PARIS - Once it was lauded as a pilgrimage of unity. Now it is dismissed as a multi-million euro joke, and a campaign is building for it to end.
To critics, the European Parliament is the EU's travelling circus. Once a month or so, thousands of files are locked inside metal cases and dispatched on a 350- kilometre trip from Brussels in Belgium to Strasbourg in eastern France.
Thousands of people - legislators, secretaries, administrators, translators, lobbyists and journalists - follow suit. The files and the people are then decanted. There is a debate lasting four days, then everything is packed up again and makes for the reverse trek.
Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Union's legislature, even though its members meet there only 48 days a year. The rest of their work is done in Brussels, where the other major centres of EU decision-making are based.
Under an EU treaty, the Parliament - a mainly consultative assembly with few real powers at present - has to meet 12 times a year in Strasbourg. But the huge cost, the inconvenience of shuttling backwards and forwards and the humiliating image this gives the EU are stoking a groundswell of demands for Strasbourg to be given the chop and for the Parliament and its 785 legislators to be officially headquartered in Brussels.
"The constant commuting, the Brussels-Strasbourg-Brussels, is irresponsibly expensive," says Hans-Peter Martin, an independent Austrian MEP. "It paralyses the efficiency of the Parliament. We are constantly moving, and during this time, decisions are taken elsewhere."
"It is time to break with tradition and to make Brussels the only seat of the European Parliament," said Gary Titley, leader of Britain's Labour MEPs. "As long as we have to travel to Strasbourg, people will rightly say that the EU is wasting money - Strasbourg is a waste of taxpayers' money."
By some estimates, the to-and-fro costs the 27-member bloc 203 million euros (NZ$406 million) each year, comprising transport bills, payments to freelance interpreters and a fixed allowance to Parliament staff of around 1,000 euros (NZ$2,000) a week for staying in Strasbourg. The Green Party says the commute also adds around 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, an embarrassment for the continent that styles itself as the world's spearhead against global warming.
For decades, Strasbourg was the uncontested choice as the location for a big pan-European institution. Located on the western bank of the Rhine in eastern France and, in the space of 70 years, a football kicked around in three wars between France and Germany, the Alsatian city was a handy symbol of reconciliation. In addition to the Parliament, it was awarded the seat of the Council of Europe - a worthy assembly of European nations that discusses human rights and democracy and is not to be confused with the European Council, as the ministerial-level gatherings of the EU are called.
But times have moved on and those who appeal for Strasbourg to remain the Parliament's base are mainly French politicians, who look out of date or motivated by self interest.
The frontier between France and Germany has remained unchanged since 1945 and trust - among Western European nations, anyway - is now so rock-solid that the so-called Schengen agreement enables citizens to travel from the Arctic Circle to Sicily and from the Atlantic to the Baltic without facing a systematic passport or customs check. The capital of the EU, in all but name, is Brussels.
In this changing light, more than 1.2 million Europeans have signed a petition for the "One Seat Campaign," launched by Alexander Alvaro, a German Liberal, and the Labour MEP group has launched its own online campaign. More than four-fifths of MEPs also want to give Strasbourg the push, according to one poll.
Hopes of a change were given a powerful boost after a 200-square-metre section of ceiling, weighing around 10 tonnes, collapsed in the Strasbourg chamber on August 7. Nobody was hurt, but further checks of the building - a glittering avant-garde structure with an atrium, completed only in 1999 - showed other problems.
The anti-Strasbourg deputies seized on the occasion with glee. Two plenary sessions have already been staged in Brussels, saving between three and four million euros (NZ$6-8 million), according to the news and analysis site EUobserver. A third plenary session will be staged in Brussels next week, for the refurbishment and safety checks are unlikely to be finished before October 9.
At some point, though, the irresistible force of public opinion will collide with the immovable object that is EU law.
At French insistence, EU treaties require a dozen plenary sessions to be held in Strasbourg each year. Any modifications are highly unlikely, given the disarray over the reform of Europe's institutions - and the fact that France, under Nicolas Sarkozy, is current president of the EU. So, vaudeville or not, the show must go on.