STRASBOURG — When the European Parliament goes out, it goes hard.
A night that began clinking cocktails among MEPs and diplomats in a classy speakeasy ended at 4 a.m. with a wasted Parliament official punching an MEP outside a nightclub.
A huge entourage of EU politicians and staffers descend on the Alsatian city for four days per month for a frenetic blur of policy work, negotiations and knife-edge voting.
On Wednesday nights MEPs and their assistants venture out to a handful of favorite bars where the usual institutional stuffiness and hierarchies melt away. These boozy school-trip style soirées are a crucial breathing space for the Parliament, fostering friendships across political divides and providing an escape valve for all that pent-up parliamentary stress.
But according to stories that abound, they’re also when some MEPs behave inappropriately toward staffers on the dancefloors of grotty clubs.
Strasbourg by night bristles with stories threatening to come out.
Pushing gingerly on a nondescript mirror-clad door at the back of an empty pizzeria opens a portal to a speakeasy called Aedaen, which is teeming with members of the EU crowd, some still wearing their Parliament entry badges around their necks.
Under the flickering chandeliers and the menacing gaze of a stag’s head nailed to the wall, the bartender sets light to a flaming “Zombie” cocktail and slides it down the bar to some diplomats with shirt sleeves rolled up and collars loosened.
Around midnight, three MEPs saunter in, two German Greens — Damian Boeselager and Niklas Nienaß — and Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh from the liberal Renew faction — but I’m polishing off a whisky sour and pushing on the velvet-cushioned secret door to leave.
At the Soviet-themed La Perestroïka — where images of Lenin and Gorbachev adorn the walls — I discover it’s not the EU hangout it once was.
The only evidence of Eurocrats is six Greek functionaries from the Parliament who don’t want to talk. “Is this place pro-Russia?” I asked the barman, who hastily points to the Ukraine flag stuck in the window.
A French comedian called Aymeric Lompret is having post-show drinks with friends, one of whom works as an air traffic controller at the Strasbourg airport. He backslaps me and says he has oh-so-many stories of MEPs misbehaving on flights but he won’t be drawn.
So all there is to do is stumble on, down the cobbled streets of sleepy Strasbourg, across the canal toward the cathedral that looms up monstrously out of the dark. An empty tram shuttles past a boarded-up merry-go-round.
Call an ambulance
After being buzzed into Code Bar, I make a pitstop to mingle with parliamentary assistants from rival groups who were perched on barstools quaffing gin and tonics and discussing controversial amendments to agricultural legislation that would be negotiated the next day.
But before long I find myself in Les Aviateurs, the most infamous of the Strasbourg saloons, where there’s dancing way at the back on a raised platform and beers and tequila shots are being served.
A well-dressed Swedish EPP MEP — Tomas Tobé — is at the bar shouting over the thumping music in order to talk. Far-right Estonian MEP Jaak Madison rocks up in a suit; in the street outside the MEP I saw in the speakeasy, Damian Boeselager, is wrapped in a scarf and puffing on a cigarette. I appear to be stalking him.
Another MEP — German Green Erik Marquardt — and an assistant from his group are trying to help one particularly drunk Parliament official who’s alone in a T-shirt and not in a state to get home solo. “Where do you live, honey?” the assistant asks, wanting to get him a taxi.
But the official won’t or can’t say. I move away for a few minutes, as I don’t have the patience of these two.
When I return the MEP — who only wants to help — has been punched but is still patiently trying to assist.
After a while, we called an ambulance and palmed him off to the medics.
Plenary opens at 9 a.m. That’s in four hours.