STRASBOURG, France — The morning high-speed train from Brussels pulled into the lonely train station of the provincial French city of Strasbourg. As the doors opened, the chaotic scramble for cabs, cars and buses heralded an extraordinary phenomenon of international politics: the European Union's "traveling circus" was back in town.
Hundreds of EU parliamentarians and their staff were completing their monthly 270-mile legislative migration, one that takes them from their own parliament in Brussels to, well, their own parliament in Strasbourg — for just four days.
The cost to EU taxpayers: an estimated $245 million a year.
All at a time when the EU, which opens a contentious budget summit on Thursday, is desperately trying to find ways to cut spending to overcome its financial crisis.
The EU set up two parliaments, one at headquarters in Brussels, the other in Strasbourg, as part of a complex diplomatic dance in which France and Germany, the chief architects of the European project, were eager to find an emblem for their postwar reconciliation. Critics say that such lofty symbolism is an absurd luxury at a time when austerity measures are threatening pensioners, slashing health budgets and causing unemployment to balloon.
For legislators it's simply a monumental hassle.
"I cannot stand the traveling back and forth anymore," said Germany's European Parliament Vice-President Alexander Alvaro.
EU leaders are hoping to use their two-day summit to trim more out of a $1.35 trillion seven-year budget. Scrapping the expensive commute, many critics say, could come in very handy. British Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of a famously euroskeptic nation, is poised to lead the campaign to snuff out EU waste.
The head of Cameron's Conservative party at the EU Parliament was clear on where he would look for savings: "We cannot stand here in Strasbourg at our second seat — this icon of EU profligacy — and say that there is no money that can be saved," Martin Callanan told his fellow legislators Wednesday.
The scenes on the Brussels end point to what makes the dual legislature something of a movable beast.
On the eve of the great migration, big boxes are lined up all along the offices of the 754 legislators, ready for the reams of paperwork, background notes, extra bottles of water, even winter boots, that are to be loaded onto trucks on Friday evening to be driven in convoys to Strasbourg and unloaded at offices the lawmakers' use for the four-day session.