Leading article: This circus of the absurd should end immediately

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IT IS not every day that the European Parliament makes news. It is galling - and sad - that it should do so principally because of a protest by a senior member about the absurdity of its working arrangements.

Alan Donnelly, the leader of Labour's 29 MEPs, has resigned in protest at the European Parliament's regular sittings in Strasbourg. The day before, many MEPs walked out of the speech by President Jacques Chirac of France that marked the opening of the new Strasbourg offices. It was a discourteous act, but the MEPs' frustration is understandable.

Let us re-acquaint ourselves with the travelling circus that Mr Donnelly and many others rightly find so intolerable. The European Parliament's seat in Strasbourg (consisting of the interestingly named Louise Weiss, Winston Churchill and Salvador de Madariaga buildings) is where the legislators' plenary sessions are held once a month. The parliament and its papers and staff then move for three weeks to sit in committee in Brussels, close to the European Commission and Council. The parliament's secretariat is in Luxembourg.

The travelling circus required to service those arrangements is staggeringly expensive, even before one takes into account the pounds 250m that the new building in Strasbourg has cost, on top of the cost of the new building in Brussels opened two years ago. But the parliament's custom of moving around is a historical accident, a triumph of French chauvinism over common sense, dating back to the joint assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, the 1962 forerunner of today's parliament.

Then, in a small consultative body, such an anomaly could be lived with. Today, with direct elections and the impressive new powers granted it by the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties, and as it looks forward to enlargement eastwards, legislating for a Europe of 500 million people, such inefficiencies in Europe's parliament have no justification.

The president of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, said recently that: "The history of European integration has been marked by the efforts that have had to be made with a view to overcoming initial conflicts of interest or differences in outlook and ensuring that the common interests would ultimately prevail in a spirit of solidarity." Let us hope Europe's leaders think again about the way the parliament functions and recall that it does not belong to Strasbourg or Alsace or France but to Europe as a whole. If it is ever to work properly, the circus must cease.