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A moveable feast – An Irishman’s Diary about the European Parliament in Strasbourg

“In the Alsatian capital, meanwhile, another great migration was gathering pace. There were no cows involved in this one – only MEPs, support staff, and journalists”

In the Vosges mountains of eastern France last week, the ancient practice of transhumance was under way for yet another summer.

As reported in the regional newspaper, DNA (Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace), the Luttringer family and their 17 cows were leaving winter quarters to go to their “ferme d’altitude”. In a happy accompanying picture, the cows – all wearing bells – were being chaperoned along the road to the mountains by a large number of villagers.

In the Alsatian capital, meanwhile, another great migration was gathering pace. There were no cows involved in this one – only MEPs, support staff, and journalists, thousands of whom were making the regular trek from Brussels, along with the vast amount of documentation they would need to survive during temporary exile.

This great movement of humanity was accompanied by little excitement or joie de vivre. But then again, it happens ever month. And apart from Strasbourg hoteliers, nobody thinks it’s a good idea.

Everyone agrees the parliament should be in one place. It’s just that, in deciding which city to sacrifice, the French are unanimous it’s not going to be theirs, and they have a veto. So despite the vast amount of time and energy wasted on it, the great Strasbourg migration seems as secure as the Vosges Mountains.

The building the MEPs sit in every month – a huge glass and steel cylinder with a section peeled away to make it look unfinished – has been likened to a 1563 painting of The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

This may be because Bruegel’s tower was in turn inspired by the Colosseum, a more obvious starting point for the Louise Weiss Building (named for a French Countess Markievicz), as the Strasbourg structure is also known.

But the Babel comparison has natural appeal to both Eurosceptics and end-of-times prophets, for whom the parliament is a symbol of mankind’s hubris, due for terrible chastisement any day now. Being among the largest legislative assemblies anywhere, for example, with numbered seating for 751 MEPs, it also has diabolical undertones.

During an early visit, the Rev Ian Paisley noted there was no seat 666, and hinted it had been left vacant for a special guest. Some time since, this has been rectified. The number of the beast is now allocated to an inoffensive Slovakian, a member of the EPP grouping that also includes Fine Gael.

As for the Tower of Babel, the parliament’s vast “hemicycle” is taking up where the Book of Genesis left off, when a previously monolingual humanity has been punished for its attempts to reach heaven by an outbreak of multiple languages.

So, however eloquent they may be in their native tongues, MEPs are at the mercy (in the multichannel earphones of most listeners) of translators. These range widely in standard. Some are so near-simultaneous and word-perfect you think they must be delivering the speech themselves. Others could make the late Rev Paisley sound like a less expressive version of the talking clock.

But it was also striking last week how many times, even with speakers from mainland Europe, I could leave the headphones off. If the UK resigns from this modern Babel next month, it’ll be an irony, because the advance of English looks likely, sooner or later, to restore the situation that existed before the Old Testament God intervened.

The Anglocentric touches in Strasbourg also include the parliament’s second major building – the Winston Churchill (or “the WC”, as anti-imperialists prefer). There are indeed plenty of WCs there. But, crucially, it’s also where journalists have to go to reclaim travel expenses.

The building is accessed via a glass bridge, over a channel of Strasbourg’s waterway – the ominously-named River Ill (as in “sick”). And this seemed apt when I found the parliament’s accounts guarded by a fierce, fire-breathing figure who at first refused to refund me anything because I had thrown away my boarding card – one of the compulsory documents.

An hour and some intense hoop-jumping later, she reluctantly parted with the money. But this and other experiences convinced me there is truth in the protestations of regular Strasbourg migrants that, even if they don’t have to wear bells to keep track of them, expense account abuse is exaggerated.

Still, the image dies hard. One of several times I overheard the phrase “gravy-train” during my visit was from a BBC crew lamenting that there was no direct French translation. They had to resort to Franglais instead. When the report went out on Newsnight later, it spoke of the “train de sauce”.