If European Union leaders are looking to save some serious money, they might look no further than the "traveling circus" that is the European Parliament.
The EU assembly leads a pricey and nomadic life. Once a month, it shifts thousands of lawmakers, their staffs, translators and interpreters, to Strasbourg, France, 400 kilometers (250 miles) away, for a four-day meeting. And then it trucks them all back to Brussels again.
This tale of two cities costs European taxpayers €180 million ($230 million) a year. And it has many detractors, notably within the assembly, whose 754 members represent voters in the 27 EU nations.
Foremost among them is Edward McMillan-Scott, a British Liberal Democrat.
"If European leaders are serious about efficiency and fighting waste — especially within the European institutions — then the European Parliament's single-seat is a point of departure," he and three other European lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Brussels daily De Standaard. "European citizens, and more than half of the European Parliament, demand an end to that traveling circus."
The appeal was directed at the 27 EU leaders, meeting here to debate the bloc's 2014-2020 spending. In that period, McMillan-Scott estimates, the parliament's monthly Brussels-to-Strasbourg trek will cost €1.2 billion — and emit 133,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the air.
Why has this costly roadshow been tolerated in an age of austerity? In a word, France.
Successive French governments have refused to abandon their city on the Rhine to keep the EU assembly in Brussels — already home to the European Commission, European Council President Herman van Rompuy, scores of think tanks and embassies, and armies of lobbyists. French President Francis Hollande reiterated Friday that changing the EU treaty so the parliament can just stay in Brussels all the time wouldn't happen.
Like his predecessors, Hollande holds that the Parliament's fate was sealed in a 1992 negotiation that assigned homes to two dozen EU institutions in various cities, including Luxembourg, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Parma, Italy. As Belgium built a vast parliament building in its capital, French opposition to Brussels left the assembly straddling two cities.
McMillan-Scott and others complain that only 6 EU capitals have air connections to Strasbourg, that Strasbourg hotels raise their rates "by an average of 100% during plenary weeks" and that the assembly building there is a safety hazard.
In recent years, opponents have reported overwhelming support in the assembly for a permanent home in Brussels. On Oct. 23, 75 percent of assembly members adopted a resolution asking EU governments to resolve the matter before summertime. Also, an online petition has been signed by 1.27 million Europeans.