During the referendum campaign in the UK, the cost of the European Parliament ‘travelling circus’ between Brussels and Strasbourg was highlighted by some Brexit supporters as one of the 20 reasons why UK citizens should vote in favour of leaving the EU.
Even though many arguments used by the ‘Leave’ campaign against the European Union (EU) were greatly exaggerated, and some were outright lies, the remaining 27 EU countries should take that particular criticism on board and use this occasion to reduce the obvious overspend that is linked to the European Parliament having more than one seat. For years, the European Parliament has had to move 400 km south once a month. Almost 4000 people temporarily relocate from Brussels to Strasbourg to facilities that are only used four days per month. It is a situation that is hard to justify to European citizens who have been tightening their belts since the beginning of the financial crisis. The travelling circus also provides fuel for euro-scepticism across the continent.
At the request of a majority of MEPs eager to stop the circus to save their time and taxpayers’ money, the European Court of Auditors in 2014 estimated the additional cost of having two European Parliament seats at almost €114 million per year.
It is finally time for Brussels to be the sole seat of the European Parliament. Of course ending this absurd situation will not be easy; multiple attempts have already been scuppered over the years. Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament according to a protocol attached to the Treaty of the EU and consequently 12 four-day plenary sessions per year must take place there, including the vote on the EU budget. Changing this protocol would require an amendment to the treaties, a process which requires unanimity among member states, and that can therefore be vetoed by the French government.
To avoid this, France will have to be compensated somehow. It is essential to put on the table a positive, useful, future-oriented project for the EU but also for France and the city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg was chosen by the founding fathers of the EU because it made sense from an historical and political perspective as a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation. However, France has to understand that nowadays it has absolutely no interest in keeping what is now nothing more than a symbolic seat of an EU institution, and should try to obtain something more valuable on its soil for the twenty-first century. No one who works closely with the European Parliament can seriously claim that Strasbourg is the main or even the relevant seat of the Parliament.
It is therefore the right time to revive the proposal made 10 years ago by Bronislaw Geremek and Jean-Didier Vincent to create a truly European University in the European Parliament buildings in Strasbourg. This year also marks the fortieth anniversary of the launch of the European University Institute (EUI) of Florence. This European postgraduate studies institution that specialises in social sciences was inaugurated on 15 November 1976 after long negotiations between member states. These discussions were far from easy and lasted for almost 20 years, but ultimately gave birth to what is considered by many academics as one of the visible success stories of EU integration. Every year, the EUI awards about 120 PhDs in law, history, political science and economics to carefully selected students from all corners of the EU, demonstrating the valued added of European education and research projects.
A solution for Strasbourg could be to establish an undergraduate European University there, modelled on the EUI. It would fill the Parliament premises with students, professors and researchers from all over Europe and would be financed by the EU budget. The money saved by the centralisation of the European Parliament operations in Brussels would be, for instance, sufficient to cover almost entirely the annual budget of a university such as Paris Sorbonne, which has more than 20,000 students and 1300 professors and researchers. This project would offer concrete benefits for young Europeans and would be in line with one of the key priorities highlighted in the French-Italian-German initiative set up after the Brexit vote to improve the EU quickly by focusing on ambitious youth programmes because, as the declaration rightly states, “Europe will succeed only if it gives hope to its young people”.
This new European university should be named after Bronislaw Geremek, a survivor of the European atrocities of the twentieth century and a symbol of the reunification of Europe after the fall of the iron curtain. He grew up and survived in the Warsaw ghetto to become a respected historian, a founding member of the Solidarity movement (‘Solidarność’), a political dissident under the communist regime, and ultimately a foreign minister of Poland after the fall of the regime and a MEP from 2004 until his death in 2008. He wrote a few months before his tragic death that “after building Europe, we must now build Europeans. Otherwise, we risk losing it". Opening a European University in Strasbourg named after him and showing that the EU is able to listen to the legitimate criticism of its citizens and take action to make a better use of its resources would be a tremendous first step in that direction.
 “après avoir fait l'Europe, nous devons faire maintenant les Européens. Sinon, nous risquons de la perdre”