21 JULY 1979, Page 4

Political commentary

The new European age

Ferdinand Mount

Strasbourg Walking down the Quai Rouget de Lisle — he first sang the Marseillaise in this city — I was startled by a squawking noise. From a 'modern block of flats — all lego slabs and orange tubes, style Pgmpidou — came the buzzing of an entryphone followed by more squawking, now identifiable as a woman's voice over the intercom asking the visitor to come up. But there was nobody at the front door, nobody wanted to come up.

You get the same feeling of huge mechanical ingenuity to serve a nonexistent popular demand from the great Euro-palace down the road: so many headphones and interpreters, auditorium after auditorium, and in the heart of it, in the great chamber with its gigantic ceiling in the shape of the biggest aspidistra in the world, there is a reposeful little open space consisting of strips of plastic grass, not very well laid, and tall glass cylinders with water eternally slithering down their sides, like a group of tubeless ice-cold Fosters.

This is Jacques Tati country, The place would have made a grand location for Mon Oncle. The machines, all bright and pastel shades, have taken over, clicking and whirring reassurances to the poor little humans in the grip of their headphones. The first human sound you hear is the voice of Ian Paisley: 'Point of order, Madam Chairman, why is the flag of my country hanging upside down?'. This scandalous intervention is promptly squashed by Madam Louise Weiss: 'Vous n'avez pas la parole, monsieur'. Thus, it must be recorded, begin the proceedings of the first popularly elected international parliament in history.

Madame Weiss is the presidente d'age, what the English version calls the oldest member. She was once at school with Victor Hugo's grand-daughter. She remembers how Paul Valery used to stir the sugar in his coffee. She remembers Bruning telling Aristide Briand that if there was no Franco-German agreement, there would be an unimaginable catastrophe. She remembers everything.

Signor Berlinguer, neat and elfin, is either taking notes or planning how to take over Italy. Signor Amendola, two seats away, is lost in a Eurocommunist reverie. The two of them look as if they haven't had a plate of pasta between them since the end of the war. Are thin communists more worrying or just more worried?

Willy Brandt looks as if he'll be feeling better by lunch time. It is indeed a great and poignant assembly, but already one feels that one or two members might envy M. Mitterrand, whose resignation is announced before the show is scarce begun. The presence of these great men is nonetheless a gesture of fidelity and determination. Their being here keeps warm the memory of Churchill, Schumann and De Gasperi and re-emphasises a common determination that the bloodstained past is never to be repeated. This Parliament is not to be undervalued just because it inherits the home and ancestry ' of the Council of Europe.

The Council, too, had an emotional importance which endured long after its possibilities of political development had faded. And as the roll is called twice to vote in as President of this Parliament Madame Simone Veil, a Jewish survivor of Belsen and Auschwitz, it is hard to deny a certain resonance: Berlinguer, Bismarck, Douro, Habsburg-Lothringen.

But we are in a new age now. Parliamentarians who are directly elected will be all the hungrier for power, and committee postings, and research a'Ssistants. Indeed the Bureau of the Parliament has already, without even waiting for a vote, sent up a nifty proposal to the European Commission for an annual expenses allowance of £20,000 per MEP (Member of the European Parliament). There is a gentleman's agreement at this preliminary stage that the Parliament does not question the commission's expenses and vice versa.

Meanwhile the Luxembourgeois are building flats for MEPs when they meet in Luxembourg, and the MEPs themselves are concentrating their committee meetings in Brussels where the power is — so that eventually the French government can buy out the Luxembourg stake in the European Parliament, which will eventually do all its real work in Brussels and come to Strasbourg only for the full debates, which play a minor part in Euro-politics. So MEPs can at present point to an impressive amount of to-ing and fro-ing and unavoidably high expenses. The saltiest tears of all must be reserved for those MEPs who used to work for the Commission. Some of them never paid a penny in income tax in their entire lives.

Not that there is any shortage of work for them. Ever since the Community was forced to choose the functionalist rather than the federalist path, the Commission has remained a curiously unattached body; it can be directed or obstructed by the Council of Ministers; it consults and sometimes even takes the advice of the Parliament. But for much of its work, it is acting or trying to act on its own initiative. This remains a source of political weakness, which in the end seems to sap the enthusiasm of even the most selfwilled civil servant. They do like to be told what to do even if they don't always do it. And, the rest of us like to know where we are and whom to protest to.

Take the manufacturer of cotton wool buds who wrote to one new MEP, declaring that the EEC was ruining his business by banning the sort of plastic sticks, which he made, on the grounds that they blocked lavatories. He should switch to wooden sticks, I suggested, or put a `donot-flush' warning on the packet — or on each stick, my friend said. People's lives hang on such things, on the width of lawn-mowers, on the right to shoot ortolan bunting. Any Parliament worth the name must be able to scrutinise and remonstrate, backed by the authority of popular election.

But it is not for more effective scrutiny alone that the most fervent Marketeers have demanded direct elections and have been bitterly disappointed by the low turn-out. Mr David Marquand in his new book, Parliament for Europe, argues with shamelessIcandour that public opinion must be led to accept a sharper pace of integration. His mentor, Roy Jenkins, speaking to the Parliament, gave voice to the Eurocrats' standard cry that the dangers of going too slowly are greater than the dangers of going too fast. Historic occasions, according to the great claret fancier, 'require a little ageing before they reach their full quality'. The entry of Greece, Spain and Portugal on top of Britain means—we are told—that integration must proceed faster rather than slower. The unemployment of the Eighties too, demands a bigger effort of collective will. We must have a bigger EEC budget, we must have monetary union, and we must have it all now.

Mr Marquand, like all integrationists, is a bit vague about the details. At one point, he admits that nobody knows who would control and manage this unified Euromoney. Don't worry, though; national governments would still control taxation and public expenditure. But this is cant: once a government loses the power over money supply and interest rates, it has in effect surrendered control over the economy.

Like all integrationists, Mr Marquand avoids the central question of authority whenever it looks nasty. And so do all those agreeable Conservatives. For beneath its parliamentary robes, this Assembly remains, like its forebears, a delightful, well-bred pressure group. Its over-riding aim can only be not to control the Commission but to bolster its authority. And the majority of its members are there less to represent their constituents than to integrate them whether they like it or not.