EU may abandon Strasbourg parliament

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The Independent Online

The end to the European Parliament's costly "travelling circus" could be in sight with new moves to tempt Paris into giving up Strasbourg as one of the assembly's two seats.

After more than two decades of campaigning against their itinerant lifestyle, MEPs believe they have hit on a plan which will axe Strasbourg without offending Gallic pride.

Diplomats say the scheme - under which France would be offered a new technology institute and possibly other concessions - is the only conceivable way of ending the current rigmarole, which involves MEPs making the trek to Strasbourg for one week in every four at the cost of around €200m (£140m) a month to the European taxpayer.

Moreover, core funding for science, technology and research could be found from the savings of axing the monthly Brussels-Strasbourg commute. That would help Europe establish a rival to the America's Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Under the plan, Strasbourg would become the site of a new European Institute of Technology (EIT), helping boost the role of the city as an international centre of technology and learning. In addition, Strasbourg could be home to a new European Research Council or, alternatively, the venue for summits of EU heads of government. In return, the European Parliament would spend all its time in its Brussels building.

The EIT plan is said to have the support of Nicolas Sarkozy, a likely contender in the French presidential elections next year. That could be crucial since France has a veto over any plan to move the site of the Parliament under a deal agreed by John Major and other EU heads of government in 1992.

Since then, France has dug in against all attempts to shift Strasbourg, seeing it as a question of national prestige. Gallic sensitivity over its role in the EU was on display last week when the French president, Jacques Chirac, stormed out of a summit session when a fellow Frenchman spoke in English.

But Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German MEP who chairs a group aiming to bring the institute to Strasbourg, told EUPolitix website: "We have never previously offered Strasbourg or the French government something tangible to replace the European parliament. Now we have something to offer."

Mr Chatzimarkakis said that Mr Sarkozy is not going to say anything about the idea before the French presidential election, adding: "But I'm pretty sure Sarkozy supports this idea." All 19 Labour MEPs have publicly supported the EIT idea, as has the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform, which draws support from parliamentarians of all political hues.

Chris Heaton-Harris, a Conservative MEP and member of the reform group, argued: "This would be a win-win situation for Strasbourg. If the politicians there took a step back they would see that this could create jobs in an area which has high unemployment."