Europe's movers and lawmakers begin to lose patience with their travelling circus

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HAVING SUMMONED a European commissioner to their new parliament building in Strasbourg this week, MEPs found themselves twiddling their thumbs for 90 minutes. The reason? David Byrne, Commissioner for Consumers and Food Safety, was stuck hundreds of miles away at Brussels National Airport.

With one aircraft cancelled and a second delayed, he had plenty of time to reflect on the European Parliament's Kafkaesque arrangements. He was not the only one, because the rule obliging the Brussels-based assembly to pack its bags one week in every four and shift to a location 439km away on the Franco-German border has provoked a mini-crisis.

More than 100 MEPs walked out on the French President, Jacques Chirac, as he opened the building, protesting at France's refusal to lift the beef ban and the siting of the parliament. The next day, Labour's most senior MEP, Alan Donnelly, quit, saying the travelling circus had got too much for him. For an assembly which as recently as March thought it had come of age by forcing the resignation of Jacques Santer's European Commission, this week's developments are a depressing return to normality.

A by-product of Europe's need to carve up the economic benefits of hosting EU institutions, the parliament's split incarnation singles it out among legislatures: probably no other political institution in the Western world spends so much in such a counter-productive way.

The parliament has a colossal new building in Brussels which may have cost as much as pounds 1bn. This year it moved from its old Strasbourg offices into a new and universally derided complex across the river built at a cost of pounds 250m. The hefty rental is a matter of some anger, given the defects of a building supposed to embody "democracy in motion".

Each Friday before a Strasbourg week, two trucks - stacked with trunks of documents and files - set off on the five-hour journey from Brussels. They are followed later by a fleet of cars as the 626 parliamentarians, their assistants and staff trek to Alsace. On the aircraft from Brussels to Strasbourg, standard seating procedures are reversed: a few rows of economy seats at the back are curtained off from the vast swath used for business class.

Then there is the parliament's third, little-known site in Luxembourg, roughly half way between Brussels and Strasbourg. The debating chamber has long been abandoned but the parliament's library, some administration and its staff are based in the principality, two hours' drive from both Brussels and Strasbourg. Nigel Gardner, spokesman for the 29 Labour MEPs, said: "This is the only institution I can think of where an internal telephone call is an international one. If you want to borrow a book you have to call the library in Luxembourg."

Nor is it just MEPs who join the circus. During a Strasbourg week the college of 20 European commissioners decamps to the city for its weekly Wednesday meeting. The move causes inevitable complications: Mr Byrne, for example, could not attend this week because of a clash with a Brussels meeting of the council of agriculture ministers.

When commissioners are in town they feel as if they are camping. "There is," an official said, "dislocation at every level, which is so inefficient, because there is only a small office and minimal facilities. Any advice or technical briefing has to be sought from Brussels."

Romano Prodi's first speech as European Commission president was hit by the typical Strasbourg glitches as computers failed and the final text languished with the translators in Brussels. Arriving late, Mr Prodi began speaking in Italian, although the copy of the speech was in English.

For young and ambitious MEPs forced to travel constantly between Brussels, their constituency and Strasbourg, the surroundings are equally frustrating. "You are working on the hoof the whole time," said Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat MEP.

The irony is that, having battled for years for greater influence, the parliament has more powers than ever. MEPs can affect more legislation than can the average backbench MP at Westminster, yet their status is being undermined by absurd working practices.

They correctly point out that it was not their choice to convene in Strasbourg. A symbol of the post-war settlement, its status as an EU city is fiercely defended by Paris. The deal was confirmed at the 1992 Edinburgh summit, when John Major agreed with other leaders as part of the usual international horse-trading.

It can only be changed when the treaty is revised, an opportunity which, by coincidence, will arise next year. Yet the parliament as a whole has not sought to place the issue on the agenda, although it will have two observers at the talks. Why? For the same reason that MEPs have yet to get around to reforming their widely abused travel-expenses regime. Strasbourg, home of foie gras and fine wine, is a comfortable base for those who want to make money out of their travelling or who have, for various reasons, got used to it. The picturesque city treats guests well, hosting an asparagus festival in May and a Christmas market in December. An insider said: "For some of the French and Germans it's convenient but a lot of people simply make money out of it. Others have affairs there which, would be impossible to conceal in Brussels, or just enjoy the city. For a variety of reasons a lot of people are complicit in a rotten system."