be new rules on employing assistants to prevent abuses.

The current EU President has also set up a working group for Parliamentary reform - but Mr Watson thinks this does not go nearly far enough. He wants to raise the profile of the Parliament's policies and personalities "so that people will be more motivated to go out and vote".

He wants the European Parliament to work more closely with national Parliaments "on the design of legislation that is going to work" and on the implementation of policy.

He says the European Parliament has grown in power since he first entered it, when the Commission was all-powerful. Now the power resides in the Council of Ministers, but that institution is increasingly bogged down in disputes between the 27 member states and with Parliament's new power to recall legislation which is not working, he believes it could flex its muscles much more.

Like most MEPs, he is frustrated by the lack of coverage in the British media, compared with France, Germany and other countries. Britain is "uniquely and anachronistically" focused on Westminster, when many of the real decisions are now taken elsewhere, including in Europe, he argues.

But he believes that will change. Issues such as climate change and security can only be tackled at a European and global level, and people are starting to understand this.

It will be down to the 785 MEPs, from the 27 member states, to decide who will be their next President, although so far Mr Watson is the only candidate in the race. He says he is serious about getting elected in July and he promises, or perhaps that should be threatens, to unleash the full force of the Lib Dem by-election machine - including the infamous Focus leaflets - to help fight his cause.

All previous Presidents have been elected through back room deals, he says, which tends to be the way things are done here, but he wants this election to be more open and he wants the public to be involved. You have been warned...

Your questions, comments and suggestions

Please do point out that those 'well paid MEPs' are paid by their own country, not the EU. They are entitled to the same wage as an MP and only receive European money to cover travel expenses and some aides.
sebastiaan, Bruges, belgium

Chloe, (see comment published on Tuesday below) there are indeed some industrial estate-type buildings to the west of the European Parliament; there's an exhibition centre, a concert venue, and the old skating rink, none of them great works of architecture. Even closer to the Parliament building - literally within a rioting farmer's stone's throw, in fact - are some of the nicest local authority ("council") houses in Europe, built in the 1930s I think. If they were in Britain, the council would have demolished them long ago and sold the land to a developer for 5p, who would then would have put a large motel there for MEPs.
Nick, Strasbourg, France

"The European Parliament building, in an industrial estate..." Obviously you have not yet set foot outside the EP building, you will find it is in the 'European Quarter' with the Council of Europe, Court of Human Rights, European Youth Centre, there is also an open air swimming pool across the road, as well as a tennis and football club.... and lots of houses, one of which I live in! What industry? If you mean the delapidated buildings you pass on the tram that is Strasbourg's exhibition halls! Not quite the NEC I know!
Nichshee, Strasbourg, France

Please can you ask MEPs whether they want a European state, and how soon they see it coming if countries don't start standing up for themselves and their sovereignty
Jerry C, Diss, Suffolk

Having been a European 1930's depression child, but old enough to largely comprehend the WW2 situation, and its attendant propaganda,the EU sounds like an admirable representative-collaborative enterprise regardless of its faults. This is more than can be said for Westminster type politics.
Tom, Auckland, New Zealand

Brian, I'm genuinely surprised that you don't know why the Parliament sits in two seats (Brussels & Strasbourg). The original sole seat was Strasbourg, but the MEPs wanted to sit in Brussels. The French government objected and got the two-seat system specifically mentioned in the Treaty of Amsterdam, so they're stuck with it. Did you genuinely not know this?
Timothy Martin, Southampton

EU officials don't like the trip to Strasbourg either. Brussels is the centre of things and not just for work, but also things like training courses and language classes, as well as any social life. Strasbourg means cancel plans, miss these things and spend a week with work colleagues rather than friends. Of course, the official line is that it's am important symbol of European Unity and certainly not a bad idea.
Anthony, Brussels

Jan Willem from Brussels, nice to see your stalwart defence of the European Union. However, it does come across a bit oddly to be lectured on the benefits of union by a resident of Belgium, a country that does not seem capable of holding itself together.
Ian, London

Wednesday 9am (French time)... Where to today?

Morning all and welcome to day three. Thanks for all your emails so far - which range from detailed explanations of the workings of the EU to the suggestion that I take a leaf out of Morgan Spurlock's book (Super Size Me) and record any weight changes this week. I'll consider that latter idea as I tuck into my continental breakfast buffet.

I hope to be looking into the issue of expenses today. I've managed to have a chat with a few Euro MPs on the subject, including Timothy Kirkhope, leader of the Tory group. I will be having a chat later with Lib Dem Chris Davies, one of the MEPs who has blown the whistle on some of the alleged abuses.

I'll also spending some time with the Labour group, as they elect a new leader. It should be a busy day but I will try and file as many updates as I can.

European Parliament building in Strasbourg

* One thing I am really missing since I came to the European Parliament is stairs. I'm starting to develop a phobia for the glass lifts that link the different levels in the Louise Weiss building.

Despite being open plan - and refreshingly free from the sort of restrictions you have to put up with in the House of Commons - it is not the easiest place to get around.

In what might well be a metaphor for the entire European project, you can see where you want to go, but have to spend a lot of time working out how to get there. And even then the chances are you will get lost.

Tuesday 10.45pm
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.

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 an idiot'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 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
Sprout
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, 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.

EUROPE BASICS
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 UK parties represented in the Strasbourg Parliament. That's Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the DUP, Ulster Unionist 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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