Monthly Archives: September 2010

Day 27 – Protests in the Heart of Europe

Like most political activists, I’ve been on protest marches before. Admittedly, the last time I went on one was a Mayday Parade shortly before the SSP imploded following infighting about claims about Tommy Sheridan’s personal life. What I hadn’t experienced before is being on the wrong side of a protest march.

Until 100,000 people from across the 27 EU member states marched past the European Parliament and various Commission and Council buildings to protest about austerity measures being imposed (generally by national Governments rather then Europe) across the continent. There were also strikes in Spain, France and Belgium to coincide with the march.

By and large, I support the aims of the marchers. I think we have to nurture the green shoots of economic growth rather then cutting fast and deep as soon as we can. The day they picked to march was a tad inconvenient however, since we had to be at a meeting with Commission officials on the other side of both the police barricade and the march.

It actually took more effort to get past the barricade then it did to get past the march, with an undignified scramble taking place where a stone ledge interrupted the barbed wire fencing. It was quite embarrassing really, not least because a delegation of visitors to the EU from South Africa also had to clamber over the barricades, which is no way to treat diplomatic guests.

As it happened, everything worked out in the end, and we managed to get to the meeting (although some of Alyn’s guests were stuck in Scotland due to strike action at Belgian airports). The march passed off peacefully, with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 marchers and only 200 arrests. Despite the presence of a large number of riot police and a water cannon, there was no major disruption.

By the time I left the office at about 7, there was little trace that the march had ever been there. The only remains were police clearing the last of the barricades and discarded fliers fluttering in the breeze. The traffic restrictions, which had been in place since quite early in the morning had also been lifted, which meant I had to endue the normal five minute wait for traffic to clear so I could cross the main road to get home. On that count, I would have preferred the march had gone on for a wee while longer. I might even have been able to join in for a bit by then.  

Day 25 – Four Weeks Already?

At the end of this week, I’ll have been working in Brussels for four weeks. It’s a bit frightening, after all, it’s gone incredibly fast. Soon, it’s going to be Christmas and I’ll be returning to Edinburgh.

I’d also say there has been a good learning curve. At the start of the internship, I was given a simple fact checking paper to write and some constituency cases to deal with. Reasonably tight deadlines coupled with constant email interruptions and keeping one eye on the newsfeeds resulted in an atmosphere with just the right amount of tension and stress for me to work effectively in.

The second week was mostly taken up by constituency work, which is extremely interesting, due to one of Alyn’s staff taking a holiday. By the end of last week, I was doing press releases (although my first one required a good bit of rewriting to fit the style used in Alyn’s normal releases. Today, I drafted a question for the Commission (equivalent to Westminster’s written questions) regarding a directive which regulates the sale of herbal remedies. While it’s not something I have vast faith it, it’s still an interesting issue to work on.

For the rest of this week, Alyn is in Brussels, so I don’t know what I’ll be working on yet. I do know that I’ll be taking notes at some committees (because MEPs do need to be in two committees at the same time) and accompanying Alyn to some meetings. It’ll be interesting to see the MEPs working first hand, since this is the first time the Committees have been in session in Brussels since I started.

In the past weeks, my impressions of the support staff needed for politicians has changed greatly. Like many others in the wake of the expenses scandal at Westminster, I called for MPs staff to be limited. I would say that it’s easy to underestimate the amount of work which is required to support a politician. I wonder how many could adequately do their job without at least two to three full-time staff? I suspect none in this age of mass media.

Still, several weeks to go. How else will this internship challenge my perspectives?

Day 18 – Trams!

I like trams. They’re a pretty good method of transport overall, being reasonably quiet and safe. They also have the advantage of being quite low on emissions, depending on how the electricity to run them is generated. It’s just a shame that the Scottish Corporations were so taken with the power of the diesel engine in the ’60s; Scotland might still have a world-class tram network today.

Shame that the only working tramway we have in Scotland is in a museum. The Edinburgh tram project is still waiting a report regarding it’s final costs, so who knows when it’ll be complete or if it’ll be nearly as successful as it’s older counterpart in Brussels. Although at least after the papal visit, the Council can say a tram has moved on the tracks (all of a few hundred meters down Princes Street).

Day 17 – Car Free Sunday

One of my favourite things about Brussels is it’s excellent public transport system. It includes a long-established tram network (including pre-Metro underground sections), four underground Metro lines and an extensive bus network. Similar to the Oyster card system in London, you only need one type of ticket for all three modes of transport. You can also move between different modes of transport on one ticket.

Unsurprisingly, Brussels had a single, integrated ticketing system long before London introduced the Oyster card. Glasgow still lacks an integrated ticketing system, despite the fact that it would probably encourage use of the bus network coupled with the subway and suburban trains, cutting down the number of buses which need to pass through the city centre.

Today was Car Free Sunday, which is part of the city’s activities for the European Week of Mobility.  For 10 hours, all motorised vehicles were banned from the streets of Brussels, barring taxis, emergency vehicles and buses. The suburban trains, the Metro, the trams and the buses were all free to use in compensation. The Brussels Ring Road also remained open, allowing cars to pass around, but not through the city.

The main transportation method today, however, seemed to be of the two-wheeled variety. As I sat waiting for my laundry to finish, more then a hundred cyclists must have passed me, clearly enjoying the freedom of the roads. I was even tempted to hire one of the city-provided Villo! bikes, although unfortunately my local hire station was out of bikes by the time I had to head into town.

The Car Free Day seems like a very good idea, which I think could work very well in others cities, such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Just seeing the number of families out for a bike-ride and clearly having fun despite the rather dull weather demonstrated how successful the day is. It would be great to see the people of Scotland out on their bikes in the same way, and not just in limited events like the Sky Ride.

Of course, Scotland, thus far, lacks a decent city-wide bike hire scheme. Which is pretty daft really. We’re struggling with obesity problems, chronic heart disease and cardio-vascular illnesses. Getting people out on bikes could do wonders for the country’s overall health.

The cost of the scheme is, of course, important. Adopting a model similar to that of Brussels, where you pay €30 for a year and can use a bike at any time. It’s free for the first 30 minutes, with €0.50 buying another half-hour. If you don’t use the bike regularly, then the bike hire costs €1.50 for the first half hour, €0.50 for the second half hour and €1 for the third half-hour.

With cycle stations just 500 meters apart, it doesn’t cost much to get around Brussels by bike. The scheme is also popular with tourists, allowing them to explore the centre of the city much more quickly then on foot.

No doubt such a system would be immensely popular in Edinburgh. Stations on the Royal Mile, at Holyrood, Duddingston, the foot and top of Leith Walk, Portobello, along the shoreline, near Blackford Hill and around the Meadows would allow tourists, students and workers to get about cheaply and easily. Given the success of the system in Brussels and similar schemes in Dublin, London, Copenhagen and various French cities, I think it’s something Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government Health Directorates should seriously consider implementing, along with Car Free Days in Scotland’s cities.

Day 14 – A Near Miss With A Motorcade

To my mind, trying to cross a road in Brussels at the best of time involves taking your life in your hands thanks to speedy drivers and twisting streets. When the Council meets here, it gets worse.

Council consists of the 27 EU heads of government, plus various high level observers from the candidate states. Obviously, having so many VIPs in one building in the centre of Brussels presents a possible target for terrorists and protestors. To prevent such incidents, a number of streets are closed to all traffic, buses are diverted and the Belgian police escort the heads of state around in fancy motorcades.

The thing about motorcades is they they don’t stop for traffic lights, and from the speed the one I encountered crossing, they aren’t too fussed about mowing down the locals. I’d hate to have one try to overtake me if I was on a bike.

Day 13 – Where CAP and CFP Subsidies Are Spent

This week, I went to my first European Parliament meeting. It was a panel discussion on transparency in regional policy, largely for the benefit of the EFA-Green group within the Parliament. I was sent to gather facts for Alyn since his flight arrived in Brussels half-way through the meeting.

One of the three speakers was Jack Thurston. A former advisor to the Labour Government in Westminster, Thurston left his job and helped to set up the websites FarmSubsidy.org and FishSubsidy.org. These take data which the EU member states are required to publish, translate it into English and publish it in an easy-to-use database. At the meeting, Mr Thurston demonstrated a future version of FishSubsidy, which will use Google Maps to allow you to easily browse subsides by region.

This is an excellent demonstration of how the internet can be used to allow greater transparency and a good way for those concerned to see how the CAP and CFP subsidies are spent.

Day 12 – Alyn Makes A Movie

What exactly it is that MEPs get up to doesn’t seem to be widely known by the general public. Which is a bit daft really, because by and large they do a lot of interesting work which goes unnoticed. This is particularly true in Scotland, where there are many who benefit from Agriculture and Fishery payments which MEPs have toiled over long after the heads of state have gone home.

This is pretty much why Alyn is making a DVD about what exactly MEPs do. Questioning him in the DVD is the presenter Lesley Riddoch, who I know best for the now defunct Lesley Riddoch Show, a lunchtime current affairs programme on Radio Scotland.

It was extremely interesting seeing the sort of work that goes into making a documentary, with Charlie (the camera man on the left in the photo) poking and prodding Alyn and Lesley so he could get the best shots. It was amusing seeing Alyn doing the same spiel in five or six different positions. I can’t wait to play spot-the-cut when Alyn gets a copy of the finished production.

I found the whole day quite tiring and I was only carrying equipment and acting as a guide, so I’ve no idea how Lesley and Charlie must have felt by the time they got back to Scotland via Amsterdam, or how Alyn felt by the time he got back to Edinburgh. It was quite educational though, not because I didn’t know what MEPs do, but because I got to spend some time in bits of the Parliament I don’t have much of an excuse to visit (like the Hemicycle and the main committee rooms), meet interesting people (such as Tatjana Zdanoka MEP, a former member of Lativa’s Supreme Soviet and a human rights campaigner or Donald MacInnes, the charming Islander in charge of the Scottish Government offices in Brussesl) and learn a few interesting stories about the Parliament.

Day 11 – So Big…

The pictures I posted of the outside of the parliament make it look big, but I think it’s easy to underestimate just how big the European Union as a whole is.

The Hemicycle in Brussels helps to illustrate it.

That room provides seating for the 736 MEPs with room for the secetariate, staff and representatives from the EU Commission and the Council.

Combined, Council, Council of Minsters, the Commission, the Parliament, the Court of Justice and the Central Bank employ in the region of 60,000 people across Europe.

Together they work for the benefit of the 27 member states, 4 candidate states, 3 applicant states, several overseas territories and half a billion European Citizens.

Some people might say it’s unaccountable, but amazingly 80% of the EU budget is distributed by member states, not the central institutions.

The EU works for all of us.