Monday, March 07, 2005

Poor dears

Hundreds of European Parliament members and staff, poor dears, are demanding an end to the monthly commute from their Brussels headquarters to Strasbourg and back again, says the Daily Telegraph.

In a poll conducted by the EU parliament last week, 70.8 percent of those who responded said they wanted to conduct all business in the Belgian capital.

The poll's results were welcomed by Chris Heaton-Harris, a British Conservative MEP, who has long campaigned for an end to the Strasbourg commute. "If it were not for French blackmail, none of us would be going to Strasbourg once a month, at a cost of over £10 million of European taxpayers' money a time," he said.

To keep the whole unwieldy system running, the parliament maintains a fleet of gleaming lorries whose sole purpose is to ferry steel trunks of paperwork between the three sites every month. MEPs have offices in both Brussels and Strasbourg and may claim expenses for a business class flight or rail fare from one city to the other, each time the legislature moves.

Says The Telegraph, the coming and going is especially irksome to MEPs from the newest EU member states, such as Latvia, Cyprus and Malta, who can spend 24 hours reaching Strasbourg from their home constituencies, thanks to the Alsatian city's poor transport connections.

Strasbourg, regarded as richly symbolic by the French as a city that has changed hands between France and Germany several times, was the original home of several European bodies but Brussels long ago outstripped it as the EU's capital.

Over the years, Paris has expended huge diplomatic capital to preserve Strasbourg's status as an official seat of the parliament, a status that appears crucial to French national pride.

It is no less crucial to the incomes of Strasbourg's five-star hotels, fine restaurants and taxi drivers, as well as to Air France, which enjoys a near monopoly on flights into Strasbourg airport.

France built a gleaming new seat for the parliament in the city. It opened in 1999 but remains empty for more than 300 days a year, home only to a small army of cleaners and lightly dozing security guards.

The building cost France £250 million, though Paris is now quietly selling the complex to the European parliament.

Moves to scrap Strasbourg's parliamentary role prompted the French government to threaten to block the 1994 European parliamentary elections, until other governments backed down. After intense French lobbying, an obligation for the parliament to meet monthly in Strasbourg was finally written into the statutes of the EU as a protocol to the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty – under the presidency of the UK, as agreed by John Major at the Edinburgh European Council.

Heaton-Harris said Tony Blair and other European leaders should have insisted on getting rid of the French protocol when they drew up the draft European constitution. He said: "If this new EU constitution really were the reformist tidying-up exercise Tony Blair says it is, then giving the parliament just one seat would have been top of the agenda."

The issue is then taken up by The Telegraph in its leader headlined: "Farewell, Brussels", noting that "it is hardly surprising that the staff of the parliament want to put a stop to this nonsense." Not only are they sick of making the journey, but they are conscious that it makes the institution look an ass.

However, the Telegraph, while sympathising with their plight, disagrees with the proposed remedy, which is to meet only in Brussels.

Euro-enthusiasts, it says, see Brussels as a federal capital in which all the organs of government should be concentrated. By scrapping the Strasbourg sittings, they would be doing away with the old idea that the EU is an association of states, in which the institutions should be spread around.

Why not move to Strasbourg instead, suggests the paper? The treaties specify that Euro-MPs meet in the Alsatian capital at least 12 times a year; they do not mention Brussels. The change could be carried out overnight, if only MEPs were prepared to put practical considerations ahead of integrationist dogma.

Nice one… but a bit impractical. Even before enlargement, space was limited in the Strasbourg building, and with the additional MEPs and their staffs, it is seriously overcrowded. Brussels, on the other hand, is better equipped and has more space. Unless The Telegraph wants to see the EU pay many more hundreds on millions, it had better settle for Brussels.

Better still, if the UK pulled out altogether, there would be 87 vacant places (and that much fewer staff). That would save a bob or two – the best part of £100 million in fact - which would be very welcome to the UK taxpayers.

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