Andrew Osborn








France fights for EU white elephant

The Guardian, 18th January 2003 13:33

Critics of Strasbourg's lavish but rarely used parliament building are becoming increasingly vocal

Andrew Osborn in Strasbourg

Alarmed that Strasbourg is in danger of losing its coveted status as the official home of the European parliament, France is to spend £30m shoring up the city's claim to house the EU's only democratically elected body.

The Strasbourg debating chamber of the European parliament (EP) stands eerily silent for four-fifths of the year and its lavish headquarters has been criticised as one of the EU's biggest white elephants.

But France is determined that the parliament shall not be moved from the Alsace region to Brussels.

Its anxiety stem from a variety of factors. MEPs are becoming increasingly vocal about their dislike of the Strasbourg sitting, and with the impending enlargement of the EU it is feared that the newcomers will demand that all sittings take place in Brussels.

The stakes are high. National pride, prestige and tens of millions of euros a year are in play, and France does not want to lose them.

The government has set up a committee to bolster Strasbourg's EU credentials. In particular, it will tackle its notoriously poor air transport links.

The prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, will travel to Strasbourg next month to talk to the leaders of the parliament's political groups about the issue, and a package of measures designed to keep the city's growing band of critics at bay will be finalised in March.

A new tram service to take MEPs from the airport to the parliament building is planned and there is talk of special charter flights between the city and its deadly rival, Brussels.

A high-speed rail link to Frankfurt is also in the works.

Labelled an "indefensible monument to waste" by its detractors when it opened its doors in 1999, the parliament's £250m headquarters on the edge of the city has remained controversial.

It is used by MEPs for only 48 days a year: four days in every month. For the rest of the time it is more akin to a morgue kept clean by a small army of retainers and protected from terrorist attack by bored security guards.

Getting there is routinely described as a nightmare and, to the enduring embarrassment of the French government, the building was found on completion to have 20,000 faults.

The fact that the parliament has another headquarters in Brussels (built at a cost of £500m), which is occupied by MEPs for three weeks in every month, makes Strasbourg's case all the more tenuous.

It has a third base too: many of its administrative staff are in Luxembourg.

The cost to Europe's taxpayers of having three homes rather than of one was estimated in a recent report to be £105m a year.

But the French will not countenance change. They won the right to have a slice of the action in a backroom deal brokered by John Major in Edinburgh in 1992 and they are not about to relinquish it without a fight.

Joseph Daul, a French MEP from Alsace, says: "We see that there are many people who are anti-Strasbourg, so there must be people who defend it too.

"If Strasbourg's role is thrown into question then everything is up for negotiation - the European Central Bank's location in Frankfurt, the Food Safety Agency's presence in Ireland and so on.

"We'll fight for it. France has as much right to have an EU institution on its territory as anyone else. A Strasbourg without the EP is unthinkable and impossible."

The mayor of Strasbourg, Fabienne Keller, tenses up when asked whether the city's status is safe.

"Of course we're in competition," she concedes when pressed. "Too much [of the EU] is concentrated in Brussels. Europe is vast and has many different centres and the EU should reflect that."

But with the EU about to absorb 10 new members next year, Gary Titley, Labour's most senior MEP, believes Strasbourg's days are numbered.

"With enlargement it's going to be a real problem. The cost of having the infrastructure to cope with using this place for one week every month will be astronomical and the French are getting jittery."

Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat MEP, agrees that enlargement could spell the end of Strasbourg.

"Younger MEPs won't put up with it. New MEPs from central and eastern Europe will have considerable difficulty getting here and will have the same degree of difficulty deferring to an agreement struck by elderly men in Edinburgh in 1992."

The newcomers' impression of the place was not helped in November when they visited the Strasbourg parliament on a symbolic and historical dummy-run, only to find the airport closed because of fog and "deer on the runway".

Visiting the parliament during the 317 days of the year when it stands idle is a surreal experience.

Lifts glide up and down eerily, escalators whirr round with nobody on them, and the debating chamber, built to hold 750 people, is as quiet as the grave - as if the world outside doesn't exist.

Defending such a peculiar and wasteful state of affairs will not be easy.

Luxury legislature

· The parliament building, which is used only four days a month, contains a 750-seat debating chamber, 1,133 offices - each MEP's office has an en-suite bathroom - 29 meeting rooms, three restaurants, four bars, and a press room catering for 275 journalists

· MEPs from the further reaches of the EU, such as Finland and Madeira, spend up to 22 hours travelling to and from Strasbourg to attend the four-day session

· The building, which cost £250m, had so many flaws when it was opened in 1999 that it was nicknamed Faulty Towers

· The local authorities encourage MEPs to keep coming by giving them free travel on public transport, sending them flowers and other gifts, and holding an annual asparagus festival with lots to drink. The latest perk is a special lounge at the airport with free wine and snacks

· The city's status as the official home of the European parliament is enshrined in the 1997 Amsterdam treaty under an agreement worked out by John Major and the late François Mitterrand. It can be abolished only with the agreement of all states

· Parliament's presence is estimated to bring up to £50m to the local economy each year. Hoteliers, taxi drivers and restaurateurs fare best

· Although the building is empty most of the year, it eats up £2m in heat and electricity, £5m for cleaning, £3.5m in security costs, and about £700,000 to cart around the MEPs' files and belongings