Belfast Telegraph

Naomi Long: My daunting introduction to life in EU Parliament

New Alliance MEP Naomi Long shares her experiences of an exciting and sometimes confusing first day at work in Brussels

Naomi Long shows her joy at being elected as an MEP last month
Naomi Long shows her joy at being elected as an MEP last month
Naomi Long (right) on her first visit to Brussels as an MEP
The Alliance leader’s welcome pack in Brussels

I've only been to Brussels once before. Then, I was a fourth year Masters in Engineering student at Queen's and, as part of our study of EU Law and French for Engineers, we visited Leuven, Bruges and the European Parliament in Brussels.

It says something about my confessed lack of interest in politics while I was a student that I have no recollection of my visit to the Parliament at all.

In fact, I only remembered the visit when prompted by my father-in-law, a retired engineering professor, who mentioned it to me after my election as an MEP.

Unlike my initial visit, this one and the circumstances leading up to it were most certainly memorable.

As a candidate who was, at best, given an outside chance of the third seat at the start of the election campaign, to have won the second seat with a total of 170,370 votes - of which almost 106,000 were first preferences - is a moment I don't think I'll ever forget. It was one of the few times in my life when I've been rendered speechless.

Following so closely on Alliance's success at the local government election, we hoped the European election would build that momentum and provide further confirmation the shift in Northern Ireland politics was real, but none of us could have anticipated just how big that surge was about to become.

And so last Wednesday I found myself on a flight to Heathrow, the first of two short hops to land me in Brussels and in a new job in an unfamiliar environment.

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It's not the first time I've been the 'new girl' or indeed the only Alliance representative - I was both when I was elected as the MP for East Belfast in 2010.

This was a little more daunting - a different country, different languages, different time zone and a different parliamentary system - but that was slightly eased by the fact Catherine Bearder MEP and her office staff had kindly offered to assist with my induction.

The Parliament buildings are imposing, built on a grand scale, though a little brutalist in its architecture even for this former civil engineer's tastes. The cavernous buildings feel more like airport terminals than a parliamentary estate. However, despite its austere appearance, at the 'Welcome Village' for new MEPs, things were pleasantly friendly and surprisingly efficient.

The support staff simultaneously put me at ease and to shame with their language skills. I'm afraid while I can cover the basic courtesies in a few languages, my spoken French owes more to 'Allo 'Allo than the valiant efforts of my French teacher. I've now added brushing up my French to a very long to do list and downloaded a language app to listen to on the commute.

I made my way through each of the stages of the induction in turn - getting my photo taken, providing my personal information and signing the code of conduct, getting issued with my IT accounts, receiving my handbook and financial rules, and finally being issued with my member's pass to get access to all of the buildings.

And that's where the fun really started. Because getting into the buildings is one thing - but finding my way round was quite another. Day one involved quite a few wrong turns and I'm sure I've seen parts of the buildings which few others will ever see. However, on one of those wrong turns I managed to stumble on the flag display outside the Parliament Chamber and the Irish Language guides in the visitors centre, so at least it felt a little more like home!

After getting all of the administration sorted on day one, day two was down to business. I had a breakfast meeting about staffing my office in Brussels - organised before I remembered the time difference made this an hour earlier than at home - followed by meeting with the head of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Brussels to discuss priorities over the next six months and how I can assist with promoting Northern Ireland's interests.

Then it was off to meet with the Liberal Democrat team in Europe to discuss how we can cooperate to deliver on the mandate for a People's Vote.

We'll also both be members of ALDE Party Group (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe) along with Fianna Fail. It's now the third largest grouping and holds the balance of power between left and right in the Parliament - an influential position and one with which I'm very familiar in City Hall and now Stormont. I'll be joining as leader of a separate regional delegation from Alliance, so will have a seat at the table when discussing policy, direction and coordination of the group.

I also submitted my preference of committees on which to serve: I'll be allocated two in the sharing out of responsibilities and want to make sure that they are relevant to Northern Ireland's key interests and areas most impacted by Brexit. Negotiations continue, but should conclude next week.

And so it was time to set out for the airport for my return flight to Belfast after what was a productive first trip and managed to use the commute to plan meetings for next week, including with Michel Barnier, and the British and Irish permanent delegations in Brussels.

I even made it through day two without getting lost. I was advised getting lost is inevitable so to treat every journey through the building as an opportunity to bump into old friends and make new ones, which seems like good advice. It worked, too, as I bumped into Frances Fitzgerald, Fine Gael MEP on my way out of the building.

I've also been told it takes about six months to find your way around the Parliament in Brussels. Now, there's an added incentive for me to make the case at home and in the EU for us to remain.

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