Paul Henley

As the Afghanistan crisis subsides, the European question once again assumes centre stage. ‘Surrender’, a tabloid headline proclaimed shortly before Christmas. This wasn’t an exhortation to Osama bin Laden, but rather the Daily Mail’s considered description of Britain’s latest concession to Europe. It had nothing to do with the euro: the polls suggest that the majority of Britons remain dead set against joining. But they also suggest that as a nation we are remarkably ignorant about the EU and its institutions. If we knew more, would we be more communitaire, or even less?

As an anthropologist my own regional specialisation is in Amazonia, but in 1999 I was commissioned to shoot a film for BBC2 about the workings of the European Parliament. It was a venture involving various European partners, including the EU itself, though the BBC was the biggest investor. The commission was for 20 half-hour films, shot by film-makers from all over the EU. With the June elections to the European Parliament coming up, I proposed a film following one of the newly elected MEPs over the first six months of his or her tenure.

Rightly or wrongly, the EU has become a byword for tedium, so if the idea was going to work, our principal character couldn’t be an apparatchik who would simply rehearse the official credo. The MEP we hit on was Nigel Farage, chairman of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Although he was a City metal futures trader rather than a professional politician, he could walk and talk polished sound-bites at the same time. Best of all, and in sharp contrast to other potential subjects from more mainstream parties whom we approached, he made no attempt to secure any form of editorial control.

The Parliamentary building in Strasbourg, gracefully laid out along a minor tributary of the Rhine, is everything British government buildings generally are not: beautiful, airy, futuristic. But if it’s magnificent to look at, it’s exasperating to work in. There is no better example of this than the two intertwining marble staircases that rise like some extravagant model of the Double Helix between the floors around the debating chamber. The problem is that each staircase opens only onto alternate floors. Trying to go up or down one floor is therefore like being caught in some Escher drawing: it seems it must be possible, but in fact it isn’t. The only way to get to an adjacent floor is to cross a bridge over a sort of ravine that separates one half of the building from the other, then take a lift up or down one floor and cross back over the ravine. At peak periods, everybody is doing this, so lifts are a long time coming, and when they come, they’re full. For sceptics like Farage, the Palais de l’Europe is a damningly appropriate metaphor for the European project as a whole.

The architectural arrangements in the Parliament building in Brussels are more satisfactory. The Parliament spends only one week in every month at the Strasbourg building, which was opened in 1999 at a cost of £300 million. The rest of the time it’s in Brussels, in an older building that has recently undergone considerable expansion and refurbishment at a cost of £670 million. What the existence of these two buildings means is that every month, a vast caravan of container trucks moves the effects of the 626 MEPs and their entourage, not to speak of the legions of officials, from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again, the same distance roughly as that between London and Edinburgh. Every MEP is issued with a standard French tin trunk in which he or she can pack his papers. But not everything can be transported, so all the larger pieces of equipment, computers, faxes, telephones, desks and so on, have to be supplied in duplicate. When the Parliament is in Brussels, schoolchildren and other visitors are shown the empty seats in Strasbourg.

Every MEP has an office and secretarial and research staff, all paid for by the EU at a cost of almost £100,000 a year. A phone card doubling as an identity card enables them to talk to anyone anywhere in the world at any length on any subject. (Except, that is, to the States, presumably to curb any Atlanticist tendencies.) Black Mercedes stand in lines outside to whisk them to and from their hotels. And then there are the travel and subsistence allowances. To the predictable outrage of the British tabloids, MEPs recently voted not to implement a system whereby these allowances would be paid only on the submission of receipts. But this is an instance where differences in the culture of government come into play. When MEPs are in Brussels or Strasbourg they are paid a generous subsistence allowance. But as they do not have to show receipts, they can stay in a cheap hotel and pocket the difference. Meanwhile, their travel costs are calculated according to a formula based on the Business Class airfare for the number of kilometres from the Parliament to their constituencies. But to claim the allowance, they have to show a boarding pass. Understandably, therefore, many MEPs have become experts on cheap flight deals. For example, a British MEP could catch an Easyjet flight from Stansted for around £30 but still claim an allowance of approximately £400. Over ten months of Parliamentary business, a weekly flight of this kind could generate a substantial income.

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[1] Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy, edited by Marilyn Strathern (Routledge, 336 pp., £17.99, 2000, 0415 23327 5).

[2] An Anthropology of the European Union: Building, Imagining and Experiencing the New Europe, edited by Irène Bellier and Thomas M. Wilson (Berg, 224 pp., £14.99, 2000, 1 85973 329 8).

[3] Building Europe: The Cultural Politics of European Integration by Cris Shore (Routledge, 272 pp.,£17.99, 2000, 0 415 18015 5).