Ben Lowry: A visit to Strasbourg — a fine parliament, but one that is partly built on fantasy

The European Parliament  in Strasbourg, France, Wednesday March 27, 2019, when all the Northern Ireland MEPs spoke, perhaps for the last time. The parliament discussed the 21-22 March EU summit, which considered Brexit, with European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Wednesday March 27, 2019, when all the Northern Ireland MEPs spoke, perhaps for the last time. The parliament discussed the 21-22 March EU summit, which considered Brexit, with European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
Share this article

This week I was talking to a political operator in Northern Ireland who has over the years been in both Downing Street and the White House.

But this person had never been to the European Parliament (EP).

Neither had I, until Monday, when I arrived in Strasbourg.

This was despite the fact that I first visited the House of Commons almost 30 years ago, and have visited countries and parliaments around the world.

I have followed the EP since the 1980s, and long wanted to visit the EP, but had not done so. Why?

The reasons, I think, say something about the problems that face the European Union.

The first reason is that Strasbourg is a difficult to get to. It is not a major European centre. It is a handsome border city with an old quarter, which has such a high concentration of fine buildings that it must once have been rich.

It reminded me of wealthy Vichy, which is also in France, albeit in the south, and which was the capital of the ‘free’ part of that country during the Second World War. It wasn’t free, but rather the base for a Nazi puppet regime (some of the leaders of which were hanged).

Strasbourg, which is in a region that has strong French and German influences and was contested territory in the 1930s, was a logical symbolic place to locate the parliament for the European system that emerged after World War II, and sought to make war less likely.

But while there is no moral equivalence with Vichy, Strasbourg is similar in that it has none of the feel of an international capital.

The rail line between Strasbourg and the parliament’s other centre, Brussels, which is the heart of the EU, was upgraded some years ago, yet the two cities are still a tedious 3.5 hours apart.

It is even harder to get from Northern Ireland, where you have to take at least two flights to get there, often much more than that.

My outbound journey was Belfast to Amsterdam, then to Strasbourg. My return was train from Strasbourg to Paris, flight to Dublin, and coach back up to Belfast.

The parliament itself is a modern, bustling building.

Like so many such political or international venues around the world, it is full of young people who work there, aged under 40, and it has a cosmopolitan air.

These are people who very badly would want the European Union project to survive. And even I, a eurosceptic who voted Remain but was drawn to Leave, would be extremely sad to see it collapse, as I fear one day the unwieldy EU might.

During my visit to the parliament I met the three Northern Ireland MEPs, Jim Nicholson, Diane Dodds and Martina Anderson (my interviews with them will by published in coming weeks, when it becomes clearer whether or not their tenures are indeed at an end).

On Wednesday morning I was in the press gallery for the debate in which they all spoke, as did other prominent European political figures including Michel Barnier, Donald Tusk and Nigel Farage.

Mr Nicholson, who was Westminster MP in 1983 for Newry and Armagh but lost his seat to Seamus Mallon in the 1986 protest by elections when all unionist MPs quit over the Anglo Irish election, was first elected an MEP in 1989, replacing his party colleague John Taylor.

It was clear during my visit that he has built up an impressive network of contacts in his time there.

Mr Nicholson briefly introduced me to Mr Barnier, and I explained that the newspaper for which I worked was the world’s oldest English language daily. If I had more time I would like to have talked to him about how the papers from the beginning, in the 1730s, were bursting with European news (as our serialisation of papers from 280 years ago shows). Europe will always be interlinked, with or without an EU.

But very few people in Europe, not even among passionate europhiles, consider Brussels or Strasbourg to be their capital city.

For all the agreeable international atmosphere of the parliament and its buildings, people do not look around and think: I am from the same country as everyone else here.

Yet in countries that hold together, that is what people think. In the United States, for all the regional differences between Alabama or Hawaii or Oregon or Kansas, people from those places feel that they are part of the same nation.

Washington DC is their capital.

I have been to Beijing and imagine that that is also how people from far flung parts of China feel.

But in Europe, very few people watch, for example, the Eurovision song contest and feel that ll the contestants are from the same country that they are from.

And this is a fundamental difficulty of identity for the EU.

It is why people like Dan Hannan, the Tory MEP (who was also among those who spoke in the parliamentary chamber on Wednesday) say that the European project went wrong at Maastricht in 1992, when it moved from European Community to European Union.

My own feelings on this are ambivalent. When Jim Nicholson told me that he had to carry three currencies when he first started travelling to Strasbourg as an MEP in the 1980s, it reminded me of how handy it is for travellers that there is a single currency now.

I felt sadness at the loss of another modern convenience when I was stopped at passport control at Strasbourg airport, which would not have happened a few years ago coming from Amsterdam because both cities are in the passport-free Schengen area. That zone is being torn up due to terrorism and mass migration.

Yet I would not want the UK to be part of either arrangement, passport-free travel or eurozone.

I still wonder if Brexit could be the catalyst for Europe splitting into two: an inner core EU, which is synonymous with a smaller eurozone, that tries to move closer to a federal structure.

And an outer common market, that includes Britain and Greece, and only involves membership of the single market (like Norway).

The problem is that the scepticism of Europe that is evident in the UK is now apparent almost everywhere in the EU, with a few exceptions such as Ireland.

In the case of the latter, it is not so much that they have transcended the nationalism that is breaking out everywhere else, as that they are able to channel their nationalism through the EU. Recent years have shown clearly that Ireland is not a ‘post nationalist’ country.

An obstacle to the two-tier Europe idea is that it is hard to find any countries now that are still up for a federal structure.

Critics of Brexit sneer at Britain for its fantasy of being fully independent. But the EU is built partly on fantasy too — the fantasy that you can fully shake off nationalism.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor