European Parliament: an anthropological observation

I’m not one of those commentators with a cynical view of the European institutions and those who exist within them (see, for example, the musings of my jaded friend, the Wandering Gael).

Having spent a few months in the European Parliament, I recognise that it is an unusual location to work. Its unorthodoxy leads external observers to conclude that the ants scurrying around its curved hallways and within its glassy walls lead an easy life, swarming from meeting to luncheon and back again, stopping off for coffee and chit-chat in between. Like any workplace, it has its advantages and disadvantages, its ups and downs. No one day (let alone one week) is the same as another, and sometimes, a little rhythm doesn’t do any harm.

 It is a lively place to be, but somehow I don’t think it is healthy for someone to spend their entire career in any one of the European institutions. The proof is in the pudding: institution. Long-termers, those who stay on beyond their stage or their first contract, become institutionalised, unable to adapt to the outside world or to comprehend the way in which the rest of the labour force lives. This belief applies to Parliament, Commission, Council (at EU level), civil services at national level, and indeed within most large industries and organisations. Don’t get me started on academics.

But of course, unless an individual is willing to recognise the limitation that they are putting on themselves, the obvious inclination is to remain in a job that carries a guarantee of security and peace-of-mind. Who wouldn’t want that? It is easy to be outside looking in, but when was the last time that an ant looked up and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to do my own thing today? To run my own company? Be my own boss?”?

Saying that, in spite of my feelings on this bubble-like condition, I derive great entertainment from the goings-on within the Parliament. Fair enough, I don’t spend enough time here to know any of the real scandals, but I imagine that behind all these closed doors, there must be some dirty little secrets.

My observations are based on body language, habits and general lifestyle. I’m writing this on the Wednesday morning of a Committee week, in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee. I’ve already seen two members of Belgium GAA. I’m waiting for a vote on public procurement. There was a lot of fluster in here earlier, as the Silver Fox of the European Commission, Michel Barnier, was speaking at 9am. Tall, lean, distinguished, and French to boot – he is a far cry from his Irish predecessory, Charlie McCreevy (who had a love-hate relationship with then-Chairwoman Beres. I have warm memories of the day he flirted with her over the Services Directive, and presented her with the model of a racehorse upon his return from the Galway Races). Barnier does not flirt with the current Chairman, Malcolm Harbour (now that would be entertaining).

The female MEPs in IMCO are fun. I was early for a meeting once, and sat quietly in a shaded point of the room, listening to 4 of them, all from different countries and political groups, discussing their weekend and admiring each others’ outfits. They were more like a posse of stagiaires out in Place Lux, or a gaggle of mothers at the school gate, than MEPs who would go on to tear strips off each other in the subsequent meeting.

One such MEP may be my favourite in this Committee – Korhola from Finland. She is a vice-Chair and is wearing a fabulous silver necklace today. Last year, she chaired a meeting where one of the topics on the agenda was a report on online gambling (which I was following). As is usual in these circumstances, she invited the Rapporteur and Shadow Rapporteurs of the report to speak. She was one of the Shadows, so she chose to conduct the exchange as follows:

Korhola (Chair): And now, Mrs. Korhola, would you like to say a few words.
Korhola (Shadow): Why thank you, Madame Chair, yes I would.

No word of a lie. And these are the MEPs. I haven’t even started on their minions.
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