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 435-kilometer (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 the EU taxpayer: an estimated €180 million ($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 trillion ($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 at 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.
"It can happen that you would be sitting there and say, 'wow,' I miss this crucial document because we didn't think about putting it in the box," Alvaro said.
And spare a thought for the lobbyists, most of whom do not enjoy EU parliamentarians' elite perks, such as high-speed travel and generous wining and dining budgets.
Shut out of the parliamentary Thalys train service, environmental lobbyist Saskia Richartz was forced to take the slow one into Strasbourg, a 5-hour, 15-minute commute without even coffee service on board.
A half-hour after arriving, she was still standing in a long line waiting for a cab, dragging a huge mock cod in one hand and a mackerel in the other, for a Greenpeace demonstration later in the week. "It would be so much better to have it all in Brussels," said Richartz, one of the 6,000 to 8,000 people to make the commute.
From her office at city hall across a rainy and wind-swept town, Catherine Trautmann could not disagree more.
A former Strasbourg mayor and current EU parliamentarian, the Frenchwoman has a unique, if slanted, perspective: "The calling of a European parliamentarian is to move around," she said. "That we travel is only logical."
Trautmann did acknowledge the severe limitations of Strasbourg's regional airport with its few direct flights to any European capitals. And she promised new connections to places like London and Rome within the coming months.
Strasbourg may not be a transport hub, but — a stylish city with one of Europe's best Gothic cathedrals — it more than makes up for that in historic significance, Trautmann argues.
Often fiercely fought over by Germany and France in century of fighting, Strasbourg has both Gallic and Teutonic influences, from its street signs to its gastronomic specialties. Tucked on the French side of the Rhine river, it became an emblem of the warm ties France and Germany had nurtured since World War II. For France, the Strasbourg parliament also evolved into a symbol of its status as a European heavyweight, and a boon for the local economy.
In the 21st century, and the worst financial crisis since the start of the EU over half a century ago, many Europeans say changes have to be made.
"The outside world looks on with amazement that all of these years after the Second World War we are still perpetuating this anachronistic homage to the Franco-German reconciliation," said British MEP Edward McMillan-Scott.
In France, it's a different story.
On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande, after conveniently flying in from Paris, celebrated Strasbourg's role.
"I defend Strasbourg, the capital of Europe, because it is history that teaches us the role Strasbourg has to play," Hollande told EU legislators. "Strasbourg is both the history and the future of Europe."
The parliamentary sessions have become a tremendous boost for the city. When two sessions had to be canceled in 2008 because the roof of the plenary had partly collapsed, the cost to the city of 275,000 people was €7.5 million ($10.2 million).
France also said that all EU nations, including Britain, formally agreed on the dual parliament in 1992. And since any change requires unanimity, France remains in full control of Strasbourg's destiny.
Parliamentarians may hope the EU summit will raise the issue on Thursday in the frantic search for budget cuts, although Hollande has dashed any expectation of change.
Some see offering Strasbourg other EU institutions to host may be a solution.
"Of course we understand that the French have a veto," said McMillan-Scott. "But I am absolutely convinced that if France were offered some credible and dignified alternative to the European parliament, then Strasbourg would accept that."