As we grow accustomed to our newfound post-Brexit sovereign nation status, we can cast a nostalgic glance across the English Channel to the antics of the European Parliament. The travelling circus that forces the parliament to vacate its state-of-the-art palatial pile in Brussels and travel to another state-of-the-art palace in Strasbourg, twelve times a year, trundles on. With almost all of the 751 MEP’s stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, the President of the parliament, David Sassolli, nevertheless felt obliged to chair a session in Strasbourg just before Christmas, ludicrously presiding over a vast empty chamber. He did so to avoid legal action against his institution by the French, who have doggedly insisted that treaty conditions coercing the parliament to travel to Alsace are strictly adhered to. There have been repeated attempts to end this farce over the years, vetoed every time by the single vote of France, for whom the headquarters of the European Parliament in the ancient city of Strasbourg is an indispensable status symbol.
Following the end of the Second World War it was decided that the European Coal and Steel Community, the EU’s forebear, should be based in Strasbourg, on the banks of the Rhine, the river dividing the two warring nations. The parliament in Strasbourg was seen as a symbol of post-war reconciliation out of which the EU arose and was codified in the Treaty of Rome, the founding treaty of the European Economic Community, signed in 1957. Treaties can only be amended or broken following a unanimous vote. Any single EU Member State can exercise its veto to prevent a treaty being breached and the French are past-masters at doing just that.
In 1999, the old parliamentary headquarters in Brussels and Strasbourg were replaced by two, spanking new and enormous parliamentary seats. In Strasbourg, the edifice, designed by a French architectural cooperative, was, incongruously, almost an exact modern replica of Pieter Bruegel's famous painting of the Tower of Babel! It was certainly a masterpiece of French architecture, being entirely encased in glass and yet managing to achieve an atmosphere of almost total darkness inside, with towering black-painted walls and black tiles. After the official opening by President Jacques Chirac, MEPs confronted the young, radical French architects, listing hundreds of snags in the new building and complaining bitterly about the mystifying layout which left parliamentarians and staff wandering around in dazed circles. They were told by the architects that the bewildering design was intentional, as the draughtsmen had striven to design a building that represented citizens' views of the EU, all shining glitz and glitter on the outside, but dark and impenetrable within!
Fed up with a soaring, black-painted wall, that rose for three stories inside the main atrium of the Strasbourg building, MEPs ordered it to be re-painted white, only to discover that the French architects had patented the interior design and it could not be altered. A vast expanse of white sailcloth had to be purchased and draped from ceiling to floor, to by-pass the legal obstacles. Bigger problems were to follow. The ceiling of the main plenary chamber of the parliament collapsed in the summer of 2008, exposing deep flaws in the original design. Luckily MEPs were on their summer break at the time, or many would have been killed by the plummeting slabs of concrete.
Work on the costly restoration of the damaged hemicycle meant the parliament missed two consecutive months in Alsace. For the French this was unacceptable. They threatened to lodge an action in the European Court of Justice, alleging breach of the treaty. The parliament, as usual, surrendered to French threats and organised two consecutive Strasbourg trips in October 2008. More than 700 MEPs, 4,000 staff, truckloads of documents and the usual army of lobbyists, had to uproot themselves twice from their offices in Brussels and head to Strasbourg, only to reverse the process four days later and repeat the whole operation the following week.
There are three weeks of committee meetings in Brussels every month, followed by a four-day plenary session in Strasbourg. The £250 million annual cost of moving everyone on a five-hour trip over 275 miles from Brussels to Strasbourg has done nothing to deter the French. Even as post-pandemic Europe faces its biggest ever economic depression, maintaining the parliament in Strasbourg, which, fully-staffed, lies empty for 310 days out of 365, is seen as sacrosanct. But for four days every month when the parliament lumbers into town, French tills are ringing. Every hotel is booked to capacity. Some MEPs and staff even have to cross the Rhine to find accommodation in Germany. The restaurants do a roaring trade, with many sensitive legislative negotiations concluded over expensive late-night dinners.
But maybe the combination of the coronavirus pandemic, looming austerity and the climate change debate, will make President Macron think again. The pandemic has forced everyone to work from home. The lockdown has been particularly vigorous in Brussels and MEPs have learned that important decisions can be taken on zoom conference calls. The new normal, after the restrictions are lifted, may encourage more ‘virtual’ meetings. In a key summit meeting on 10th December EU leaders agreed to push for a 55% carbon emissions reduction target by 2030. It has been estimated that the monthly trek to Strasbourg creates an additional 19,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. It must surely have occurred to MEPs that it will be the height of hypocrisy to continue the Brussels-Strasbourg extravaganza while they demand carbon reductions across the whole of Europe. Ending the Strasbourg farce would generate major financial and carbon savings and, in any case, apart from the French, virtually every other MEP thinks the monthly trek to Strasbourg is mad and bad for the parliament’s image.
But French vanity and arrogance have prevailed and the wishes of the MEPs have been ignored on every occasion. There is a famous saying in France: L'orgueil est le consolateur des faibles. Pride is the consolation of the weak. The only thing that would suffer would be French pride. Brexiteers and remainers alike will be shaking their heads in wonder!
Pieter Bruegel's Tower of Babel
The European Parliament, Strasbourg