Alex Benjamin, former UUP communications director and currently Press Officer for the Conservatives in the European Parliament, writes about his recent return to Brussels, how things have changed (often not for the better), and why we need to return to Schuman’s original vision for Europe…
From its humble beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community comprising 6 nations, the EU has now grown in a veritable behemoth of 27 Member States, a Parliament, the Commission and countless statutory bodies.
From a relatively small office block in Brussels the Institutions have mushroomed to take over a whole area of Brussels known as the Quartier Europeen. It has become, as Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson noted when he visited a few weeks ago to defend hedge funders, a empire of glass palaces.
After 6 years back in Northern Ireland where I was communications director for the UUP and latterly political assistant to Jim Nicholson MEP, I returned to Brussels in August. I used to work here from 2000-2003 for the EPP-ED Group and left just as the former soviet bloc countries became full members of the EU.
In the six years I was away, the Parliament seems to have doubled in size. Office blocks to accommodate the new MEPs and their stuff have been constructed with no expense spared and long pedestrian glass overpasses connect building to building all watched closely by the passing public underneath who point and seem to regard our comings and goings as akin to human hamsters in a luxurious den.
You really have to see this place to believe it. As a sci-fi fan I grew up with fantasies of what it would be like to live in a community on the moon, divorced from the outside world with everything you need at your fingertips. Here in these buildings we have gyms, a supermarket, paper shops, banks, dry cleaners, hairdressers, travel agents, canteens, bars, cafes, dining rooms, libraries, a florist, chocolate shop and sandwich and pizza bar. It is quite possible for an MEP, when they get here on a Monday, not to have to leave the building again until Friday. They have showers and sinks in their offices and the sofas can be transformed into train sleeper style couchettes if they want to have a nap.
I remember arriving in Brussels whistling ‘Ode to Joy’ and full of Garton-Ashesque ideology. Now I am definitely what some would call a Eurosceptic but what I prefer to think of as Euro-realist.
From my perspective the noble intentions and vision of Schuman and others to create a community that traded together and co-operated on matters of mutual interest has morphed into a giant paper-pushing factory that churns out legislation by and large for the sake of churning it out. There is no doubt that the Commission and Parliament does do a lot of good work but on the whole I see the Institutions and its legions of civil servants as believing they are shark-like: if they don’t keep moving and feeding themselves with directives and reports they will die.
All this work, much of it needless and impinging on sovereign government territory, produces vast quantities of man (and woman, oops almost broke a directive there!) hours, forests of paper and largely fuels the parliamentary agenda. This can be irritating but nothing comes close to the irritation of having to travel to Strasbourg once a month for plenary sessions. This rule which came about at the behest of the French, means that the European Parliament has to up sticks, lock stock and barrel and move to Strasbourg. Imagine if you will moving Stormont and the entire Executive once a month from Belfast to Cork for 4 days. The costs that this would entail. Having to build a purpose built building that lies idle for 300 days a year. Hiring a fleet of juggernauts to ferry boxes and files and all the other accoutrements needed for staff to do their job. Putting said staff up in hotel rooms and giving them a daily subsistence allowance. The cost of all this, excluding building management costs is…wait for it….200 Milllion pounds a year.
So far I have painted a pretty black picture but there are so many positive things about the EU. The single market, free movement of people and labour, health, educational, business, human rights and environmental legislation that has made a real and significantly positive change to how we live our lives. Also there is a comfort in the organised nature of European Parliamentary politics even if sometimes I do miss the cut and thrust of Westminster and to a lesser extent Stormont style politics. The Parliament and Commission does, in spite of its inherent problems, functions like a well-oiled machine. Unfortunately all of these positives are often drowned out by the negatives.
Which brings me on nicely to what I do. My job lies somewhere in the middle, highlighting the positive aspects while trying to sell a reformist agenda on the crap bits. The Conservative Party MEPs (including our home grown Jim Nicholson) have just formed a new Group with the Polish, Czech, Latvian, Dutch Belgian, Hungarian and a Lithuanian MEP in the Parliament. The new group is called the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and has the first Chairman of any political group from a ‘new country’, in this case Poland.
The Group is very much in its infancy and while the larger EPP and Socialist groupings initially wanted to strangle it at birth, then sought to dismiss us as extremist loonies, and lastly the greens, liberals and socialists have stomped and screamed as our votes helped Commission President Barroso get re-elected on a centre-right platform; we are beginning to bed down and I believe will grow into a an even more significant force in the European Parliament as more and more citizens of Europe say whoah! to further unaccountable Commission and Council sovereignty creep.
It is genuinely exciting to be part of a new force in Brussels that seeks a pragmatic and sensible alternative to wholesale withdrawal as UKIP would have it, or deepening Federalism as Labour would wish for. I’m not bullshitting either. The ECR, like the link up between the UUP and Conservatives in NI, offers a new way of looking at European politics. I am proud to be a part of it.
So what’s Brussels really like? To live and work in it is a fantastic place, great quality of life and arguably much cheaper than some other European capitals like London or Rome. It has good food, great beer and a cosmopolitan feel that I have yet to feel in Northern Ireland or for that matter south of the border. It is easy to get home if I want to go, and both Paris and Amsterdam are within two hours by train.
It may sound silly but my favourite bit is walking around the corridors in the Parliament hearing Finnish, French, Latvian, Dutch or Italian being spoken and having friends from all over Europe. This is, in essence, what Europe should be about: talking to each other, working together and sharing experience and experiences together, rather like the Schuman vision all those years ago. This is a great thing and I’m firmly and proudly European in this sense and equally proud to be working to this end on a daily basis.