It is a hectic week in the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA political adviser – with committee meetings, discussions with stakeholders and late nights working on voting lists punctuated by lengthy bike rides and partyingMonday
I live only 20 minutes' walk from the European Parliament in Brussels so – with MEPs tending to arrive for Monday's meetings towards lunchtime – the week starts at a relaxed pace. This week the parliament's thematic committees meet for detailed discussions and to vote on legislative proposals.
I am a political adviser for the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, known as IMCO, with the Greens/European Free Alliance. Each political group has at least one adviser for each committee. I research subject areas, propose amendments to reports, draft voting lists, brief MEPs and meet with stakeholders. Once a legislative report has been voted on, I prepare for meetings between the parliament, the European Commission and the Council, during which we try to find political agreement on any outstanding issues.
Today I take advantage of the relative peace to go through my inbox and update my diary – the Greens/EFA group does not have secretarial staff and we are expected to manage our own administrative tasks. It is a nice way of easing myself into the week, but when I have deadlines I get jealous of colleagues in other political groups who have secretaries. I go with colleagues for lunch in the 12th floor canteen. It is my favourite canteen in parliament as there is a great view over Brussels – making up for the fact that it does not serve chips.
The afternoon is spent in a technical meeting between the advisers of the political groups and representatives of the commission and the council. When a committee examines a legislative proposal, it adopts amendments. At the same time the council adopts its own amendments. At this point the parliament and council can meet to see if they can agree on the remaining points of difference. We meet at staff level – that is, no MEPs or permanent representatives – to try to resolve the easy issues, usually correcting typos and ensuring consistency of language. Points of controversy or disagreement are highlighted for discussion at MEP and permanent representative level, although we sometimes explore whether the other side is flexible on a particular issue. Our respective legal services and legislative drafting units also attend.
I am mentally tired from three hours in the technical meetings but still have plenty of physical energy so I head to the gym for a spinning class. Then I go home for a shower, dinner and chat with my housemate. She is one of the energy advisers for the Greens/EFA, so although we do not work together we share and understand each other's working environment, which is good for blowing off frustrations when we get home.
Today is a full day in the IMCO committee – three-and-a-half hours in the morning, then another three-and-a-half hours in the afternoon. There are two-and-a-half hours in between, though in reality this time is taken up with other meetings, most often 'shadow meetings'. When a committee considers a report, one MEP is nominated to be the rapporteur. All other political groups can nominate one MEP to follow work on this file – they are known as 'shadows' and bring the view of their own group to the development of the final report. Shadow meetings provide the forum for them to meet, exchange views and discuss compromises.
The IMCO committee will vote on a number of reports tomorrow. The draft voting lists are available a few days before the votes, with changes possible until 5pm the day before. The IMCO secretariat aims to send out the final list by 7pm but often they appear later. For me this means a desk-based vigil, as I prefer to fill out the lists with my voting recommendations the night before rather than early in the morning, so that my MEPS have as much time as possible to check or make any comments on my proposals. I brought my dinner as well as my lunch today – being starving hungry while faced with voting lists late in the evening is not a good combination. The lists appear at 9pm. When I finally leave just before midnight a colleague waves a sign from our Greens/EFA Working Time Directive campaign. It says: "A tired worker is a dangerous worker". Thankfully, to my knowledge, a voting list never killed anyone.
I arrive at 8.30am and make any last-minute changes to the voting lists, then circulate electronic versions and make hard copies to take to the vote. I find voting time extremely stressful. Votes take place very quickly. The lists are Microsoft Word tables in which all amendments are listed, but the text of the amendments is rarely shown, so MEPs have to rely on the voting indications being correct: +, -, or abstention. There is no chance to double check. Woe betide you if you bring the wrong list or have missing pages. I have done both in the past and just lived to tell the tale. After the vote there is a sense of relief. As we have managed to finish ahead of schedule, the chairman calls for a break. I take the opportunity to leave the room and have a calming walk for 10 minutes in the park behind the parliament.
The European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Michel Barnier, visits the committee to tell us of his plans for forthcoming legislation. It is a good opportunity for MEPs to gently probe him for more information on the contents of future proposals. At lunch I take advantage of the good weather to go for a run. The parliament has lockers and showers for commuting cyclists so I leave my things and go out for 10 kilometres of fresh air. Then in the afternoon there is the final IMCO meeting of the week. The Danish minister for business and growth, Ole Sohn, tells us about the achievements of the Danish presidency of the council between January and the end of June.
Later it is the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee assistants' party. Not being part of ENVI is no obstacle to joining in – a willingness to dance is more important. And the Greens/EFA group are very good with their willingness to dance, as attested by a lack of shyness about being first on the dance floor at group parties and even a five minutes slot on French television showcasing the best of our dancers. I sometimes wonder if this willingness to dance is an unofficial part of the selection process to work for the group.
As IMCO committee meetings are over for this week I am back in my office, checking emails and attending to pending tasks. One of these is the 'committee highlights'. All Greens/EFA advisers submit highlights on their committee agendas to the secretary general's office a week in advance. This helps the planning of our press and media work. In addition, it informs Greens/EFA MEPs who sit on other committees of the work going on in IMCO. We also have our monthly meeting between the Greens/EFA advisers and the group's secretary general. We discuss the draft agenda for the next plenary of the parliament, when all MEPs sit in the hemicycle to debate and vote on reports.
As MEPs leave to spend Friday attending to business in their constituencies, the pace and atmosphere become much more relaxed. I leave the parliament for lunch with a friend at the canteen at his work place, the commission's research directorate. Later I have a coffee at a café just outside the parliament with stakeholders regarding the revision of the Recognition of Professional Qualifications directive. One of the four freedoms of the internal market is the freedom of movement for people and one way of facilitating this is the recognition of professional qualifications between member states. The current directive, from 2006, needs to be reviewed, partly in light of technological progress. At the same time, such a system will only work if there is confidence in it. There must be sufficient safeguards to check that qualifications are valid and up to date, as well as effective communication of when a professional is not fit to practice – particularly if we are to avoid cases of medical professionals working abroad even if their own country has suspended their licence to practice. We discuss controversial aspects and possible ways of future-proofing the directive.
I follow up on the meeting with the secretary general by writing a briefing on an IMCO report that will be on the agenda at the next plenary session. It is not controversial but Greens/EFA MEPs receive a briefing for each file on the agenda so that they are aware of all the issues. The MEP responsible for this file always checks my briefing, then it is sent out to the whole political group. Meanwhile the sun is shining and it is time to head to Place du Luxembourg outside the parliament buildings to soak up the last of the sunshine.
The day begins with a lift to work with my office mate. Our offices are utilitarian and we have been trying to establish some kind of comfy corner for informal chats. I want to donate my beanbag but have no means of transporting it to parliament. My office mate comes to the rescue. We brazenly carry the enormous and bright turquoise object past security and up to the office. I was afraid that someone would tell us to take the beanbag away on health and safety grounds but we get no more than a few funny looks.
The Greens/EFA group will be having a 'think-in' in Ostend in northern Belgium for three days to talk about strategy. While our event organisers have managed to get a bargain return rail fare of less than €10, a few of us fancy promoting the Green soft mobility cause and will be cycling. I meet with my fellow cyclists to decide a route and stops where we can pick up people who fancy a 20k cycle from Bruges rather than the 115k from Brussels.
Most Fridays we have a short day where we can leave the office at 2pm. At first I found this a rather work-shy approach but after a long and hectic week I am grateful for it. I leave the office and do a bit of grocery shopping. Then I head out for an afternoon on my road bike, some 60k along the canals to Willebroek and back. There is a good cycle path network in the Flemish parts of Belgium, with some nice routes. Unfortunately sometimes the signs are missing – once I went out for a 60k and ended up doing 100k. Cycling back through Brussels earns me some catcalls, which outrages me as if I were with a man such things would never happen.
I get home, shower and settle in for a quiet contemplative night. I do not have an urge to go out on Friday nights as I am usually exhausted from the week. I continue my book – Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel, about Thomas Cromwell's life with Henry VIII of England.
I have a lie in – never difficult when you love sleeping as much as I do. I then get up, pop out to get a croissant and a copy of Le Monde
, and grind some coffee beans brought from an Ethiopian coffee roastery and café in the Marolles quarter of Brussels. I go out to buy a birthday present, bump into a friend and end up in the aforementioned coffee house. My coffee tastes have definitely evolved since coming to Belgium – I find the quality much higher than in the United Kingdom.
I go home for a lie down before getting ready to go out. It is a friend's birthday and drinks-dinner-drinks are on the cards. It will be a Francophone night but I will be fine. After all the hours I have put into French lessons and practice, I can hold my own, and alcohol helps. It is a late night but I do not have to worry about how to get home – I cycle on a Villo, the Brussels version of a city bike. They are all over town, 400m apart. Bike theft is rife in Brussels so using a city bike is safer, plus it is free for the first 30 minutes.
I have another lie in, of course. I do some ashtanga yoga to stretch out my muscles, than have a quick breakfast. I go to the market in Place Jourdan with a friend to gossip, buy fresh produce and then have a longer, more relaxed lunch. We discuss our forthcoming trip to her home town, Budapest. We take a walk after lunch and then I head home for some emailing with friends, then some meditation. In the evening I cook not only dinner but also lunch for the week – usually rice with vegetables and tofu. I do not mind the monotony as I can nearly always find something to spice it up in the canteen, even if it is only tabasco.Claire Kwan is political adviser on internal market and consumer protection to the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament