Paul Brannen: Much as I like Strasbourg - why on earth are we here?

North East MEP on events at the European parliament, including the waste of cash and carbon dioxide that is its move from Belgium to France

Paul Brannen
Paul Brannen

While Strasbourg is a beautiful city and I’m particularly taken with the cathedral, it is all a bit bonkers that once a month the 751 Members of the European Parliament and around 2,000 staff all have to move our place of work 250 miles from Brussels to the capital of Alsace.

The exercise costs €180 million a year and adds an extra 19,000 tonnes of C02 to the atmosphere.

The mayor of Strasbourg has a different view. “The legitimacy of Strasbourg is derived not only from law (the Treaty of Amsterdam agreed by John Major states that the parliament must meet there 12 times per year) but, more importantly, from history.

“As a city that symbolises Franco-German reconciliation, it is the European capital of peace, democracy and human rights.”

Last November the democratically elected MEPs voted 483 to 141 to base the parliament in a single location but to no avail as a treaty agreement can only be changed by the unanimous agreement of all member states and France stands ready to veto any such proposal.

The Scottish referendum was much discussed in Strasbourg and Brussels. MEPs from across Europe were full of questions to their British colleagues.

The opinion poll two weeks ahead of the vote that put the Yes campaign in the lead turned a foregone conclusion for the rest of Europe into a a huge ‘What if?’ conversation, much as it did here at home.

Spanish colleagues were particularly exercised as they contemplated the implications of a massive psychological shot in the arm for separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque regions.

Some of our German colleagues even wondered if it would revive talk of a Mountain Kingdom involving Bavaria and parts of Austria and northern Italy.

Meanwhile my crash course on the workings of the European Union continues at pace. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming president of the European Commission, has named his team of commissioners and allocated each of them a role.

At this stage they are all commissioners designate and it is now up to the parliament to vote them in to their roles. Before that can happen we get the chance to question them – or should that be grill them slowly?

Defence Photography Paul Brannen, North East Labour MEP
Paul Brannen, North East Labour MEP

Starting this week will be 27 confirmation hearings taking place over six days. As a member of the agriculture and rural development committee I will get the chance to put a question to the proposed commissioner for agriculture Phil Hogan who is the nominee of the Irish government. Better sharpen that pencil.

The parliament’s right of veto however is rather a blunt instrument as nominees cannot be rejected individually – rather we would have to reject them all.

This did happen in 2004 when the civil rights committee voted against the nomination of Italy’s commissioner for justice because of his conservative views on women’s rights and gay rights. As a result the president of the commission Jose Manuel Barroso had to withdraw his line-up, make changes and then re-submit.

At this stage a rejection of the team looks unlikely but that does not mean there won’t be some sparky hearings as MEPs ask awkward questions and the commissioners designate are made to sweat a little to gain their jobs.

An outright rejection of the college would probably have occurred if Juncker had put forward a commission that contained fewer women than last time. At eight out of 27 it’s hardly great but then Juncker can only work with the names given to him by the member governments, hence it is the likes of the British, German and French governments who are to blame here for putting forward only men.

If our Prime Minister had put forward a woman then I may well have not been involved in a surprising case of mistaken identity, at least I hope not.

Boarding the return flight from Strasbourg I was hailed by the Maltese commissioner designate who I had been introduced to earlier in the week by his daughter-in-law who just happens to be an MEP in the same socialist group as me in the parliament.

We exchanged pleasantries and he introduced me to his two staff members. As I moved on to take me seat he said “Have a good weekend, Jonathan”.

This reduced my travelling companion and fellow North East MEP Jude Kirton-Darling to much suppressed laughter as it dawned on us that he thought I was Lord Jonathan Hill, Tory peer of the realm and former Leader of the House of Lords, and none other than Cameron’s commission nominee from the UK!

Paul Brannen is a Labour MEP for the North East


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