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How ‘Brexit’ Could End the European Parliament’s ‘Traveling Circus’

Though far from a done deal, the need to relocate the medicines agency, the British withdrawal from the bloc and the recent election of the reform-minded Emmanuel Macron as president of France have created a historic opportunity, said Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a European lawmaker from Sweden who is the chairwoman of a campaign group called Single Seat, which advocates one venue for the Parliament.

“We are convinced that a change in the seat for the European Parliament would be a very concrete way to show the citizens that we work for them,” said Ms. Corazza Bildt.

In recent decades, British lawmakers of all stripes have criticized the traveling circus. They include fierce critics of European integration, like Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, and pro-European politicians, such as Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister.

Negative publicity surrounding the European Union — much of it inflated or plain erroneous — helped its critics to persuade Britons to vote in a referendum last year to leave.

But the decision appears to have united the 27 other member states and helped to stabilize the European project.

It would be a further irony if Britain’s departure were to help heal the running sore about Strasbourg’s role.

“It is one of the few positive things in an otherwise lose-lose ‘Brexit’ situation,” said Ms. Corazza Bildt, of the possibilities now opening up. “We don’t want a symbol of peace to become a symbol of waste,” she added.

Her comments highlight the extent to which the Parliament’s seat in Strasbourg has become associated with the most idealistic and the most extravagant facets of the European Union.

To many in France and Germany, the location in a city once fought over regularly by their two nations is a physical symbol of the reconciliation that European integration was intended to foster.


A European Parliament session in Strasbourg. The French government maneuvered in 1992 to enshrine the monthly plenary sessions in Strasbourg in European Union treaties, and there can be no change without Paris’s approval. Credit Jean-Francois Badias/Associated Press

Estimates of the expense of the commute vary, but the European Court of Auditors, the bloc’s spending watchdog, has identified it as $ 130 million annually. Campaigners point to the environmental cost of 19,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted per year and to the loss of thousands of working hours for lawmakers and staff members because of the commute.

Moving the Parliament to Strasbourg full-time would be difficult because other European bodies that the lawmakers scrutinize are in Brussels.

For the situation to change, several obstacles would have to be overcome.

The French government maneuvered in 1992 to enshrine the monthly plenary sessions in Strasbourg in European Union treaties, and there can be no change without Paris’s approval.

France has resisted every previous attempt to amend the rules, and last week Nathalie Loiseau, a French minister for European affairs, told reporters that there was “no ambiguity” over her country’s support for Strasbourg as the Parliament’s seat.

However, Ms. Corazza Bildt believes that Mr. Macron, an advocate of modernization, might be persuadable. One possibility might be to offer France not only the medicines agency, but also something of greater political significance — perhaps a new military planning headquarters, or the right to host occasional European Union summit meetings.

“The ball is in the court of the Élysée,” she said, referring to the French president’s office. “The decision belongs to France, what we are asking for is dialogue.”

For the city of Strasbourg, there could be benefits. The Parliament brings visitors to the city for only a few days every month, requiring large numbers of hotel rooms and taxis that are not needed for much of the rest of the year.

By contrast, the European Medicines Agency, which oversees the approval of drugs across Europe in much the same way that the Food and Drug Administration does in the United States, has around 890 staff members and hosts a steady stream of meetings of experts. On most weekdays, those activities fill around 350 London hotel rooms.

For the medicines agency, relocating to Strasbourg could complicate life because the city’s transport links are poorer than those of London. (Members of the European Parliament have managed there for decades, of course, albeit while often grumbling.)

When laying down the criteria to be considered when relocating agencies — the European Banking Authority, also in London, will need to move as well — the European Council, which represents the member governments, said accessibility was a priority.

That included “the availability, frequency and duration of flight connections from the capitals of all E.U. member states to the airports close to the location; the availability, frequency and duration of public transportation connections from these airports to the location; as well as the quality and quantity of accommodation facilities.”

Other national governments have their eyes on the medicines agency, too. Several cities have made clear their desire to host it, with formal submissions requested by the end of the month and a decision expected by the end of the year.

And few things energize European leaders as much as the competition to host agencies, which bring both prestige and cash for local economies.

In 2001, Silvio Berlusconi, then the prime minister of Italy, blocked plans to locate the European Food Safety Authority in Finland, while promoting an alternative site in the Italian city of Parma. He told fellow leaders: “Parma is synonymous with good cuisine. The Finns don’t even know what prosciutto is.”

Two years later, the agency moved to Parma.

Correction: July 11, 2017

A photograph with an earlier version of this article, using information from Agence France-Presse, was published in error. It showed the European Council building, not the European Parliament.

Source: NYT > World

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