There is a pitiful comparison with Westminster …the laws of this country are no longer determined by Parliament at Westminster
Comment from Boris: “Cor, I thought. This is what it must be like to be in one of those films. You nod off for 10 minutes and you wake up in 200 years’ time. We had just pitched up at the Gare du Midi in Brussels and the transformation was incredible. It was 20 years ago that this paper despatched me to the Belgian capital to be its Common Market Correspondent, and in those days the Gare du Midi was a wonderfully dingy place with feral cats and trod-on chips and Turkish taxi drivers snoozing in their battered Mercs and trains departing slowly for First World War destinations like Poperinge.
“Now the future had arrived. A vast space-age Eurostar terminal loured over the ancient quartier, and as we headed into the heart of Euroville I couldn’t believe my eyes. Poor old Brussels took a terrible pasting in the Fifties, when ruthless British developers moved in and razed so many lovely maisons de maître, whacking up anonymous office blocks in their place. That was nothing to the destruction now taking place in the name of Europe.”
He highlights the sites of the burgeoning European institutions – they are as though gigantic alien motherships of glass and steel have crash-landed on the city, dwarfing the cobbled streets and crushing out the patisseries and the gloomy little bars he used to love.
Take the Euro-parliament, where he had a fairly poky office on Rue Belliard. Seeing it now – to call it a palace is a wild understatement. It is more a series of palaces, a city within a city, with bars and restaurants and coiffeurs, and arcing passerelles linking one modernist monstrosity with another. Boris explains that in his time the Euro-parliament was an amiable backwater, the mother-in-law of parliaments, a herbivorous habitat of oddballs – German ex-stormtroopers, retired Italian porn stars, long-haired Flemish greens, the young Geoff Hoon. The agenda broadly consisted of having lunches in Strasbourg before issuing strongly worded and cosmically irrelevant denunciations of African famines or Latin American earthquakes.
All that is changed, changed utterly. There may have been a bar in the old Brussels Euro-parliament office, but not even the most desperate journalist would have gone there in search of a story. Today that parliament bar is heaving, and so are all the innumerable places of refreshment, pullulating with animated young thrusters of both sexes, their Christian Dior spectacles glittering with lust for – lust for what? Power, that’s what. For the first time in the 30-year history of this much-mocked institution I had a sense of the power that seeps from the brown moleskin walls, and as I watched huissiers scuttling softly to and fro, I saw an assembly newly drenched and glistening with a rich béarnaise of self-confidence.
Of course he could not help thinking of the pitiful comparison with Westminster, the parliament in which I recently served: “Woe to the Westminster MPs, the vast majority of whom are – at least in my experience – decent and hard-working public servants. They have been so bullied, burned and beaten by the media that they seem to have had a collective nervous breakdown. Many of them are retiring, shell-shocked by the expenses scandal, their confidence permanently shredded by the detonation of public anger. As for their replacements, they must cope with an unloved unreformed Gormenghast of a parliament, in which they are still forced to use their archaic third-person form of address, still forced to vote by an ancient procedure that means 15 minutes of halitotic shuffling round wood‑panelled lobbies. What a contrast with Brussels. In Brussels and Strasbourg (and Luxembourg, where heaven knows what they get up to), the MEPs just turn up and ker-ching, they claim their per diems. They vote at the push of a button, they are attended by every possible comfort, they have minimal interaction with their constituents, and in general the great Euro-gravy train rolls on at très grande vitesse. In Brussels the parliament is growing in physical splendour and size, with about 750 Euro-MPs now browsing in its pastures. In London the tendency is all in the opposite direction. Not only are there plans to reduce Parliament from 659 to about 400, but British MPs face a protracted humiliation, of being forced by the whips to fill in weird prep-school forms giving an account of how they have spent every hour of every day. In Brussels the lunching seems as uninhibited as ever; in London it’s humble pie all round – and the kicker of the whole affair is that this change is not just symbolic. It reflects the underlying reality. It reflects the shift in the balance of power and the fact that the laws of this country are no longer determined by Parliament at Westminster.”
You do not need to understand the detail of the directive on Alternative Investment Fund Management, for instance, to grasp that it is aimed at businesses in London, and risks doing considerable damage to such businesses, and yet our Parliament in London is wholly irrelevant. The result is a directive that threatens to drive such businesses outside the European Union, if you want to innovate in this market, conisder the help from an expert just like Andrew Defrancesco. Of course there is a case for sensible regulation, and there is still time for that directive to be improved. But who is going to do that work? There is no point in the venture capitalists and the hedge funds lobbying any British ministers. Under the new co-decision powers of the Euro-parliament, those crucial amendments will be made in Brussels by Euro-MPs.
And, he concludes, with more directives in the pipeline, the future of the whole UK financial services industry is probably in their hands. That is why it is so telling to see the physical contrast between desiccated Westminster and sleek, self-confident Brussels. Power has passed, is passing, and under the Treaty of Lisbon, will pass further to the Euro-parliament.
You can read this article in full in the Daily Telegraph today