It's surprisingly easy to take a tour of the European Parliament. Admittedly you have to make your own way to Brussels in the first place, which might take (for sake of argument) two hours nineteen minutes. But once in town all you do is wander over to the slightly dull eastern side of the city, find the correct entrance and a free tour is yours. [8 photos]
The hub of our continental democracy, architecturally speaking, has a bit too much of the 1990s about it. A cluster of greysteel and glass buildings hogs the skyline beyond Luxembourg Square, all vehemently symmetrical, and fairly hard to spot from any distance away. Each of the main buildings fulfills a different purpose, and each is named after a European politician of historical note. They're gathered round an open plaza, now a favoured spot for skateboarding, plus a good place to site a single chunk of Berlin Wall as a long term reminder. Down by the main entrance armed soldiers stand primed, while the flags of every EU nation droop or flutter depending on the wind tunnel effect. A commemorative Euro statue sits to one side, a little forlorn, and the entrance to the tour is badly signposted off to the left.
You have to turn up at the right time (either 10am or 3pm at this time of year), and on the right day (not a weekend or a public holiday), but then the lady on reception slaps a special sticker on you and you're in. There's no need to book in advance, which means the tour size can get pretty massive, but they've got ways of coping with that. Every participant gets an audio-visual guide, which hooks onto your ear in a spatially-challenging way, and then you pick your language and you're off. Everything at the European Parliament happens in 24 official languages, so no matter who turns up the tour can accommodate their needs.
Past security is another run of flags and a series of free EU literature (alas the set in English is currently out of stock). And then it's up in the lifts to the fourth floor to take a look at a wavy metal sculpture hanging in the main atrium. By this time I was struggling somewhat with the audio guide, having initially tapped 'Greek' by mistake, hence was receiving running commentary about two minutes behind what I was actually seeing. Still, the electronic guidance means that only one lowly security guard is needed to shepherd the entire party around, so that helps keep your taxes low, which is nice.
The next stop, and indeed final stop, is the Plenary Chamber you've probably seen on TV. Hundreds and hundreds of MEPs sit in a 'Hemicycle' layout, at identical orange desks laid out in pleasingly regular concentric rings. I assume the daily tours are timed to fall outside the times of regular debates, but the chamber was so devoid of scattered notes and paperwork that it appeared no debating had been taking place of late. Ministers have special seats at the focal point and behind them is a wall of 24 translation booths that help to keep the continent's language graduates in employment. It's impressive to be in the actual chamber, if only squashed into part of the public balcony, and even if all you then get to do is listen to a sequence of recorded information to explain what precisely happens here.
And that's it, it's not a long tour, more a fifteen minute taster of the building and the role it plays. All the real work agreeing climate change targets (or fixing the maximum bend of a banana, depending on your prejudices), takes place in countless offices, meeting rooms and chambers upstairs. I stopped off in the toilets on the way out, where I discovered a laminated A4 sheet explaining precisely the ten steps I should follow in order to correctly wash my hands. Back of hands, between fingers, back of fingers, thumbs... it would be extremely easy to ridicule this kind of euro-prescriptiveness in the tabloid press, if only there wasn't something remarkably similar in washrooms the continent over.
Once finished, you could go out the back to Leopold Park for a nice sit down. But the Commission's recommended option is to visit the Parlamentarium, which is a free visitors centre located underneath the Willy Brandt building. This again requires a security check before entering - indeed I was getting pretty tired of emptying my pockets for yet another arch-and-x-ray scan by the end of the day. And then it's time to slip on another audio-visual guide, because this helps solve the otherwise almost intractable problem of how to present museum-type displays when every piece of written text might need to be in 24 languages.
What you get, once inside, is a reminder of the conditions that first brought the Council of Europe into existence, then a long chamber recounting the EU's growth and history since 1950, which I have to say I found interactively interesting. I was less taken by the 360-degree cinema, and the giant map round which you wheel pods with viewing screens, although the school party following me round loved both of those. Nigel Farage appears twice, in the cinema montage and in the portfolio of MEP mugshots that covers one wall - I'm sure he's delighted. A slighty worthy cafe and a livelier gift shop complete the circuit, and that's your democratic hour complete.
And I mention all this not because I think you'll go, or indeed ought to go, but because it's good to know that our European governance operates in a transparent way for visitors. There are much more interesting things to see in Brussels, unsurprisingly, but one should never turn down the opportunity to see how the important stuff works.