MEPs balk at cost of 'musical chairs'

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ONE of the less vaunted successes of the Edinburgh summit was a decision to legalise the musical chairs system by which the European Parliament meets in three different cities. But this week the parliamentarians themselves complained formally that they had not been properly consulted.

They believe the decision goes against the founding laws of the European Community that give the Parliament autonomy to run its own affairs, and say they do not intend to be bound by the Edinburgh decision.

Their objections may not change anything in the short term, though certain estimates suggest that the system will short-change the taxpayer by thousands of pounds. Even before the deal had been struck, a Conservative MEP, Peter Price, had written to the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, with an estimate of the 'waste of money' involved in the merry-go- round. The Edinburgh decision formalises a 1958 temporary agreement that makes Strasbourg the seat of the European Parliament, Luxembourg the location for its secretariat, and Brussels the venue for committee and other meetings for the three weeks that it it is not in plenary session in Strasbourg.

In the intervening years, Brussels and Strasbourg have battled hard to unseat each other. The row has blocked inter-governmental agreement on the siting of other European institutions such as Europol or the embryonic European Central Bank.

To improve their individual claims, Strasbourg and the French authorities are investing some pounds 282m in a new debating chamber and offices big enough to house the additional MEPs who will take office in 1994 and beyond - when the EC may have been enlarged to include Scandinavian representatives.

In Brussels, meanwhile, another new chamber is under construction and should be open next year. The Parliament is obliged to help meet the pounds 171m cost with an annual rent of pounds 16.7m.

And once a month, steel-bodied lorries bearing metal trunks full of documents make the 500-mile round trip to Strasbourg. Mr Price, formerly chairman of the European Parliament's Budgetary Control Committee, has broken down the costs of moving from place to place and worked out that even if just 20 per cent of costs arise from the multiplication of facilities, that still represents an unnecessary outlay of some pounds 45,000 in terms of the administration and infrastructure and pounds 41,000 in staff pay and related expenditure per annum.

Several of his colleagues have now added their voices to his complaint, but the refusal of the Parliament to be bound by the Edinburgh decision is unlikely to make working practices any more complicated than they are now; it would take a legal challenge really to set the cat among the pigeons.

No one has quantified the stress factor. Strasbourg, though one of France's most charming cities, is in a bowl and its airport is often fog-bound.

There is nothing like the two- hour bus ride from the nearest adjacent airport, Mulhouse, to Strasbourg to concentrate Euro-minds on the silliness of certain Euro-compromises.