I’m starting to get into my stride as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP). It feels less like a new job and more like the job I’ve been doing for a while. I have filled in my first form where, when asked for my occupation, I have written ‘politician’. Working for Christian Aid, my old job, is starting to seem a bit distant.
A working weekly pattern is also starting to emerge, although the job is no less interesting for that. On Monday mornings I have a planning meeting with the two staff who run the North East regional office. There could then be meetings in the office or I might be out and about in the region; a factory or a farm visit, a business or a school, urban or rural, north or south, Tweed to the Tees.
I have to keep an eye on the clock though as by late afternoon I need to be heading for Brussels. On arrival at the Parliament it’s a case of check the mail and papers on the desk and then the diary for Tuesday before heading off for a bite to eat on route to a hotel. Watching the BBC Ten O’clock News followed by Newsnight makes sure I’m up to date.
I’m a morning person but the 6.30am alarm call is really 5.30am UK time and it is a bit of challenge. It’s then into the Parliament where breakfast meetings or briefings are a common occurrence. So it’s croissants and biofuels or pastries and carbon capture or fruit and fair trade, feeding the mind while feeding the body. Then it’s up to the tenth floor, great view of the city, and an opportunity to touch base with the Brussels staff and my fellow Labour MEP for the North East, Jude Kirton-Darling.
If it’s a Committee Week I’m then off to seven hours of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee maybe interspersed with popping out to drop in on the Environment Committee where I’m a substitute member, depending on what’s on the agenda.
Lunchtime is, if you’re sensible, just that. There is a great canteen where MEPs from 28 countries and their staff from even more chatter away in a great cacophony of languages. There are also speakers to be heard in the myriad of meeting rooms. Martin McGuiness was one such visitor last week, bringing an update on the Northern Ireland peace process.
If it is not a Committee Week then it’s what is called a Group Week. Most, but not all, national political delegations sit as part of a wider cross national group. Hence we as Labour MEPs sit as part of the much larger Socialists and Democrats Group (S&D) and the UK Tories sit in the European Conservatives and Reformist Group (ECR). Group meetings can be as long as the Committee meetings so a three hour stretch is not uncommon, these politicians can go on a bit!
By 7pm the day’s business in the Parliament is normally winding down replaced instead by the formal dinner hosted by an embassy or a business or voluntary sector network, or it’s an informal drink or meal where the day’s happenings and news is picked over, strategies hatched, plans made. Last week I was one of six UK MEPs who had supper, organised by the British Embassy, with Ed Davey MP, our Minister for Energy and Climate Change. At the dinner I was flanked by two Conservative MEPs which provided a good opportunity to exchange views and identify common ground (it does exist), as well as differences.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are concentrated affairs where information overload is an occupational hazard, but wow it’s interesting! Thursdays have a different feel as MEPs start heading back to their constituencies all over Europe. I don’t leave till the early evening so it’s a good day for lobby meetings. To date I’ve had an eclectic range of organisations coming to see me on a fascinating range of issues. Last week included the Wood Panel Association, Tate and Lyle Sugars, the National Union of Farmers cereal board, the Workers’ Education Association and Bond, a network for international development organisations.
If the transport works I’m back home for 10pm, with the hour change dramatically shortening the journey! Fridays, like Mondays, give me the opportunity to walk the kids to school, which is a bit of perk really as a lot of people in full-time work don’t have that opportunity. There is then the whole of the day for being out and about. Last Friday it was a trip to Kirkley Hall, part of Northumberland College. I’ve cycled past the entrance many times as a youth when on bike rides from Chapel House but I’ve never been in. These days they do a lot more than the core agricultural courses, such a dog grooming, aquariam care and a zoo One of their most popular courses is wind turbine technician, with a 100% into work rate, has just relocated to Blyth.
There is also the party politics in the North East to engage with but I hope this gives you a flavour of what an MEP regardless of party affiliation actually does each week. Does it make a difference? Does it improve the lives of the people of the North East? Well the answer to that will have to be in a future column.
This column was printed in The Journal on Monday 20th October 2014.