Strasbourg October 2001

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 apter than they perhaps intended: the transnational legislature leads a curiously peripatetic existence, causing 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 midday hundreds of smartly dressed, suitcase-toting parliamentarians and their aides were scurrying across the elliptical forecourt toward their offices. Outside each office door stood at least one large metal trunk that had been packed the week before.

The smooth operation of the parliament, 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 lawmaking and lecterns: one of the oddest aspects of European unification is that the European Parliament operates out of three different cities. 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 translation service are in Luxembourg. The constant to-and-fro and upkeep of separate headquarters 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 EP's vagabond existence recalls nothing so much as the title of a 1969 movie comedy 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 each 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 from Brussels and Luxembourg each month, along with the electronic cards with which the MEPs cast their votes. Twenty-five 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 minivans, 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 trunks deliver the MEPs' mail from Brussels and Luxembourg.

After the Strasbourg session ends, on Thursday, the process is reversed. "I compare it to the Formula One motorracing championships, where they have trailers that have to keep moving and changing places," Adolfo Orcajo, a Spaniard who heads the EP'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 the 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 the meeting place of the EP's forerunner, a toothless consultative body 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, which evolved into the European Community and in 1993 became the European Union). Situated on 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.

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