The Atlantic Monthly

October 2001, The Atlantic Monthly

Home Away from Home

The European Parliament has no fixed seat and spends a small fortune each month trekking from Belgium and Luxembourg to France

The curved glass façade of the European Parliament soars like the prow of an ocean liner on the outskirts of Strasbourg. The Parisian architects of the building, which opened two years ago, say that its sleek design was meant to embody “democracy in motion.” Their description is more apt than they perhaps intended: the transnational legislature has a curiously peripatetic existence, leading many Europeans to view it essentially as a traveling circus.

When I arrived in Strasbourg on a recent Monday morning, to observe a four-day session opening that afternoon, the hallways and the futuristic, cavernous debating chamber were deserted. But by mid-day hundreds of smartly dressed, suitcase-toting parliamentarians and their aides were scurrying across the elliptical forecourt toward their offices. Outside each door stood a large metal trunk they had packed the week before.

The smooth operation of the legislature, a body directly elected by the citizens of the European Union’s fifteen member nations, is bound up as much with luggage and loading docks as with law-making and lecterns. The 626 deputies, along with retinues of clerks, interpreters, and secretaries, regularly shuttle back and forth between Strasbourg and Brussels, where they occupy an equally mammoth debating chamber and a 2,600-room office complex. Making matters even more cumbersome, the EP’s secretariat and its translation service are located in Luxembourg. The constant to-and-fro in this tale of three cities costs more than $150 million a year–nearly a fifth of the parliament’s budget.

For those trapped in it, the parliament’s vagabond spirit is perhaps best captured by the title of a 1969 comic film about Americans on a whirlwind European tour: If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium. “You’re living out of a suitcase half the time,” David Bowe, a British MEP (member of the European Parliament), says. “I need to check every morning what desk I’m at and in which country.”

The routine goes like this: One Friday night a month a dozen freight trucks haul the parliament’s trappings southeast from Brussels and Luxembourg, across the former Maginot Line. To make the trek to Strasbourg, some 280 miles from Brussels MEPs are each supplied with one or more trunks bearing a color-coded delivery label emblazoned with the EU’s emblem, a circle of stars. The trunks are filled with whatever documents, legal manuals, and reference works might be required in France. By Friday afternoon the gray or blue lockers, battered by use, line the corridors. At 6:00 p.m. workers begin strapping them on dollies and moving them into vehicles waiting in the subterranean garage.

A total of 5,000 trunks, wheeled filing cabinets, and boxes of audiovisual equipment make the trip each month, along with the electronic cards with which the MEPs cast their votes. Twenty-five formally-attired ushers pack up the starched white bow ties and black tail coats they wear to assist in the debating chambers; chauffeurs drive a fleet of twelve official cars, three mini-vans, and two buses to Strasbourg in order to ferry the parliamentarians around town. Each day during the sojourn in France, courier vans jammed with still more footlockers deliver MEP’s mail from Brussels and Luxembourg.

After the Strasbourg session ends, on Thursday, the process is reversed. “I compare it to the Formula One motorcycling championships, where they have trailers that have to keep moving and changing places,” Adolfo Orcajo, the director of the parliament’s in-house moving department, told me. “Everything has to be there on time for the start of the race, and then they pack up and go on to the next one. A political decision could stop all this, but for the moment we have to comply.”

“It’s not an ideal situation, but we manage,” says Parliament’s President, Nicole Fontaine of France, referring to what she terms the “transhumance”–a Latin word for the seasonal migration of livestock. “We did not create this situation, and we would not have created it if we had been given the choice.”

In 1952 Strasbourg was designated as the meeting place of the EP’s forerunner, a toothless consultative assembly known as the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community (the ECSC gave rise in 1958 to the Brussels-based European Economic Community and in 1993 became the European Union) Situated along the Rhine River, which divides France from Germany, and a trophy of numerous Franco-German wars, Strasbourg was seen as symbolically appropriate for institutions devoted to European reconciliation. Until 1999 the various incarnations of what became the European Parliament held most of their plenary sessions in Strasbourg, in the headquarters of the Council of Europe, a separate intergovernmental organization set up in 1949 to engender harmony on the war-torn continent. But by the 1960s parliamentary committees had begun to meet in Brussels.

As the organization now know as the European Union came into begin and began to increase in size, parts of Brussels were razed to make way for its administration, and the parliament began holding supplemental plenary sessions there (six plenary sessions are now held in Brussels each year). At a 1992 summit of European leaders, France’s President, Francois Mitterrand, determined that Strasbourg not be supplanted by Brussels, extracted a treaty pledge that at least twelve plenary sessions a year be held in the French city. France then got the parliament to commit to the construction of a new building in Strasbourg-a monumental $400 million structure, which even the normally reserved Le Monde pronounced “Pharoanic”–by threatening to block a reapportionment of seats that was needed to account for German reunification.

The parliament’s ceaseless peregrinations have provided ready fodder for skeptics, who deride the institution as just another black hole for EU funds. “People don’t know a lot about what the parliament does, aside from oscillate between Brussels and Strasbourg,” Roy Perry, a British MEP, acknowledges. Average voter participation in EP elections dropped from more than 60 percent in 1979 to less than 50 percent in 1999.

Still, the parliament has recently begun flexing its muscles in unprecedented ways, proving itself a guardian of democratic accountability within the EU bureaucracy. Astonishing those who long dismissed the legislature as impotent, it forced the ouster in 1999 of all nineteen members of the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) amid charges of wide-spread corruption.

Although the parliament can’t initiate legislation, it has been granted increased powers under successive EU treaties: it can now approve, amend, or veto 80 percent of the economic and social regulations generated by the European Commission. (taxation and agricultural policy remains outside its control). German Chancellor Gerhard Schr’der has recently proposed strengthening the EP’s hand in budgetary matters. Corporations and citizens’ groups have been quick to recognize the parliament’s increased leverage, especially in environmental and consumer protection, and are dispatching more and more lobbyists to it. During the past year the U.S. mission to the EU has beefed up its monitoring of the parliament’s activity. “There are many ways in which this parliament affects us directly,” a U.S. envoy who follows economic relations told me. Recent legislation, including laws to restrict genetically modified foods, animal testing of cosmetics, and pollution from jet engines, has had a direct impact on U.S. businesses.

Can a body with increasing responsibility and influence continue to uproot itself every month? Although Strasbourg presents a picturesque contrast to dreary Brussels, many MEPs say that meeting in the Belgian capital is more practical and efficient: both the European Commission and the European Council– the EU’s third policy-making body, made up EU government members–are based there.

Brussels also has far better air and rail links to other national capitals. Partly in response to this fact, parliamentarians voted last year to cut plenary sessions in Strasbourg from five days a week to four; the gleaming new building now stands unused except for forty-eight days of the year. The supplemental sessions in Brussels each year are increasingly necessary; many parliamentarians hope to add more of them. “It’s changing things by stealth, essentially,” says British MEP and Parliament’s Vice President David Martin, who would like to do away with the Strasbourg sessions altogether.

But France is still on guard. In 1997, it successfully petitioned the European Court of Justice the EU’s highest court) to block efforts by the parliament to meet eleven rather than twelve times annually in Strasbourg. Because any move to concentrate legislative action in Brussels would require approval of all EU governments, the current arrangement, or some variation on it, seems likely to persist. “There will never be unanimity. France will not accede,” Marie-Helene Gillig, a French MEP and a former deputy mayor of Strasbourg, told me firmly. Voicing an opinion shared by most French MEPs, she argues that the monthly migration helps to avoid an unduly centralized EU bureaucracy. “Those who are against Strasbourg have a vision that’s economic in the extreme. Europe should certainly avoid wasting money, but the construction of Europe involves something other than a vision that is merely based on economics.”

For the foreseeable future, then, the European Parliament appears likely to remain on the go, and the size of its nighttime caravans will increase if the EU takes on new members from Eastern Europe. After talking with Gillig, I came upon a sign in Strasbourg’s main square citing British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s 1948 declaration that this was “a city which, more than any other, has been the victim of the stupidity of the nations of Europe which thought they could solve their problems by waging war.” Even though Strasbourg is no longer a victim but the scene of peaceful cooperation, it’s hard not to wonder if a few of Bevin’s words still apply.