This week, I've spent my first time in Brussels since being elected as an MEP. The term of office doesn't officially start until 1 July, and much of the time was spent dealing with administration and the technical side of things.
On the way to the Parliament I was thinking about one of the few things that people claim to be a real benefit of EU membership. When asked to think of one thing we can do in the EU, that our own Parliament couldn't do outside, the answer from a pro-European is usually "End mobile phone roaming charges". The idea is that the EU can force companies not to put their prices up when you travel to a different country.
With £55million a day going in membership fees, and the cost of EU bureaucracy costing many times that, the thought that the EU might make taking your mobile phone abroad a little cheaper pales into insignificance.
But let's pause for a moment. The European Parliament has voted to end roaming charges from December 2015. What, then, would you expect? You would expect companies to be moving in that direction - cutting costs in the EU, whilst raising them elsewhere. If legislation is the driver of this, then we should see a big gap between the EU and non-EU countries.
We should also expect companies to increase the cost of a monthly contract, so that everyone pays throughout the year for the cost of calls on holiday. But something curious has happened. It seems that market forces are achieving the goal, better than the European Union could ever have done. When I got my new mobile phone, it turns out that roaming charges have already been scrapped in 11 countries. I can use my monthly allowances when I'm there, just like I could at home. If EU legislation were driving this process, all 11 of those would be European Union countries. But they're not: in fact, six of those countries - including the USA and Australia - are outside the EU. Clearly, it's consumer demand and their business model not EU legislation that's driving the change. Once again, the case for the European Union is overstated.
Eventually, after hours on a sweltering Eurostar, I arrived in Brussels. The European Parliament building in Brussels is a metaphor for the European Union itself. It is lavish, luxurious and expensive - but utterly drab, grey and soulless.
The European Parliament staff are actually very competent and polite, although communication can be an issue when there are 24 different languages in use. The translation services alone translated 1.76million pages of documents in 2012.
European Parliament staff are sticklers for ensuring that everything is followed to the letter. I spoke to one person who told me that, on starting a job in Brussels, he didn't get paid for 6 months because a form had been filled in incorrectly. He received tens of thousands of euros in his bank account in one lump sum once the mistake had been sorted.
New MEPs have literally hundreds of pages of new information to assimilate; the 'Frequently Asked Questions' alone runs to 38 pages of A4. We're sent through different stations and given various different welcome packs, fill out forms and spend large amounts of time queuing. Finding our way around the giant buildings is virtually impossible at first. Going from somewhere on floor six to somewhere else on floor six? You're likely to have to go via floor three to get there. As I was told, "Some journeys are possible in this place, others are impossible. You'll learn which are which eventually".
After two days walking around the buildings, I'm still not much closer to knowing how to get from one part to another. But when my term of office starts on 1 July, I won't be going to Brussels. At the end of June, many of the documents will be packed up and transported on five lorries from Brussels to Strasbourg. Chartered trains at taxpayers' expense will transport over a thousand people, and the Parliament will sit on the 1 July in Strasbourg. At the end of the week, everyone will make the return journey. On the week commencing 7 July, we'll all be back in Brussels. For the week beginning the 14th, we're in Strasbourg and then for the week beginning the 21st it's back to Brussels. This is known by insiders as the 'travelling circus'.
In all of this, it's interesting to note that MEPs actually have very little power. The European Parliament has repeatedly voted to end the travelling circus, which costs the taxpayer about 150 million euros per year and over 10,000 tonnes of unnecessary CO2 emissions. But Strasbourg is enshrined in the Treaties, and so every one of the 28 countries would have to agree to the change. The French won't agree. This, fundamentally, is why David Cameron is wrong about renegotiation and reform. The EU can't be reformed, because that would mean all countries agreeing to change the Treaties and give powers back. Powers have never been given back, and 28 countries can't even agree to get rid of the travelling circus.
We don't have the power to repeal any EU legislation that's been passed. The Parliament has the much-vaunted power to 'choose' the President of the unelected European Commission, where the real power actually lies. But in fact, the European Parliament is given one candidate to choose from. It has the power merely to accept or reject. MEPs certainly vote a lot (in the last three-day session in Strasbourg they voted over 900 times). That is actually part of the problem: no matter how diligent you are, you can't be in a position to understand the detail of every one of those votes. An MEP can't form 900 opinions in such a short space of time, and has to rely on voting lists prepared by staff on most of them.
Too many MEPs are so hypnotised by the lifestyle that they can't see the Emperor has no clothes. This is democracy, EU-style.Suggest a correction