My glimpse into the home of European democracy.
It’s Wednesday the 5th of April, a big day in the calendars of many European politicians. The European Parliament will today outline its position on the union’s upcoming negotiations with the UK, and lucky me has been invited to see the parliament for myself.
From the outside, the European Parliament’s base of operations in Strasbourg looks like a glass office block attached to a modern version of the Roman Colosseum.
After passing through security and being signed in as a visitor, I meet up with Jon, a parliamentary staffer who’ll be showing me around the complex. The building’s grand entrance is filled with an equally awe-struck collection of visitors, some young, some old, some in groups, some carrying tote bags; all keen to observe today’s plenary.
First thing on the agenda is a coffee and croissant at the Flower Bar, named so because of the flowery pattern on the carpet (10 points for creativity there). Jon explains how the parliament works, what MEPs do, and how it interacts with the European Council and the European Commission.
In many ways, the European Parliament isn’t too different to the UK’s own parliament, it’s just a bit more complicated, which is understandable when you consider the sheer scale of the EU.
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, the European Union is an economic and political union of 28 countries across the continent. Last June, the UK sent shockwaves through the EU by voting to leave by a razor-thin margin of 1.9 per cent.
Depending on who you ask, the UK had either taken back control of its borders and internal affairs, or given up its seat at one of the world’s most powerful political and economic unions.
Curiously, the European Parliament is based out of three cities — Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg. The parliament’s committee work takes place in the de-facto capital of the EU, Brussels; Luxembourg is the home of the parliament’s administration; and Strasbourg is where MEPs debate and vote on legislation.
From the Flower Bar, Jon and I make our way to the hemicycle to meet Lucy Anderson, the MEP who very kindly invited me to the parliament for the day. On the way through the labyrinth that is the Louise Weiss building, we see the President of the European Parliament (accompanied by two bodyguards), the back of Nigel Farage’s head (possibly heading out for a quick smoke), and just some of the 751 Members of the European Parliament.
While the Houses of Westminster have more character than the somewhat sterile-looking hemicycle, the sheer size of the chamber makes up for this. Much like the House of Commons and the House of Representatives, MEPs sit according to political orientation, rather than nationality.
The largest political group in the parliament is the European People’s Party, a centre-right group of 217 MEPs, none of whom are from the UK. On the other side of the isle, the second-largest political group is the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, among their 189 MEPs are Lucy and the rest of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.
In the 2014 European elections, only 35.6 per cent of the eligible British public were bothered to vote, compared to 42.6 per cent across the continent, and an impressive 89.6 per cent in Belgium where voting is compulsory.
Over the next 30 minutes, MEPs vote on the so-called red lines for the union’s forthcoming negotiations with the UK. The parliament overwhelmingly backs a harsh negotiating stance, emphasising the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK, and calling for the UK’s departure from the union to be finalised before any talks of future relationships.
Now it’s time for lunch at the parliament’s canteen, which is best described as a combination of an IKEA restaurant and the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Lucy and Jon introduce me to some of their colleagues, and we talk politics, Australia, and the EU.
Next, it’s goodbye to Lucy and Jon as they head off to an important party meeting, and hello to a far less crowded hemicycle for today’s topical debate: Populism, so-called fake news and it’s spread on social media, and an EU response. Many references to George Orwell’s 1984 are made over the succeeding hours, before the debate concludes at about 5pm.
I’d like to thank Lucy Anderson MEP for giving me the opportunity to see the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Jon for showing me around, and the people of France for tolerating my inability to speak their language.