22nd Jan 2022

MEPs stumble onto Strasbourg con

The French city of Strasbourg has been overcharging the European Parliament up to €2.7 million a year in rent for as long 25 years, MEPs were told for the first time on Tuesday (25 April).

The allegation has triggered an internal probe on parliament accountants and is set to reignite the debate on keeping the parliament seat in Strasbourg, Brussels insiders say.

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"We need some answers from the city of Strasbourg and we need some answers from our own administration," German conservative member Markus Ferber told EUobserver.

"We have been using these buildings since 1981 and I do not know anybody in this building, in our wonderful European Parliament, who knows what is going on."

Mr Ferber is set to chair a budgetary control subcommittee to look into the case by July, enabling a new report on discharging the parliament's internal 2004 budget in October.

The original vote on the 2004 parliamentary budget discharge, which had been expected to go through with no surprises on Thursday, has been scrapped.

Strasbourg mayor Fabienne Keller has refused to answer questions on the issue from French Green MEP and parliamentary buildings coordinator Gerard Onesta so far.

"If the city of Strasbourg had justifiable reason to keep that money...and could present us with it, we would regret the reproaches we have made to her," he said.

"But as long as the office refuses to speak out on the matter, or put forward any calculations, receipts or other proofs, we must take action."

Fake gold chain

A parliament official said the situation will give weight to people who are against parliament going to Strasbourg in the first place, comparing the situation to being sold a fake gold chain in Naples.

"I expect a fierce reaction," he said. "The position of the city of Strasbourg is indefensible. It has been overcharging its guests."

French diplomats are trying to play down the significance of the dispute however.

"This is a matter that should not be inflated artificially. It is a discussion between MEPs and the city of Strasbourg," a French official stated.

Strasbourg's position as one of the official seats of the European Parliament has been enshrined in the EU treaty since 1992, with any changes needing the consent of all 25 member states.

The set-up, resulting from EU horsetrading over the UK's opt-out on EU social legislation, has many critics such as UK liberal MEP Chris Davies and Dutch socialist member Jans Marinus Wiersma.

The Strasbourg, Alsace location costs the EU €200 million a year in travel fees and causes logistics-related strife for VIPs and their assistants.

Many French members see Strasbourg as possessing a historic significance in the post-World War II rapprochement between Berlin and Paris however.

Some EU officials also grudgingly admit to having grown fond of Alsatian cremont and the hothouse social scene of the travelling lower house.

Chance discovery

MEPs first smelt a rat on financing while negotiating in March the purchase of the two leased buildings in Strasbourg, the Winston Churchill bloc and the Salvador de Madariaga unit.

Local newspaper Derniers Nouvelles d'Alsace casually wrote that the city authorities stood to make €29 million in rental compensation payments from the sale.

The anomaly led parliament chiefs to put the purchase on hold and peer deeper into their 1979 rental deal, with some MEPs shocked at the chance nature of the revelation.

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