The EU Treaty's Flying Circus

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Vincent Kessler / Reuters

President Jose Manuel Barroso addresses the European Parliament during a debate about the EU reform treaty.

On Thursday, 27 European leaders will gather in Lisbon to sign a reform treaty, which is designed to streamline E.U. decision-making — an occasion they will unfailingly describe as proud, historic and symbolic. But as they put their pens to the document aimed at bringing the E.U. closer to its citizens, the enduring image is likely to be far less glorious.

Indeed, the whole event has been dubbed a diplomatic vanity trip and an environmental extravagance because, after the signing, the leaders (many of whom only spent only a few hours in the city) will then hop on planes — with their huge entourages and other hangers-on like the media — to meet the next day in Brussels for their regular December E.U. summit.

The reason for this flying circus? Portugal, which currently holds the union's presidency, insisted that the treaty be signed on Portuguese soil and enter the history books as the Treaty of Lisbon. But under the E.U.'s Nice Treaty in 2000, all formal summits must take place in Brussels, home of the E.U.'s main institutions. So the leaders are obliged to meet in the Belgian capital for their scheduled summit, due to take place the day after the signing ceremony.

E.U. officials failed to persuade either Portugal or Belgium to back down so that the hour-long signing ceremony and the summit could take place in a single city. It means E.U. leaders will thus consecrate the treaty revamp with cumbersome travel arrangements that seem to reinforce the impression of the E.U. as run by remote, unaccountable mandarins.

"It is absurd to fly back and forth like that. Symbolically, it sends out the wrong signal," said Jorgo Riss, director of Greenpeace E.U. "In this day and age they could have come up with something more imaginative. They could have held a virtual signing ceremony, over the Internet, which would have combined modern technologies with an environment-friendly policy."

The carbon footprint from the signing rigmarole threatens to overshadow the E.U.'s own strong work in addressing climate change through emission caps. Indeed, the double summit comes just days after Al Gore was awarded his Nobel Prize for his his work on global warming, and at the same time as the high-level meeting on climate change in Bali.

Some E.U. leaders have attempted to counter their jet-setting image by plane-pooling. The prime ministers of the Benelux nations — Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt, the Netherlands's Jan Peter Balkenende and Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker — will share rather than each take a private plane. Similarly, Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt will travel with Denmark's Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and their Finnish and Estonian counterparts Matti Vanhanen and Andrus Ansip will also share planes.

Part of the problem is the way the E.U.'s six-month presidencies bring out national egos. "The current system of ridiculous six-month presidencies means that countries will want to use their time to earn prestige," said Hugo Brady of the London-based Centre for European Reform (CER). He suggested that the Lisbon Treaty could bring an end to such practices, as it will replace six-month presidencies with 18-month stretches jointly shared by three countries, as well as a permanent president to host the summits.

But even if the image of European leaders jetting across the continent fades, there are more enduring travel idiosyncrasies in the E.U. The European Parliament, for example, is split between Brussels and Strasbourg. While the Lisbon and Brussels events are estimated to add between 10 and 15 extra tons of CO2 to the E.U.'s carbon footprint, around 20,000 tons are produced every year by the Parliament's commissioners, officials and aides journeys back and forth to Strasbourg.

Addressing the Parliament in Strasbourg last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would never give up the monthly sessions in the city. This is despite the growing number of complaints from the E.U.'s 785 Parliament members and 4,000 staff who decamp at the cost of 12 million euros for each session. But here, as with the summit, national prestige continues to hold the upper hand over cost and climate concerns.