Parliament saved €3 million by meeting in Brussels

17.09.08 @ 09:59

  1. By Valentina Pop
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BRUSSELS - The European Parliament has directly saved between €3 and 4 million by temporarily holding two plenary sessions in Brussels, after the ceiling in Strasbourg collapsed over summer.

  • The collapsed ceiling in Strasbourg prompted parliament to hold its September sessions in Brussels (Photo: European Parliament)

The exact cost per session is hard to calculate, having to take into account numerous variables such as plane tickets from different European cities for freelance interpreters, who are flown in from home countries for the plenary sessions.

Parliament staff also get a fixed allowance of "just a bit less than €1,000" for one week of Strasbourg, which would amount to €1.2 million per session just for travel and hotel expenses for full-time personnel, parliament spokeswoman Marjory van den Broeke told EUobserver.

"But if you count the people who come in additionally, there is already more per session, and if the maintenance and electricity bills of the [Strasbourg] building are taken into account, the sum is even bigger," she said, summing it all up at €1.5-2 million per plenary.

European Commission officials and staff also regularly travel to Strasbourg, with the whole college of 27 commissioners meeting in the French city on Tuesdays during a plenary week.

But administration commissioner Siim Kallas has in the past played down the impact of commission trips, saying in a formal answer to a parliamentary question in 2007 that most commission officials go "only when matters of their responsibility are discussed," stay for the duration of the meeting and do not carry down masses of equipment or files.

The total cost of trips to Strasbourg made by commission members in 2002-2007 was approximately €9.5 million in total, he said.

"The per diem for officials are of around €95 per day for Strasbourg," Valerie Rampi, commissioner Kallas's spokeswoman, added.

For transparency hawks such as the Austrian MEP Hans Peter Martin, "the constant commuting Brussels-Strasbourg-Brussels is irresponsibly expensive" and "paralyses the efficiency" of the European Parliament.

"We are constantly moving, while decisions are taken elsewhere," he said.

"On the other hand, the travelling circus is for numerous staffers and MEPs the perfect excuse to be lazy. One is 'unfortunately' always on the road and therefore 'unable' to find the right documents or to finish his paperwork."

The independent MEP, a former Social-Democrat, a few years ago sparked criticism from colleagues after capturing on hidden camera how some MEPs signed their names on the attendance allowance list, only to leave the building shortly afterwards.

A separate campaign to establish the parliament's seat in Brussels permanently by the then MEP and current Swedish minister of EU affairs, Cecilia Malmström, drew over 1 million signatures in 2006.

But the Strasbourg seat is assigned by the EU Treaty, so that any could only be accomplished by consensus of all 27 member states, including France, with Nicolas Sarkozy stating several times that Strasbourg is "not negotiable."

A financial blow

French politicians are not the only people in favour of keeping the two seats. As one Eastern European parliament assistant put it, the decision to hold both sessions in Brussels was "quite a financial blow," with the loss of the €1,000 allowance coming after the long summer break and in the context of lower pay for eastern European aides in general.

German Christian-Social Democratic MEP Bernd Posselt supports scrapping Brussels as a parliamentary seat altogether. "As long as Europe is not a centralized state, I think it is wise to spread the institutions in several places," he said.

The member dismissed any safety fears over the Strasbourg building after a 10-tonne portion of the ceiling in the plenary chamber fell down in August and a subsequent renovation of handrails in the giant glass "atrium" in another part of the complex.

"Our group [the EPP-ED] has decided to call for similar checks for the Brussels buildings, and you will see that there are way bigger problems there, because the real construction scandals took place in Brussels," Mr Posselt claimed, insisting that the Strasbourg repairs are finished and the building is safe to return to.

Report due

According to Mrs van den Broeke, the technical evaluation of the repair works is to be presented to the Secretariat General by the end of the week, with the report being drafted by different external experts from several companies.

"The parliament made sure that none of these experts were active at the time this building was being built, so there would not be a conflict of interests," Mrs van den Broeke she said.

The findings of the report will determine if the Strasbourg building is safe enough for the October plenary to take place in France. But the 22 September plenary will take place in Brussels.

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