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4th Dec 2022

Borrell in World War II row with Nordics over Strasbourg seat

European parliament president Josep Borrell has caused anger among Nordic MEPs by suggesting that 'some Nordic country' did not suffer enough during World War II to understand the true meaning of the parliament's Strasbourg seat.

During a signature ceremony for the purchase by the parliament of its own buildings in Strasbourg on Thursday (28 September), Mr Borrell dismissed the "oneseat.eu" petition campaign calling for the abolition of the parliament's second seat in Strasbourg.

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  • Borrell has stepped on Nordic toes (Photo: European Parliament)

Referring to Strasbourg as a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation after World War II, Mr Borrell said "this historic dimension cannot be perceived in the same way in 'some Nordic country' which did not participate in WWII".

He was apparently moved to make the remarks by the fact that a Swedish MEP initiated the campaign and many Swedes have signed up to it.

However, upset Finnish MEPs took the remark as referring to all Nordic countries and on Friday demanded an apology from Mr Borrell, suggesting he should go back to history class.

Going back to the history books

"His statement that the Nordic countries would not have experienced the war is telling of a really poor knowledge of history," Socialist MEP Riitta Myller told Finnish media, adding she could assist Mr Borrell in his history education.

"It is embarrassing to learn that the speaker of the European Parliament is not sufficiently informed about the continent's history to know that Finland was attacked by Soviet forces in the Winter War", Finnish conservative MEPs said.

Mr Borrell later issued a written statement saying his speech had been misinterpreted.

"There can be no doubt that these countries and its peoples are assured of my full friendship and sympathy for the dramatic and brutal events they lived through in those years," Mr Borrell wrote.

"Obviously I was referring at that moment to one of those countries where there are most petitioners in favour of one single seat - not in Strasbourg - for the European Parliament," meaning Sweden which was neutral during the war.

"To suggest that the President of the European Parliament is ignorant of the history of Europe and had any intention other than to refer to a particular country... demonstrates a certain amount of bad faith and a taste for useless polemics," Mr Borrell wrote in his defence.

"I am nevertheless and in any case truly sorry if the feelings of the Finnish, Danish or Baltic peoples were hurt."

Mixing up the facts

But Mr Borrell's apology has not pleased all Nordic politicians involved in the matter.

"I am deeply surprised and hurt, and I will ask for an explanation of this," Swedish Liberal MEP Cecilia Malmstrom, who first initiated the oneseat.eu campaign, told EUobserver.

"Since when is suffering in World War II a criteria for having permission to speak your mind on EU matters?"

Ms Malmstrom said that the Strasbourg matter is discussed by millions of people all over Europe- something that should keep Brussels happy, as both the commission and member states have called for citizens to present Brussels with their views.

The Liberal MEP also said Mr Borrell had mixed up facts when hinting that more or less only Swedes had signed the anti-Strasbourg seat petition, when in fact more Belgians and Dutch have participated so far.

"I suppose Belgians and Dutch suffered sufficiently in the war, so the argument falls on that, Mrs Malmstrom said.

The issue that won't go away

In May MEPs launched a "citizen's initiative" to collect a million signatures against having a European Parliament seat in Strasbourg. The move was based on a democracy clause in the frozen EU constitution which allows for citizen's to petition the commission on an issue, with a million signatures obliging the commission to consider the issue.

The EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom – herself a Swede - has expressed her support for the campaign, saying "something that was once a very positive symbol of the European Union, reuniting France and Germany, has now become a negative symbol - of wasting money, bureaucracy and the insanity of the Brussels institutions."

Last week, however, the Finnish EU presidency announced it would stay away from the touchy subject and would not raise the issue at forthcoming meetings.

The official parliament seat in Strasbourg has been enshrined in the EU treaty since 1992 with any revision requiring unanimous approval of all member states, something France is unlikely to give.

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