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Strasbourg or Booterstown - a capital offence

In 1871, Otto von Bismarck had defeated Denmark, Austria and, most recently, France before overseeing the unification of a Prussia-dominated Germany.

Germany could dictate peace terms to France and the decision was taken to annex what became known as Alsace-Lorraine and its main city, Strasbourg. This was against Bismarck’s better judgment. He knew that the loss of Alsace Lorraine would embitter enrage French people for years to come.

Sure enough, the statute of Strasbourg, located in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, was draped in black mourning crepe on major state occasions thereafter. This practice continued until Strasbourg returned to French control after the Great War.

It was such an incendiary issue between France and Germany that a decision was taken in 1952 to make Strasbourg the seat of what eventually became the European Parliament, a symbol of detente.

To this day, while the Committees of the European Parliament sit in Brussels for three weeks every month, the Plenary session meets in Strasbourg for the other week, making it the legislative capital of the EU.

Most MEPs, apart from French ones, complain bitterly about having to relocate to Strasbourg once a month with their entourage and the entire administrative retinue of the Parliament, about 4000 people in all.

Because of the pandemic, the Parliament steered clear of Strasbourg. I had only been once and was looking forward to going there last week for the first time in more than a year. It is a beautiful town.

As there are no direct flights, most Irish MEPs fly to Frankfurt where road transport is arranged on to Strasbourg. We spent three and half hours on a very slow 50 seater bus from Frankfurt to Strasbourg. On the bus, I tried to take part in a webinar organised by the European Parliament office in Dublin but the 4G in Germany is hopeless.

I was miraculously cured of any lingering doubts about the merits of having monthly sittings on the banks of the Rhine.

In the end it took a full 12 hours to get from my house to my office desk and my fellow weary travellers reflected that we could have got to California in the time available.

Apart from the obvious inconvenience, on an annual basis the move costs €100m. The environmental impact is estimated at between 11,000 and 19,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum.

Recent proposals for a €500m upgrade of the Parliament’s facilities in Brussels were met with an angry exchange of letters between the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli and various French politicians including the Mayor of Strasbourg.

The symbolic value of Strasbourg is much diminished but now it’s an article of faith for French MEPs to retain the seat there. It is even required in the EU Treaties so it doesn’t look like ending anytime soon.

The issue is unlikely to be raised in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe however abolishing the sittings at Strasbourg will only come about as part of a wider series of treaty proposals.

I am put in mind of the manner in which Washington DC became the capital of the United States in 1790. It was an inducement to Virginian hold-outs who didn’t want mutual debt in the country. Strasbourg was locked in at a time when France was expected to absorb a significantly strengthened united Germany in the early 1990s. Does everyone have a price? What price would others be willing to pay to keep the seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg?

Incidentally, the name Strasbourg is ‘town of the road’ in English, or Baile an Bothair in Irish - subsequently anglicised back to Booterstown. So while I am incensed about having to travel there once a month, I wonder if I would be so exercised if the Parliament decamped to Booterstown a few times a year. I know the lads in Gleesons would be delighted.

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