Time to end the EU’s travelling circus

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 22 August 2013

Whether you like Canberra or not, there is no doubt it properly fulfils its functions as Australia’s capital. The federal government, parliament and the High Court all operate in close proximity to each other. Canberra may not be the world’s most exciting place, but it certainly allows for effective government.

Now imagine for a moment that parliament sat in Melbourne most of the time, except for a week each month when it convened in Sydney. Ministerial meetings and the highest courts would take place in Canberra, but there would also be regular ministerial summits around the state capitals. And the Reserve Bank would be located in Adelaide.

Sound impractical? Indeed. But that’s precisely the kind of situation that the European Union faces. Its highest institutions are not only split between Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Frankfurt (which on its own would be a logistical challenge); the European Parliament is also forced to commute back and forth between Belgium and France. But at least the latter could change if European parliamentarians now have their way.

Over the past two years, a cross-party campaign to stop the European Parliament’s travelling circus has gathered steam. Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs is currently debating a report on the location of Europe’s top institutions. Its goal is to streamline the workings of parliament by locating it in just one city, most likely the seat of the European Commission – Brussels.

This would end a decades-long farce. Since the beginnings of European integration in the 1950s, Strasbourg has hosted European institutions. First, the Council of Europe was established in the city, and later the European Parliament held its meetings there.

However, when Brussels emerged as the actual political centre of the European Union, parliament also became increasingly Brussels-based. What remained for Strasbourg was its position as a second seat of the European Parliament, guaranteed by European treaty law to host 12 parliamentary sessions a year.

The results of these arrangements are bizarre. Once a month, 766 EU parliamentarians, about 3000 staff and all their files travel 400km from Brussels to Strasbourg for a four-day sitting period. At the end of that period, they all travel back to Brussels – if they’re lucky. For those parliamentarians wishing to return to their constituencies, it is more complicated. Strasbourg’s small airport only offers direct flights to six European capitals.

It is not only avoidable environmental pollution caused by unnecessary travel; it is also a waste of taxpayers’ money. The total costs of running parliament in two locations are estimated to be around €200 million a year. Funds are needed to pay for travelling expenses between Brussels and Strasbourg – and not least for hotel rooms which regularly spike by 150 per cent when parliament is in town. It is also the Strasbourg parliamentary buildings which need to be financed, heated, maintained and lit, even though they remain empty for 317 days a year.

At times of public sector spending cuts, such largesse is difficult to defend. The public has long been sceptical of the wisdom of having parliament in two locations. Well, three actually because the Secretariat of the European Parliament is not situated in either Brussels or Strasbourg. The parliamentary bureaucracy is in Luxembourg.

An online petition to change this situation has so far collected close to 1.3 million signatures. Parliamentarians themselves are equally unhappy with the arrangements and, in a vote, 77 per cent of them have expressed their wish to consolidate all of parliament’s tasks in just one city.

However, it takes more than public pressure and parliamentary support to bring about change. The reason is that Strasbourg’s role in EU policy-making is guaranteed by the treaties establishing the European Union. To amend these treaties, it requires unanimity between the countries involved – and unsurprisingly France and Luxembourg have so far blocked any such attempt. In fact, Strasbourg’s city council recently announced to fund a PR campaign arguing its case.

Once upon a time, Strasbourg may have had better reasons on its side. Located close to the French-German border, it symbolised post-war reconciliation. This initial justification now seems a bit odd, particularly as the European Union has enlarged far beyond the initial six countries that started the European Economic Community.

Today, the EU has 28 member states. For Finns, Poles or the Portuguese, it may be harder to understand why their taxes should be required to pay for a former symbol of French-German friendship. Given the number of its members, not every country can realistically expect to be the seat of EU institutions anyway.

Seen from the distance of the South Pacific, the bi-location of the European Parliament does not only appear like an oddity. It actually tells us something about the nature and the workings of the European Union as an institution.

It is obviously inefficient and senseless to maintain the status quo. There are no good political, let alone economic reasons to organise Europe’s parliamentary affairs in such a way. At the same time, the chances of changing this arrangement are close to zero, because efficiency takes a back seat to national prestige.

If Europe cannot even agree on something as straightforward and sensible as allowing parliament to decide on its seat, what are the chances it will ever find solutions to other, more complicated areas of policy? What can we expect from a political organisation in which not even a super-majority of its parliamentarians can stop a waste of taxpayers’ money?

In the grand scheme of the EU, the €200 million ($294.6 million) it takes to keep parliament in Strasbourg for 48 days a year may not be much. It’s roughly equivalent to the money Greece has received since the beginning of its bailout – per day.

Just like Canberra, Brussels is not the world’s most exciting place. But if the European Union really cared about administrative efficiency, it would make it its proper capital and stop the Strasbourg travelling circus.

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