Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Tale of Two EU Capitals

I occasionally get plenty frustrated with the US Congress, as do most other Americans judging by the pitiful approval rating of only 12% that Congress enjoys today.  Its arcane procedures, its filibusters, its frequent inability – especially in the current toxic climate – to rise above petty politics do little, as they say, to enhance its reputation.  I’m reminded of graffiti that I once saw in a bathroom in Athens, Georgia:  If “pro” is the opposite of “con”, then what is the opposite of “progress”?  Congress!

Parliament's home in Brussels...
A case in point:  an important funding bill supported by 92% of the Senate was recently completely blocked until the last minute by a single Senator who didn’t agree with some small details in the bill.  If the issue had not been resolved, the agency that oversees all air travel in the US would have been partially shut down – for the second time this summer.

As dysfunctional as that sounds, Congress does have a leg up on the EU's parliament in one aspect.  At least it’s made up its mind where to sit.  Few Americans realize (or would care, for that matter) that the European Parliament is constantly moving between two cities. 

It does most of its work in Brussels, where most EU institutions are located and which is considered by most people to be the “capital” of the EU.  However, once a month (except for the holiday month of August) all 736 parliament members pack up for a one-week sojourn to Strasbourg, France, the parliament’s other home. 

And they don’t come alone.  The entourage making the twice-monthly 350-kilometer (220-mile) trip between Brussels and Strasbourg reportedly includes 2000 interpreters and other staff member, as well as some 15 truckloads of documents and other baggage.  It would be as if the entire US Congress decamped once a month to Pittsburg for a week. 

Strasbourg, which I understand is a delightful city, is in actual fact the official seat of parliament.  It is the place where, by treaty, all votes on EU legislation must take place, and is obviously a point of pride for the French.  Since unanimous agreement between all 27 EU countries is needed to amend the treaty, any single country can block any proposal to keep parliament in Brussels, and – it goes without saying – this will happen only over France’s dead body. 

...and its second residence in Strasbourg.
The choice of somewhat provincial Strasbourg as the official seat of parliament is not accidental, as the city holds a special place in European history and geography.  Situated on the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg has been a bone of contention between these two countries time and time again.  Peacetime Strasbourg is living proof of the reconciliation between France and Germany, and a fitting symbol of the union that was formed to keep these two former enemies from going at each other again.

Symbolism aside, this itinerant parliament arrangement can best be summed up by the precise legal term, “idiotic”, especially when you consider that the annual cost of this monthly schlepping back and forth is a reported 230 million euros ($300 million).  Green members of the EU Parliament from Britain have also estimated that, in addition to the monetary costs, the arrangement results in emissions of over 20,000 additional tons of carbon dioxide every year.  The joke about political hot air contributing to global warming just writes itself.  


  1. They should probably move it to one spot. But as I'm not a member of an EU member, it's hardly for me to say.

    The US government is so effed up that I'm sick of belaboring the obvious. The USA is a sad place in most respects.

    1. It's the French, I'm afraid. Everything else EU is in Brussels.