Page last updated at 08:17 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

My week as an MEP - Wednesday

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:

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 Willmottīs 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 Labourīs 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 donīt 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, Ģ63,291, but that could go up by as much as Ģ20,000 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.

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