- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

STRASBOURG, France — It’s a 23-story building that houses 1,133 offices, 29 meeting rooms, a massive amphitheater with 750 seats, and a press center for 250 journalists. However, the European Parliament is almost completely empty for all but four days every month.

Most of the time, deputies work at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, and the constant to-and-fro has won the parliament the nickname “traveling circus.” Now, a debate is intensifying over whether it makes sense to keep the legislature’s official seat in Strasbourg.

“It’s unworkable, it’s costly, and we can’t function the way we want. In the eyes of the public, we lose our legitimacy,” said Kathalijne Buitenweg, a Dutch deputy for the Greens and a member of the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform.

Last month, the parliament approved a report that concludes that the absence of a single working place for the legislature results in significant extra costs.

Advocates of centralizing key EU institutions in Brussels, however, face the big obstacle of France’s veto power, and experts agree the proposal is not likely to pass anytime soon.

Consider the investment in infrastructure alone: France, a key architect of the European Union, took a central role in planning the glass-and-steel edifice that cost $591 million and was inaugurated with great pomp five years ago.

Then, there’s the symbolism of the institution’s location in this border town that has been at the center of bitter territorial conflicts between France and Germany and now considered a motor of continental unity.

Strasbourg is emerging not only as a regional center, but also as a hub of human rights activity, hosting also the Council of Europe — the continent’s top human-rights watchdog, which employs several hundred people — and the European Court of Human Rights.

But aside from the four-day monthly plenary sessions, the imposing parliament building lies empty and off-limits to anyone but security guards, maintenance workers and guided tours.

The 732 MEPs, or members of the European Parliament, and their staff are based in another huge building in Brussels. The legislature’s secretariat is in yet a third place — Luxembourg. This arrangement is a result of the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, signed by the heads of EU governments, which modified earlier setups also involving France and Luxembourg.

The nine buildings in three cities cost European taxpayers $258 million a year more than if the legislature were based in just one place, according to the parliamentary report approved last month.

“The European Parliament is the only parliament in the world which can’t decide where it sits. It’s a ludicrous situation,” said Alasdair Murray of the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank.

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