The contradictions of the EU's Strasbourg sessions

STRASBOURG, France — The European Parliament (EP) is one of the most powerful legislative bodies in the world, responsible for approving the vast majority of regulations governing half a billion people in 27 countries. The joint decisions of the presidents and prime ministers of those countries must pass the EP before they become European Union law.

As influential as that makes these 736 lawmakers, there is one point over which they have no control — and with many, it’s a sore one: where they sit.

The 1992 Treaty of Amsterdam dictates that once a month the parliament must meet in Strasbourg, France, the cozy, cosmopolitan Alsatian gem of a village chosen for its symbolic location on the border with Germany. But that’s 280 miles from Brussels, a long trek for EP members (MEPs) who depart from there, as well as for several thousand assistants, committee staffers, interpreters and an estimated 15 trucks carrying professional necessities. The ponderous pilgrimage has earned itself the nickname of the “traveling circus.”

By comparison, it would be like packing the U.S. Congress (plus 201 more members and their entourages) off to Erie, Penn., Waterbury, Conn., or Akron, Ohio once a month.

The price tag for all this travel, lodging and dual infrastructure is estimated at more than $280 million per year. But perhaps more hurtful than the charges of wasted cash are the accusations of climate-action hypocrisy. The EU prides itself on being the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and using renewable fuels and clean energy — Strasbourg does not help that case.

A 2007 study commissioned by Green MEPs calculated that the Strasbourg commute emits more than 20,000 tons of CO2 annually. The researchers, from the openly environmentalist British company Eco-Logica, concluded that, besides the “very large climate change burden,” the Strasbourg travel sets a bad environmental example. “Not to change historical operational practice sends a very clear message to millions of citizens and thousands of businesses that they need not try very hard to change behavior if this change is inconvenient. This would be a serious mistake at a critical juncture in the climate change policy debate.”

Eva Lichtenberger, an Austrian member of the Green Party, blasted the Strasbourg arrangement for all these reasons. “It’s a lot of logistics, it’s a lot of extra costs — you don’t always have all the things here that you would need and it’s terrible,” she said during the last Strasbourg session. “And concerning climate change, one can’t defend this anymore!”

But in fact, it only takes one person to defend it — French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since it would take a unanimous decision by all 27 EU leaders to change the treaty mandating the Strasbourg seat, Sarkozy can singlehandedly maintain the status quo. Pressed on the matter by MEPs during a 2007 attempt to stop Strasbourg meetings, Sarkozy said “I am a flexible politician but on this question there can be no possibility” of change.

Sarkozy and French MEPs are unswayed by the often repeated claim that the majority of MEPs want to end the practice (though their signatures on petitions to that effect remain suspiciously sparse, as the Open Europe thinktank found a year ago). A campaign at attracted well over a million signatures from private citizens opposing it.

Undeterred, the latest of many efforts to redress the situation is underway, aimed at Sarkozy personally. Liberal Dutch MEP Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert — a headliner in recent months for leading the fight to reject a new bank data-sharing deal with the United States — has publicly released her appeal to the French president.

The letter references Hennis-Plasschaert’s request to Sarkozy a year ago for a justification for keeping the Strasbourg meetings in a time of economic hardship. It says the French government responded to that request with a reminder of the city’s historical significance. Her 2010 missive acknowledges that tradition but insists Strasbourg has now become a “negative symbol of wasting money and bureaucracy.”

“The two seats cannot be justified another day,” she wrote. “The eyes of many Europeans are upon us waiting for us to lead” in this moment of economic crisis, Hennis-Plaesschaert wrote to Sarkozy. She asked how the European Union is to “maintain the confidence of the hundreds of millions it represents, if it cannot adopt a single seat for the European Parliament.”

She sent a similar letter to EU President Herman van Rompuy, urging him to lead the heads of state into action.

But when asked whether he’s worried the two-seat system will end, Strasbourg Deputy Mayor Jean-Jacques Gsell shakes his head with an air of indulgent weariness. He’s confident there will be no such change; he’s been facing these same arguments for many years, though the economic and environmental stakes are now higher.

“Fighting is not very interesting for the future,” Gsell said. He explained how Strasbourg is not just complacently resting on its historical laurels, it’s also developing new ways of attracting attention and income. New high-speed rail links will make travel from Belgium and Luxembourg more convenient and Gsell says the region is creating a special international zone with the neighboring German city, Kiel, in the near future. The city is in great demand to take its renowned Christmas market on the road to places such as Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro, he reports, after a recent Tokyo tour saw massive success.

Gsell says he has the ultimate solution to put a stop to all the complaining about monthly travel: “We can have all the European institutions in Strasbourg and the problem will be resolved.” Met with a chuckle, he said sternly, "I'm very serious."

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the photo caption.