Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

10 lessons from my Euro MP's life

Brian Wheeler
BBC political reporter Brian Wheeler spent a 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. Here are ten things he learned from the week:

1. It's life, but not as we know it

Being in the the European Parliament feels a little like being on the set of a 1960s science fiction film. A slightly antiseptic vision of the future, in which mankind has moved on to a higher plane and all wars have ended. Its critics say it is just as divorced from reality, of course. But to a reporter more used to the well worn corridors and winding staircases of Westminster, the glass lifts and open-plan walkways of the Louise Weiss building made an interesting contrast. Perhaps its designers wanted it to be an analogy for the European project itself - you can see where you want to go but you have to spend ages working out how to get there.

2. The terminology can be baffling
Scrabble tiles

There are a few new words to learn when you arrive at the Parliament. These include Hemicycle, the name for the debating chamber, rapporteur, the MEP in charge of drawing up a report on new legislation, and quaestor, a term taken like much of the language of the Parliament, from Roman times. It means "the man who asks questions". In Brussels and Strasbourg, the quaestors are six senior MEPs who represent the interests of the others to the Parliamentary authorities. But I think my favourite new word was trialogue. This refers to three-way informal discussions between key representatives of the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, when there is deadlock over a particular piece of legislation, before the formal conciliation committee begins.

3. MEPs have more power than you might think

I quickly learned that the best way to annoy a Euro MP is to say they just "rubber stamp" EU legislation (except UKIP MEPs, of course, who would probably agree with you and buy you a drink).The Parliament has much more power than it did a decade ago, when even its supporters say it was little more than a talking shop.

MEP FACTS
785 MEPs from 27 countries
78 UK MEPs
UK parties represented include Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru, UUP and Sinn Fein
Based in Brussels but spend four days each month in Strasbourg
Paid £63,000 a year - the same as MPs
Also entitled to travel allowance, 287 euro a day expenses, 190,000 euros office allowance and £36,000 for running a UK office
Now, under the "co-decision" procedures, the Parliament does not just give its opinion on EU laws, as it used to do, it shares lawmaking power with the European Council. MEPs often deal with big, important stuff such as climate change, immigration, financial regulation and employment. But there are still significant parts of EU legislation over which the Parliament has no real power - including agriculture, fishing, taxation and parts of its annual budget. And the MEPs still do not come up with new laws, just amend legislation that has been created by the European Commission. You would think this would make the average MEP feel fairly impotent, but most of the ones I met believed they had more power than the average backbench MP. They set a lot of store by the work they do on committees, where they hone, refine and - a word I heard a lot - "shape" the raw legislation that emerges from the Commission. They can also table amendments, which they say stand a good chance of making it into law, unlike, they argue, their counterparts at Westminster.

4. Most MEPs hate coming to Strasbourg

I wish I had a pound for every time I heard an MEP complain last week about having to travel to Strasbourg.

MEP's trunk
MEPs must pack all of their paperwork into a trunk for the trip to Strasbourg
It is not that they have anything against the place, it is just unhappiness at being forced to up-sticks from Brussels 12 times a year and move all of their paperwork and staff to another country for four days, which they see as a giant waste of money and time, particularly when they already have a chamber in Brussels. There have been various attempts over the years to end this system, but it is enshrined in an EU treaty and it is hard to see it ending any time soon.


5. Compromise is not a dirty word

From a British perspective, where the word Parliament is indelibly linked to two opposing rows of green benches and angry clashes across the despatch box, the European Parliament is an unusual beast.

Hemicycle
The blue benches of Strasbourg are a rare sight on British TV
There is no ruling party, no opposition, and no executive for members to hold to account. They are all, in a sense, backbenchers. Their debates can sometimes be as lively as anything you would see on an average day in the Commons, but there is not the same adversarial, yah-boo, quality to them. This is no bad thing, some would argue. But because voting on an issue does not take place until the day after the debate, there is no sense that opinion can be swayed by a great speech. (The exception to all of this is the UK Independence Party, whose MEPs behave more like traditional backbench British MPs, often to the bemusement - and horror - of MEPs from other countries.) The MEPs from other parties have not entirely abandoned their tribal ways - there appears to be little love lost between Tory, Labour and Lib Dem members. But they must learn to work with politicians from other countries and that requires a more consensual approach. It is all about striking deals with opponents and trying to square the competing demands of the different nationalities represented in the European Council. But the whipping system within the cross-national party groups is not as strict as at Westminster and MEPs often vote against the party line. Even some pro-Europeans concede that the constant search for a "common position" that will satisfy the Council can end up creating laws that are watered-down and "catch all". But Labour MEP Richard Corbett, a passionate advocate of the Parliament, insisted to me that the system offers "double quality control" over European legislation and that without it, the EU would be run entirely by unelected bureaucrats.

6. The debates seem to lack humour

Hardly surprising - it is difficult to make a joke that translates well into 22 different languages.

Mr Bean
Hopefully not a role model for members of the European Parliament
Unless it is a visual joke, of course. But although Mr Bean does well in most markets, the European Parliament has enough credibility problems without resorting to slapstick. UKIP tries to inject humour into the proceedings, but its various stunts and wheezes (such as handing out chocolate euros with "warning may be prone to meltdown" written on them) are a bit juvenile for some tastes. What is missing are the genuine flashes of wit that you sometimes get in the Commons, which can bring a debate to life and get a point across better than reading out reams of statistics.

7. British MEPs have less accountability than MPs

Proportional representation, introduced for British euro elections in 1999, has been terrific for Britain's smaller parties. There would probably be no Green or UKIP MEPs without it - and their viewpoint would not get half the coverage it does as a result. But the party list system used in England, Wales and Scotland has also effectively broken the link between MEPs and their constituents.

Jim Allister
Unionist Jim Allister told me Northern Irish MEPs are more accountable
Under this system you vote for a party rather than an individual candidate. It is up to the parties to choose the order the candidates appear on the list, with those at the top standing the best chance of being elected in one of 11 regions. As a result, very few of the MEPs I met now hold constituency surgeries, arguing that the areas they represent are simply too large, containing as they do millions of voters, for it to be practical. It is a different story in Northern Ireland, which retains the constituency link and elects its MEPs using the single transferable vote system. The MEPs I met from Northern Ireland say they have a higher profile among the electorate than their mainland colleagues, as a result.

8. The UK's Euro MPs often feel like second class citizens

Even UKIP, which wants to see the place abolished, say the European Parliament does not get enough coverage in the British media. British MEPs from all parties speak with envy of the sort of attention the Parliament receives from the press and broadcasters in other European countries. Part of the problem from a media point of view in Britain is that it is hard to ever see a case where a vote by MEPs directly changes people's lives - as opposed to a vote being a step in a long and complicated process that may lead to said change in people's lives.

Green MEP Jean Lambert
Green MEP Jean Lambert may work hard but she is not a household name
MEPs also lack the status within their own parties that they enjoy in other countries. Some leading British politicians began their careers in Europe, including Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, transport secretary Geoff Hoon and his Tory shadow Theresa Villiers. And others end it there, sometimes after losing their seat at Westminster. But the majority toil on - and despite their public image most seem to work quite hard - in relative obscurity. It is hard to imagine an MEP being considered as a serious contender for the leadership of one of the main parties, as sometimes happens in other countries. The leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, and the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, both sit in the European Parliament, reflecting its importance to smaller parties.

9. Few British people know how it really works

It is not exactly news that much of the regulation that affects our daily lives in Britain - from the working time directive to mobile phone charges - comes from the European Union. But even people such as lobbyists and journalists, who are paid to follow it, sometimes have a shaky grasp of how the European Parliament and other EU institutions work. We know that by the time European legislation reaches Westminster, it is often too late to do anything about it.

European Parliament
The European Parliament remains a mystery to many in the UK
But in many cases, it is also too late to do anything about it when MEPs get to vote on its second reading in Strasbourg, when many people in the UK tend to wake up to it. It is not always easy for outsiders to tell who wields the power in the Parliament, even though it offers one of the best chances of influencing decisions coming out of Europe. MEPs tell stories of lobbyists arriving in Brussels from the UK to push a particular cause and insisting on a meeting with the heads of the Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem groups. They go away a few days later happy that they have seen the right people when, in reality, they would have been better off talking to the leaders of the transnational political groupings. Or the rapporteurs - the MEPs appointed by committee chairmen to draw up reports on legislation emerging from the Commission, and the shadow rappoteurs, who help them by coming up with alternative proposals. In many ways they are the ones with the real power in Brussels and Strasbourg.

10. It's still too early to tell...

A sentiment I heard time and again from MEPs of all persuasions was that it was a miracle that the Parliament worked at all (except UKIP, of course, who think it doesn't).

European Parliament
How much power do the residents of this place actually have?
The idea of 27 countries - especially ones with a bloody history of fighting each other - working together towards common aims is, according to the pro-European MEPs I met, a thing to be treasured. They seemed to get a real buzz just from stepping into a lift and hearing two or three different languages being spoken. There is also a far more diverse, and extreme, range of political opinions on display in the hemicycle, from the far left to the far right, than you would ever find in the House of Commons. Some of them sit on committees together. But there is a sense that the whole thing is still an experiment. Even Graham Watson, one of the longest serving MEPs who is running to be the Parliament's next president, said he had never been fully convinced by Strasbourg as a Parliament, something he hopes to change if he gets elected in July. There are plenty of people, and not just in UKIP, who would argue that it is a failed experiment. Some of you e-mailed me to say that peace among the member states was the defining justification for the European Union - but as another of you also said it's a bit early to say...

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