Page last updated at 07:11 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 08:11 UK

Test driving an MEP's lifestyle

Bethan James
Bethan James
BBC Wales parliamentary reporter

The European Parliament in session in Strasbourg
The European Parliament also meets in session in Strasbourg, France

Gravy was not a word that sprang to my mind as I travelled by Eurostar to Brussels.

Instead, jus or crème anglaise seemed more appropriate for such luxury.

And basking in spring sunshine, Belgium's capital city was certainly handsome, stylish and cosmopolitan. This test drive of life as an MEP was becoming increasingly attractive.

Brussels is a hub of sharp-looking politicos, a la mode. Tailored suits and tanned researchers flitted from the old to the new as they walked from Place de Luxembourg to the Espace Leopold complex, more commonly known as the European Parliament.

The parliament is an impressive palace of glass which invites thoughts of modernity and political transparency. Of course, a city in sunshine isn't always what it seems.

During my visit, I soon became acutely aware of the word "fragile". Belgium is politically and economically fragile, I was told. It is a country divided by political, cultural and linguistic differences.

The country's needs, policies and wealth are torn between the Dutch-speaking population of the north, the French-speaking people of Wallonia and the German-speaking minority of the East Cantons. All have a degree of autonomy.

Brussels, however, is a bilingual capital. The city marries the Flemish and the French but despite its attempt to unify the disparate parts, the country remains divided. A bilingual ideal, it would seem, fails to reflect the country's reality.

As I wandered through the palace of modern democracy, I could not help but feel that fragility was also at the heart of the EU venture.

This building of glass is a forum for elected representatives - a place where they strive to agree upon a common cause.

European Commission
The EU commission, also in Brussels, has the powers to propose new laws

However, despite such a noble ambition, politicians from each member state have one priority - looking after their own. Reaching consensus isn't easy when the needs of each state are contrasting and one stubborn mule can stall any decision.

A sharp reminder that the EU is delicate, easily shattered - is fragile.

But, fragile can also suggest that something is lacking in substance or force.

Flimsy - another word that springs to mind when thinking of the European Parliament. Not in its size or splendour but with regards to its powers.

The parliament, along with the council forms the legislative branch of the European Union's institutions. It is composed of over 700 Members of Parliament - directly elected since 1979 but not one of them has the power to initiate legislation.

The European Commission is the body responsible for proposing new laws. The parliament and council only have the power to amend or reject legislation. Although, parliament has gained more powers from successive treaties and it does have control over the EU budget.

Powerless or not, it seems a pleasant life for an MEP. The members are all part of a European community, housed in one huge, clinical building.

Within the complex there are shops, banks, hair salons and pockets of politicians huddling around breakfast bars, sipping espressos. Everything seems bigger than it needs to be. The auditorium where press conferences are held is bigger than the assembly chamber, the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.

Wales' voice is surely lost in this airport of a building.

Grand Place, Brussels
Belgium's bilingualism is exploited to the full in its tourist hotspots

Not according to Des Clifford, the Welsh assembly's man in Brussels. Mr Clifford's mission? Well, to get the best for Wales, in terms of any changes in legislation and cash. Mainly cash.

Wales has done well, he says, in getting its share of European coffers. A total of £1.9bn of EU finding is available for regeneration schemes in Wales in a programme which began in 2007 and runs until 2013. And more than a third of this cash has been committed so far, nearly £700m.

But, this money will dry up, he warns, as Wales becomes an increasingly richer country compared with the new member states. There was a second bleak warning from Brussels' Ty Cymru - Wales cannot expect or rely upon international investment.

Manufacturing companies will not look to Wales, I was told, as cheaper labour is available elsewhere. Therefore, Wales must embrace its future as a "service economy".

National identities

Service akin to what I received in Brussels' Grand Place - where tourism is a top priority and its bilingualism exploited. As I sip the obligatory white beer I notice the historical La Maison des Cygnes.

It is one of the many places where Marx and Engels plotted their Communist manifesto. A text which talks of the abolition of nations - "National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market.... the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster".

And yet it seems to me that the EU venture suggests the exact opposite. Undeniably, a stronger European institution which is miles away from the people it represents could lead to a dissolution of national identities - as its members strive for the good of all nations.

And yet, the concern that more legislative powers are being transferred from individual countries to the European collective state has fuelled antagonism between peoples. And differences, even within nations, have gained more prominence than ever.

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