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From Brussels To Strasbourg: The European Parliament's Traveling Circus

Some studies have shown that holding a European Parliament session in Strasbourg every month costs EU taxpayers 180 million euros a year. (file photo)
Some studies have shown that holding a European Parliament session in Strasbourg every month costs EU taxpayers 180 million euros a year. (file photo)
BRUSSELS -- Along the corridors of European Parliament in Brussels, janitors are making their way from floor to floor, pushing trolleys loaded with black plastic trunks. It will take them five hours of work to cart some 6,000 cases down to the basement before loading them on to eight large trucks bound for Strasbourg.

The black plastic trunks are essentially the mobile offices of approximately 5,000 staffers.

"On a Friday you open the trunk and you load it with the files you will need in Strasbourg the week after -- which you do not have electronically or which you prefer to have just with you," says Rosalie Biesemans, an MEP's assistant at the European Parliament.

When the trunks arrive in the French city, the contents are unloaded and used in the Strasbourg offices of the European Parliament for a week, before they're packed up again and sent travelling 440 kilometers back to the Belgian capital.

This cycle, which repeats itself every month, has become one of the European Union's odder features.

The European Parliament's main base is in Brussels, where the majority of its work takes place in committees and political group meetings.

But the EU treaty stipulates that one plenary session per month has to take place in Strasbourg. Additionally, the parliament's secretariat is located in Luxembourg.

Losing Time And Money

The European Parliament's travelling circus, as some here have dubbed it, is more than just an oddity. Form many it is a time-consuming and labor intensive nuisance -- and it is increasingly, coming under criticism. One problem, Biesemans points out, is lost man-hours.

"In that Strasbourg week, you lose a day by travelling," she says. "Everybody, every individual loses at least one day. The assistants are lucky in that respect that we only lose half day going there and half a day back but some of the MEPs don't get there in one day."
Thousands of cases of material are carted back and forth between Strasbourg and Brussels each month
Thousands of cases of material are carted back and forth between Strasbourg and Brussels each month

Most parliamentarians and staffers drive from Brussels to Strasbourg, although some 740 of them cut their travel time by taking a fast train, subsidized by France's national rail company, which gets them there in four hours.

Cost is also an issue. Studies have shown that holding a monthly session in Strasbourg costs EU taxpayers 180 million euros a year.

Parliamentarians are becoming increasingly vocal in opposition to the arrangement. Nonbinding secret ballot votes on the issue show a clear majority favor one location for parliament, and for that location to be in Brussels, alongside other EU institutions.

Tackling French Pride

Biesemans' boss, the British MEP Edward McMillan-Scott, is the co-chairman of the Single Seat Campaign, a multi-party effort fighting to keep the parliament permanently in Brussels. And despite France's obvious disposition to veto any changes, he remains confident the change will eventually be implemented.

"Quite clearly there is French pride attached to this and we fully accept that," he says. "On the other hand we would like France to understand that it is only a matter of time before the European Parliament decides to move and I would advise the French to think very carefully for the alternatives for the city of Strasbourg and the buildings that exist there."

McMillan-Scott hopes the change can be enacted by invoking an article in the EU treaty that stipulates MEPs can formally propose changes in this document to the governments of member states.

In fact, some changes to the treaty have already passed in parliament. Last year MEPs voted to hold two monthly plenary sessions in Strasbourg in the same week in 2012 and 2013, thereby reducing the number of times they must travel from 12 to 11.

But France and Luxembourg have challenged the move in the European Court of Justice. The verdict, expected this autumn, might set the scene for future battles.

Other MEPs remain skeptical about forcing the issue. The Czech MEP Libor Roucek claims he's in favor of a single seat but that parliament should instead focus its energies in the short term on making Strasbourg more easily accessible to MEPs and their staffs.

"We can't decide it. If somebody wants to change it, the governments, in other words the Council, has to discuss it, change it and agreed on it. That means all 27 governments would have to agree. At the moment I think it is absolutely pointless to have a discussion about where to have the seat of the parliament."
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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