Inside the European Parliament

It could easily be mistaken as a mecca for celebrity A-listers or the home of a billionaire football club owner.

Wednesday, 15th June 2016, 6:00 am
The European Parliament in Strasbourg

But this imposing fortress is the Strasbourg headquarters of the European Parliament.

This is the place where many key decisions about the functioning of the European Union and its member states, including the UK, take place.

You need a moment to catch your breath and take everything in as you approach the glass-fronted complex.

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The main complex is called the Louis Weiss building, built for 470 million euros.

As a member of the UK press, I’m ushered into a small booth where, in a strict routine similar to that in the UK’s House of Commons, I’m required to go through a security scanner.

But this is a world away from British politics’ historical home – this is a hi-tech, super-modern version of the London home where MPs meet to debate national policies.

As you go through another door the building opens out into a stunning atrium, its architecture and design typical of other impressive buildings around Europe.

Towering up each side are the glass-fronted offices of hundreds of MEPs, which from the outside look like a sea of luxury, five-star hotel apartments.

It’s easy to imagine this is a resort for the rich – rather than a key institution that helps steer Europe’s political activity.

Then I’m taken through another security check to gain press access, before being led down a narrow corridor and into the heart of the political palace.

Everything is plush, modern, airy – and vast. Bridges, glass-fronted elevators and automatic stairlifts lead to different floors and there are TV crews and makeshift studios dotted about where high-profile figures are being interviewed for local European TV stations.

Plants shoot up through the centre of the building, which again gives you that feeling you’ve stepped into the kind of all-inclusive resort you’d find in Egypt or Mexico.

The Brits have put their cheery mark on the place, though – Lib Dem south east MEP Catherine Bearder points out a garish, floral carpet in one of the rooms which was a present from the UK.

It’s easy to get lost – thankfully there are security staff dotted about to give assistance.

But it’s unusual to see no police presence here – unlike the Houses of Parliament where security measures are so tight there are Met officers on every corner.

Even the press are treated like royalty – there’s a dedicated press centre with its own newsroom, TV and radio facility and journalists have their own bar with a ‘clean air’ glass-fronted room for smoking.

MEPs have their own, where you can have a cigarette without having to go back outside and through security again.

And papers on the day’s agenda and proceedings are all laid out for journalists of every nationality in Europe.

I’m forced to catch my breath again as I’m led into a grand amphitheatre-style chamber on the third floor called the hemisphere where the European Parliament’s proceedings are in full swing.

It’s an incredible sight. There’s no barrier blocking the public’s view and a grand European Union flag proudly takes its place in the centre of the room, with the flags of member states around it.

The public and members of the press take their seats in a semi-circle above the chamber and you’re able to follow the debate on headsets in the language of your choosing.

It’s difficult to follow, and much of what’s being said will prove to alien to the public back in the UK and in many other member states. Many will not even be aware any of this debate even exists.

But issues are touched on that will strike a chord with the public at home.

One MEP drew a small applause from fellow colleagues for warning during a discussion on ‘cohesion policy’ that the EU is ‘falling apart’ and ‘disintegrating’, while becoming a mecca for migrants and is making the European continent ‘incontinent’.

Another European representative raised their concerns that the EU was ‘interfering in every part’ of the European Union and ‘ideological projects are doomed to failure’.

There will be many who given the chance to visit will see the institution as nothing more than an elite club for the rich.

And the vast number of empty seats allocated for MEPs, who are funded by taxpayers, on the eve of the EU’s plenary session last month, will draw concern.

Though I’m later told the assembly is packed when proposals put to the European Parliament from the European Commission – the civil service wing of the EU – are put to the vote.

The Strasbourg complex is connected to other buildings which help serve the European Parliament, by long bridges.

They are filled with more offices belonging to MEPs, and also serve as the administrative function of the European Parliament. One is called the Winston Churchill building while another is named the Pierre Pfimlin building.

The Parliament buildings are located in the Quartier Européen (European Quarter) of the city, which it shares with other European organisations which are separate from the European Union’s.

Previously the Parliament used to share the same assembly room as the Council of Europe.