diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 12, 2015

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 grey steel 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.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream