BRUSSELS — It is one of the strangest features of the European Union: a parliament that a week out of every month travels from its seat in Brussels to Strasbourg, France.
French leaders demanded the costly arrangement when the modern European Union was established. Now, with the pandemic making movement a potential health hazard, the legislature’s leaders decided to stick to Brussels as they reconvene this week — and France is outraged.
“There is something behind it we cannot tolerate. Now we are not respecting European treaties,” French Civil Service Minister Amélie de Montchalin told French radio on Tuesday. “The seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg. It is not a French invention. It is not a fantasy. It is written in the treaties.”
The Strasbourg migration was enshrined in European treaties after French leaders successfully demanded a major European institution of their own. One goal was to prevent the 27-member political bloc from being overly centered in a single city.
Many members of the European Parliament loathe the monthly journey, which requires 705 lawmakers and thousands of staffers, lobbyists and journalists to travel for at least four hours from Brussels. The circus typically arrives Monday afternoons and departs mid-Thursday. Trucks shuttle 6,000 plastic trunks of files. The operation costs European taxpayers about $130 million a year.
But French leaders are so attached to it that they are demanding the process carry on even in the middle of raging pandemic, when both Strasbourg and Brussels are viral hotspots.
French Europe Minister Clément Beaune showed up to Strasbourg on Monday to show solidarity with the city, where restaurants and taxi drivers are taking a hit from the parliamentary absence. Some hotels are going broke.
The French like to tout that Strasbourg is a symbol of European peace, since it passed between French and German control several times in recent centuries. Critics say Strasbourg is now also a symbol of European excess, with restaurants catering to the lobbyists who bend lawmakers’ ears on the finer points of regulation that is approved there.
As a matter of practicality, most of the rest of the life of the European Union carries on in Brussels during ordinary times, and most lawmakers, except the French ones, resent the schlep. Parliament has repeatedly voted to do away with the requirement, although because it is required by treaty, a change would require the unanimous consent of all E.U. countries — and France appears unlikely to allow it any time soon.
Still, the virus trumps French demands, at least for now. European Parliament President David Sassoli, an Italian, called off the Strasbourg plans earlier this month for health reasons, promising to reconsider for next month’s session.
Some lawmakers want to make the change permanent.
“I’m glad Strasbourg is cancelled, but it is not the wish of the parliament to return to Strasbourg,” tweeted Jeroen Lenaers, a Dutch center-right member of the European Parliament. “The @Europarl_EN has consistently voted with large majority to abolish the unnecessary travel and adopt a single seat.”
The parliament went largely virtual in March, when the pandemic hit, leaving this stretch the longest the parliament has gone without appearing in France in its history. This week’s plenary session is the first large-scale attempt to convene in-person, and even now, only 420 of the 705 lawmakers said they planned to come to Brussels, according to Delphine Colard, a spokeswoman for the parliament. Only 200 people will be allowed into the parliamentary chamber at any one time.
With viral levels again spiking in Belgium, some lawmakers who travel to Brussels will face quarantines once they go home. On Tuesday, Belgium had 77 cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks. France had 159 cases, almost exactly the same as the United States. But indignant French lawmakers note that Brussels has more cases than Strasbourg.
“Canceling the session in Strasbourg for fear of MEPs coming from all over Europe to a city facing a rebound of Covid-19 is a difficult thing, but can still be understood,” tweeted Christophe Grulder, a French member of European Parliament. “But deciding unilaterally to transfer the same sessions to Brussels, where sanitary risks are higher than Strasbourg, is total nonsense.”
Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia.