Will Strasbourg repairs end the 'travelling circus'?

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The Independent Online

There have been fresh calls to scrap the European Parliament's 'travelling circus' after it was revealed that repairs running into millions of euros are needed to secure the parliament building in Strasbourg.

MEPs have been forced to stay put in Brussels this week instead of travelling down to the French city for their monthly plenary session following the spectacular collapse of the chamber's ceiling last month.

But while officials are scrambling to speed up the repair work on the roof in time for President Nicholas Sarkozy's visit in October, it has now emerged that other parts of the building are also unsafe.

"The ceilings in one wing and some panelling all need to be replaced," said Gérard Onesta, a French MEP from the Green Party who is heading up the investigation into the ceiling crash. He says at least 300 people could have died if the roof had caved in during a parliamentary session or one of the daily tourist visits to the building, with tonnes of debris and steel girders crashing into the hemicycle.

M. Onesta estimates that the building work, including the construction of a new, high-tech roof in the chamber, will cost at least €6 million (£4.8 million). "It has been a huge setback but we think we can be ready in time for the October session."

But news that more cash is needed for repairs in the Louise Weiss building, an architecturally complex glass and steel inaugurated to great fanfare in 1998, has triggered a rebellion at the parliament.

"This has made us more determined than ever to bring this travelling circus to a halt," says Alexander Alvaro, a German Conservative MEP who has launched a petition to scrap the French seat. "We have saved four million euros and environmentally it is far less damaging for us to stay right here in Brussels."

Gary Titley, a Labour Party MEP, added: "This is deeply embarrassing for the French, as they want to be there during their EU Presidency. But that is not a good reason to rush through the repairs. If the damage is so great, I don't see how they can complete the work and check that everything is safe within a fortnight. It is very irresponsible."

Although the row over EU Treaty rules, which oblige MEPs to hold at least 12 of their annual meetings in Strasbourg, is nothing new, there is greater momentum than ever to lean on France to give up the prize of hosting the Parliament, according to Mr Titley.

"By staying in Brussels these last two sessions, everyone has realised how much easier life is. No hours wasted with travel from all over Europe to a city that is not well connected, no tons of boxes and files to send back and forth, no temporary staff hired in. Everyone can see this is far more efficient."

However, there is little hope of swaying the French government, which is determined to preserve the prestige and extra revenue for Strasbourg. "It is a matter of national pride for Nicolas Sarkozy and he will never relinquish it. And there was no way how would address the Brussels chamber in October. It had to be France," said one EU official.

Meanwhile, it is still not clear who was to blame for the accident. "We don't really know if this was negligence on the part of the builders or architects or the fault of the company involved," shrugs Gérard Onesta, adding that the company which built the roof closed down last year. More troublingly, it is not yet clear that the insurance would cover the damage, in which case it would have to come out of the EU budget. "We have are now doing some preventative repairs which may not be covered by our ten-year guarantee."

Strasbourg was hit by another safety scare in 2002, when the buildings water supply was hit by an outbreak of Legionnaires diseases owing to the lack of use for much of the year.