In defence of Strasbourg: a French city under siege again
Tory MEP aims to persuade the EU to abandon the costly 'Strasbourg circus'. Shame, says Nigel Horne
IF IT IS POSSIBLE to feel sorry for a city, then one might feel sorry for Strasbourg.
First of all, very few people have a clue where it is. They think it's in Germany or even Austria. It's actually here, in France, its medieval buildings and glistening waterways making it one of the country's prettiest small cities.
Second, it gets bad-mouthed in the headlines every time the European Court of Human Rights (housed in a sparkling Richard Rogers edifice) denies Britain the right to extradite someone it doesn't like. You'd be wasting your time offering a Weekend for Two in Strasbourg in the UKIP tombola.
Finally, there's a new campaign afoot to remove the one thing that keeps Strasbourg healthy and wealthy (after the Kronenbourg 1664 brewery) - namely, the bizarre practice under which the European Parliament decamps from Brussels one week in four to sit in Strasbourg.
On the surface, this practice is clearly a nonsense in our age of austerity. It involves 750 MEPs finding their way to north-east France, along with EU Commissioners, civil servants, secretaries and PRs, all armed with tonnes of documents.
The idea was born of good intentions. The official seat of the EU Parliament would be established on the border of France and Germany, at the very heart of modern Europe, helping to mend the wounds of WW2 and the Prussian siege of Strasbourg in 1870.
And it worked, up to a point. President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel would do well to pick up the habit of their political forebears, Chirac and Schroeder, who regularly met for a working lunch of escargots and choucroute at Chez Yvonne, a tiny timber-framed restaurant hidden down the Rue du Sanglier.
But the expense of having the EU gravy train divert from Brussels once a month is shocking – at least €200 million a year according to reasonable estimates, and that's before anyone's picked up the bills for lunch at Chez Yvonne or Au Crocodile, where the menu includes, at €42, Bonbon de foie gras d'oie en streusel d'anis vert, écume et marmelade de kumqvat. (Goose foie gras in filo pastry with green aniseed crumble and kumqvat marmalade – you get the picture.)
Now a Tory MEP, Ashley Fox, is leading a campaign to get the 'Strasbourg circus' abandoned. He says it's not only a horrible waste of taxpayers' money and his colleagues' time, but it leads to 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide being generated every month.
Having failed to secure enough signatures on an online petition to get a formal Treaty change discussed in Westminster, Fox is now drawing up a report with a like-minded German MEP in an effort to get the EU Parliament itself to vote for a 'single seat' future. He reckons two-thirds of MEPs are on his side; the sticking point is the French members, who will never vote for Strasbourg to lose its historic rights.
The problem is that Strasbourg's economy is dependent on it. The city has come to rely not only on the regular influx of MEPs and civil servants filling hotels, restaurants and bars, and keeping the boutiques buzzing, but on the whole panoply of Eurohood. Strasbourg is home to the Council of Europe, the Institute of High European Studies, the European Science Foundation... the list goes on. (I should declare an interest – my sister works for one of them.)
But can the Strasbourg circus go on for ever? Surely not. The best idea I've heard for buying off the French MEPs is for the EU to hand over its Strasbourg Parliament buildings to a new university – perhaps a University of European Studies. The location could hardly be better, there'd be no shortage of institutes and foundations looking for affiliation, and a new crowd of professors, graduate students and visiting lecturers would soon fill the hotels, restaurants and bars.
To adapt a famous sign on the French railways, Un gravy train peut en cacher un autre.