Traveling EU “Circus” Criticized

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The New York Sun

STRASBOURG, France (AP) – Once a month before dawn on a Saturday, an unlikely convoy pulls up by the soaring glass-and-steel complex of Europe’s Parliament: half a dozen trucks crammed with documents for the assembly’s monthly four-day session.

The trucks move some 4,000 metallic trunks full of paper from the parliament’s headquarters in Brussels, Begium, 280 miles away, to its official seat on the outskirts of this eastern French city. More trucks arrive later from Luxembourg, where the assembly’s secretariat is based.

Some 3,000 parliamentarians, officials, lobbyists, journalists and hangers-on descend on Strasbourg for every plenary session, filling every hotel room in the picturesque provincial city of 270,000.

The exorbitant and complicated to-and-fro is a result of an EU treaty accommodating the demands of France to house an EU institution. It has been a bane for the European Parliament, serving as ammunition for EU-bashers and overshadowing the evolution of a legislature that has come a long way since it became the world’s first directly elected supranational parliament 28 years ago.

The commute – by plane, train or automobile – continues even as EU leaders agree that the 27-nation bloc must take the lead in the fight against climate change. Road transport alone accounts for about one-fifth of the EU’s carbon dioxide emissions. A study commissioned by the EU’s Greens shows that the monthly trek produces over 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent of 13,000 return flights from London to New York.

“Sooner or later this commute will have to be addressed. It’s costly and it puts the parliament’s long-term credibility at stake,” said Guillaume Durand, a policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank.

The nine buildings in three cities cost European taxpayers $280 million a year more than if the legislature were based in one place – the equivalent of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid to the whole of Middle East and Asia for 2006.

Aside from the four-day monthly plenary sessions, the imposing $620 million parliament building in Strasbourg lies empty for 307 days a year and off limits to anyone but security guards, maintenance workers and guided tours. Dust settles on plush armchairs in the plenary chamber, and harmful bacteria once contaminated stalled water in the pipes.

More than one million people have signed a petition demanding the parliament be based in one place, citing massive costs of three seats. The online petition was initiated by a group of EU parliamentarians but there has been no official response from the governments.

“The issue of the seat is continuously brushed under the carpet. We’re trying to start a real discussion within the EU on this. But the big political groups in the parliament and many governments are simply unwilling to change the status quo,” said Monica Frassoni, an Italian who co-chairs the EU Greens.

The 785-member EU assembly, which has developed from an advisory body to a full-fledged institution shaping key EU laws ranging from labor issues to environment, is the only parliament with three seats.

Only a new EU treaty replacing the current one and unanimous approval of all EU member states could change that. France, which has a veto over any possible future changes, is fiercely opposed to losing the parliament.

Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering, a German Christian Democrat, has said he would not seek a debate on the issue. But Joseph Daul, chairman of Poettering’s European People’s Party who hails from Strasbourg, has surprised many by saying he was in favor of opening a discussion on what role his hometown should play in the EU in the future.

Some parliamentarians suggest the Alsatian capital could become the seat of the European Court of Justice – currently in Luxembourg – while others want it to host the quarterly EU summits now organized in Brussels.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and staff are left with more practical problems. The choices of getting to Strasbourg in time for the Monday afternoon start are limited – overpriced flights fully booked months in advance, a ride on a train with no restaurant car or a drive down some of Europe’s busiest highways.

The Monday morning fast train from Brussels to Strasbourg fills up with parliament officials readying for an unpleasant five-hour ride to attend the plenary session. Corridors in the 7:24 a.m. train are chock-a-block with luggage and few seats are available for those who haven’t booked in advance.

“It’s ridiculous. This train is always packed. And the funny thing is, why is it always delayed?” said Swedish Green lawmaker Carl Schlyter.

“Fifty years ago, Strasbourg was a symbol of peace. Today, it is the symbol of inefficiency, of old Europe,” said Schlyter, one of a handful of mostly Green deputies who regularly take the train to and from Brussels to reduce their carbon footprint.

The planned TGV line from Paris, scheduled to open in June, is unlikely to help much as parliamentarians traveling from their constituencies via Paris are unlikely to use the high-speed train.

Once in Strasbourg, the “traveling circus” stamps its mark on the city. Hotel rooms are booked for months in advance, and fancy downtown restaurants serve as meeting places where big decisions are made.

More than one deal has been sealed at Chez Yvonne, a popular haunt in the medieval center, and Europe’s political leaders can also be spotted in other top restaurants munching on sausages with sauerkraut and washing their hefty meals down with local Riesling.

Finding a place to stay here in the plenary week without a booking is nothing short of a miracle. During a recent sitting, only a few beds were available, all in the $400 a night range.

For Strasbourg, giving up the parliament would be an economic disaster. Parliament officials account for up to 60 percent of guests in some hotels, and many restaurants also rely on their money.

“We’re always fully booked. It’s always the same people, they take the same room, same breakfast. I know their wishes, their habits,” said Edith Beckers, manager at Hotel Suisse, a cheery two-star establishment at the foot of Strasbourg’s famous cathedral.

“For us, not having the parliament here would change everything,” she said.

The New York Sun

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