By Alex Barbuti
Last Monday, along with 11 other journalism students from City College Brighton and Hove, I embarked on a trip to visit the European Parliament in Brussels. We had been invited by the press office of the EP who sought to educate us budding journalists in the day-to-day workings of a colossal political system.
Aside from the excitement of my first trip on the Eurostar, I was keen to see how the EP works to represent and govern the European Union and had high hopes that seeing democracy in action would help the topics we have been studying in the Public Affairs module of our course, (one of the harder ones to get to grips with), sink in.
I was not disappointed. After settling in to our ridiculously nice digs for three days, (the EU budget certainly can’t be accused of sparing any expense when entertaining), we ventured to the heart of Brussels to meet our guide. Paola, an EP press officer, was an unbeatable source of wisdom and insight on all things EU, describing the world of European politics and her role within it to us in a way that was infinitely more relevant and engaging than our text book.
After a quick spruce up we were treated to a three-course feast, unlimited wine, (the nice kind), and introduced to two expat journalists living and working in Brussels. Rory Watson and Geoff Meade, working for the Times and Press Association respectively, brought to life the hectic and glamorous world of political journalism many of us had longed to hear of. After a series of sobering talks about the lack of jobs in journalism from our regular guest speakers back in Brighton, it was invigorating to feel that glimmer of hope once again that life in our chosen profession might play out a little like an episode of The Hour after all.
After a thought-provoking visit to the city’s Parlementarium, a sort of museum of all things EU, and the reminder that the 754 MEPs in Brussels represent a staggering 500 million citizens across 27 member states, we ventured into the depths of the EP to meet and interview five of the MEPs who represent the South East of England.
With the thought fresh in our minds that the European Parliament is now a co-legislator for almost all EU law our interviews, and their big names, seemed all the more intimidating.
Across two days we met and interviewed one Labour, one Liberal Democrat, one Green Party and two Conservative MEPs, all of whom represent the South East of England amongst the 72 MEPs elected nationwide.
After a shaky start and some fierce encouragement from our tutor, we hit our interrogative stride with our third, and by far most controversial, representative, Daniel Hannan of the Conservative Party.
We had asked each member questions about hot topics in the region, including: transport; hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”); and a living wage, but it was Hannan’s staunch views on Britain’s membership of the Union, and his desire for a referendum on the subject, that left a lasting impression on us all.
Putting political opinions aside, the consensus among our group was that most surprising and refreshing of all was the division amongst members of the same political groupings.
We met Hannan and James Elles during our trip, both members of the Conservative Party in Britain and in Brussels the European Conservatives and Reformists but they certainly weren’t singing from the same hymn sheet. Asked about Hannan’s vehemently anti-Europe stance and assertions that Britain can go it alone, Elles described his colleague’s views as “romantic”, adding that Hannan is part of the “grumpy brigade” and “not known for his business experience”. Plainly put, Elles insists: “We (the UK) do not have the economic muscle to do this by ourselves.”
The seven groupings of the European Parliament, (members sit among those with aligned political preferences, not fellow countrymen), are not exactly equivalent to British political parties but it seems unlikely that opposing views like these would be so readily expressed in British Parliament.
With the absence of political whipping it seemed members were able to speak far more freely and honestly, and as such their views and the resulting debates were encouraging and engaging.
A tour of the Parliament’s exceptional multimedia facilities and archive; free to use for any accredited journalist, demonstrated to us all that there can be little excuse for national media not to cover the Union and Parliament in depth.
So why is it that, among the 26 people on our course, only three or four had any working knowledge of the role of this powerful institution before our trip? We are students, after all, who have chosen to study a subject that’s core basis is knowledge of the things that are relevant to and affect our lives.
Maybe the majority of people in Britain just don’t realise that what happens and is decided in Brussels can have a real effect on the policies that govern their lives. It is certainly not something any of us remembers being taught in school.
Are we sceptical that MEPs living in another country cannot truly understand the issues we face in the South East? If that’s the case, don’t we share all the more reason to try and understand their role and hold them accountable to it?
For this aspiring journalist at least the EU Observer, the news website of the European Parliament will be the newest addition to my favourites list.