Five things I learned in Strasbourg last week

October 29, 2014

There was a certain irony in being asked by the British Chamber to open their New Generation visit to France’s Death Star inspired version of the European Parliament building by talking about why going down to Strasbourg is important. The irony being that most of us seek to avoid going there if we can help it and I am no exception. I even started a short lived Facebook group called “I’ve been to Strasbourg once too often” after a particular heavy Parliamentary year about a decade ago. However, it must be said that as long as remains a relatively infrequent occurrence rather than a monthly trek (poor souls you MEPs/EP staff), it’s a lot of fun. I came back tired, but rejuvenated.

So five things I learned while down there, some serious, some not, on the British Chamber’s Past It Generation trip (i.e. the full EU Committee visit), which I had the honor of chairing the following days.

It’s all a little bit too early for policy discussion

Unlike last year’s British Chamber trip – at the height of the rush to get stuff agreed before the elections – our panelists were eloquent, passionate but general. One even said they’d been so fixated on hearings the real work of the EP had yet to start. With a couple of notable exceptions it was clear that the real legislative work on many committees has yet to get into full swing.

Optimism abounds

Ok, so it may not last long but all those we spoke to in the main groups had a sense of optimism that Juncker and his team are a fresh start. All feels possible. The incoming Commission has a window of goodwill to draw upon, which if used could see the EP be more help than hindrance.

Animal welfare by day, foie gras by night

One dinner guest sheepishly admitted they were an animal welfare advocate by day, while getting stuck into a foie gras starter followed by a veal main. It’s a bit like Strasbourg as a whole. If you want to understand what’s really going on, forget the statements for the record in plenary, you’re more likely to hear what people really care about in in the bars and restaurants late into the evening. Yes, that makes the whole experience much more tiring, but also more fun.

The Flower Bar is the place to see

Talking of bars, the Flower Bar is a magnet for MEPs who are cooped up in their offices as well as those – like me – who have no office in the building. If you want to catch up with folk, see who is talking to who or try to catch someone over coffee,  grab a table and just people watch. It’s fascinating what you can learn.

The British contribution is both walked all over and scares people off

As part of the British Chamber visit we of course could not but discuss the rather tight corner the UK seems to be backing itself into. Indeed we’ve even surveyed our members on this issue (unsurprisingly they think leaving the idea is a bad idea). The Flower Bar carpet is perhaps a suitable metaphor, as I’m told it’s designed by a Brit. Walked over by Europeans all day long, at first glance it appears frightfully unreasonable. But after you get used to it, you realize it is as much a part of the furniture as the hemicycle itself. The place would simply not be the same without it.

James Stevens

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