Every Monday of a plenary week in Brussels, each MEP’s office fills a big malle with essential workstuffs: documents, folders, books, the office’s one working stapler, whatever. It is then locked and left outside the office so that, the next day, it will reappear like magic in front of the MEP’s Strasbourg office. The malle, like the 736 MEPs, their assistants and the slew of journalists and lobbyists, has made the monthly pilgrimage to the official seat of the European Parliament (twice in September).
The reasons for this go back to arcane diplomatic negotiations – which generally are no more than godless horse-trading – and concern that Europe’s institutions should not be concentrated in one place. And Strasbourg, after all, is a far more potent symbol of European reconciliation than Brussels. Although with Belgium’s hideously complex linguistically-determined politics and history as a case of “generic industrialisation”, Brussels is perhaps closer to the reality of the EU.
Strasbourg’s symbolism comes at an exorbitant cost which sometimes has uniquely absurd results. EUobserver reported that €1.7 million were saved in 2008 when the ceiling collapse of a room in the Strasbourg parliament meant that some meetings had to be held in Brussels. As eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan points out, that is the net saving, once the costs repairs and of travel and hotel cancellations were deducted from the original €2.5 million in savings.
According to a new study, 91% of MEPs would prefer to stay in Brussels. Beside added hassle and lost time for everyone involved the study claims the endless back and forth costs €180 million per year and produces an extra 19,000 tonnes of CO2. The French authorities were unmoved. Their spokesperson said that that France“will continue to implement concrete actions to affirm Strasbourg’s European dimension and to make working life easier for European MEPs, especially by improving the accessibility and attractiveness of the city.” Delightful.
Why is this never changed? Major European political figures have been associated with the city: Pierre Pflimlin, president of the Parliament in the eighties, was also mayor of Strasbourg for over two decades while Joseph Daul, an Alsatian, is head of the center-right European People’s Party, the Parliament’s biggest group. Perhaps more to the point, the Parliament is powerless: its seat is set in stone in the treaties and would therefore require France’s assent. This is unlikely to be given due the (imagined?) prestige the seat grants to Strasbourg and the massive subsidy it represents to the city’s hotels and restaurants.
Even if the Parliament were to leave, however, it wouldn’t necessarily be such a catastrophic loss to the city, the magnificent building be used for something after all. The opening to the study quotes Simone Veil, the first president of the elected parliament, suggesting it could be turned into a “European university”. I should hope some compromise is eventually found, either removing the Parliament from Strasbourg or giving the seat a much more symbolic role. In the meantime, the whole travelling circus serves to discredit the entire EU. Indeed, if the very Treaties which are the Union’s constitution sanctify this traveling circus, who is is to say what other absurdities of narrow national interest are made eternal by the fine prints nestled in these dense texts?