Saturday

24th Aug 2019

Analysis

When two become one - the Strasbourg super-session

  • Parliament wants to scrap its monthly Strasbourg sessions (Photo: EUobserver)

Thousands of EU officials will return to Brussels wearier than usual on Friday (26 October) but, on balance, will probably be grateful for a Parliament decision that saved them from another round-trip.

The latest act in the long-running row over the seat of the European Parliament stems from an ingenious idea backed by the assembly in March 2011 – deciding to combine two sessions into one with the result that the second session intended for September 2012 has been merged with the October session.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

In September the Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice issued a legal opinion to the effect that Parliament's latest attempt to get around the treaty requirement of twelve plenary sessions per year in Strasbourg was clever but illegal. However, in the best tradition of EU compromise, the Luxembourg-based court will only deliver its judgement after the offending session has taken place.

We are now halfway through the experiment. The Parliament's website says that the 'first session' this week, on Monday and Tuesday is over, with MEPs having a Tour de France-style 'rest day' before the 'second' session begins on Thursday. The plenary debates and committee meetings have been scheduled to leave Wednesday free for the political group meetings or, for those wishing to grab a much needed bit of rest and relaxation before returning to the Louise Weiss tower, a spot of shopping or a day trip to Germany's Baden-Baden.

Even when the ECJ delivers its expected verdict that the Parliament breached the EU treaties, this will not be the end of the matter.

The sessions make a valuable contribution to Strasbourg's economy and the city's combative mayor, the socialist Roland Ries, will be anxious to recoup some of the lost revenue.

Meanwhile, the momentum amongst MEPs for changing the continues to build. During Tuesday's vote on the 2014-2020 EU budgetary framework, MEPs voted by 615 to 64 in favour of a change to the treaties to allow them to choose a single seat.

More ingenious plans to reduce the number of Strasbourg sessions have also been mooted. Among the best are the idea of re-naming the plenary chamber in Brussels “Strasbourg” or allowing debates and roll-call votes to be done by video-link from Brussels. As yet, though, nobody has seriously suggested that MEPs vote with their feet and boycott the sessions.

Edward McMillan, a Liberal Vice-President who has spear-headed the 'One seat' campaign, said that MEPs wanted to “turn the corner on the anachronistic arrangement which keeps us away from the political capital of Europe – Brussels – for one week a month.

However, the vote also reveals the frustrating impotence of the Parliament's position. MEPs often gripe that they are blamed for the public-relations disaster that are the monthly Strasbourg sessions but have no power to bring the practice to a halt. It is a bizarre reality that the European Parliament has sweeping legislative powers, that are at least the equal of any legislature barring the US Congress, but does not have the right to decide where they meet.

The total cost of the twelve Strasbourg sessions is estimated between €170m-€200m per year, more than 10 percent of the Parliament's entire annual budget.

This includes €40 million in extra staff costs for salaries for the Strasbourg-based staff and mission expenses for the several thousand officials who are required to make the monthly trek to the Alsace. This may sound like a classic case of officials enjoying the high life. In reality, if you don't have an advance block booking, it is almost impossible to find a hotel room in the city for less than €150, with many Strasbourg hoteliers jacking up their prices in anticipation of the flood of eurocrats, lobbyists and journalists.

Meanwhile, a further €10 million is spent each year on security and maintenance of the buildings which are valued at around €600 million.

At a time when the EU institutions are under pressure from member states to make deep cuts to their administrative costs, scrapping the sessions would be a relatively painless money-saving measure. It is certainly unlikely to provoke an angry response from EU officials fearing that member states' desire for belt-tightening will hit their pay-packets and pensions.

A survey by the 'One Seat' campaign claimed that the monthly trek to Strasbourg causes an additional 19,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

But the single seat talk is not all one way traffic. Strasbourg's socialist mayor, Roland Ries, responded to Parliament's vote by getting the French Senate to adopt a resolution calling for all Parliament business to take place in Strasbourg.

There are also a small but significant minority of MEPs who believe that Strasbourg should be the Parliament's single seat. Ries says that a single Strasbourg seat would create a 'polycentric' institutional set-up with the executive (Commission) in Brussels, the judiciary (ECJ) in Luxembourg, and the legislature in Strasbourg.

Logistically and practically it is a non-starter – only a handful of EU capitals have direct flights to Strasbourg which is notoriously inaccessible, with MEPs from eastern and south eastern member states facing a full day's travelling to get to and from the Alsace. Meanwhile, the offices for MEPs and officials are barely larger than broom-cupboards.

In any case, a 'polycentric' set-up would surely be a recipe for monumental inefficiency and more travelling miles. The EU's legislative work is dependent on easy and regular access to the Commission and Council and it is hard to see how this would not be diminished by stationing MEPs in a city more than 500 kilometres and a 4 hour car or train journey away.

At the end of this latest act of the Strasbourg saga, nearly €20 million of public money will be saved and the Parliament's lawyers will have had some fun. But normal service will be resumed in November and the October 'super-session' is likely to be a one-off novelty.

Moreover, with France and Luxembourg still adamant that Parliament retains a presence in their countries, the prospect of a treaty change delivering a single seat remains slim. More tarte flambés, anyone?

MEPs suggest Van Rompuy shift EU summits to Strasbourg

Keen to end to their monthly jaunts to the delightful French city of Strasbourg, a group of MEPs have suggested that European Council President Herman Van Rompuy hold his summits there instead.

MEPs tell Buzek to seek end to Strasbourg seat

MEPs have called for a meeting with EU leaders to discuss the scrapping of parliament's Strasbourg and Luxembourg seats, also opting to delay their approval of the Council of Ministers' 2009 budget until later this year.

EU court backs France over €200m Strasbourg sessions

The European Court of Justice has backed the French government in its dispute with the European Parliament over the much maligned Strasbourg plenary sessions, ruling that the assembly had breached treaty requirements for twelve plenary sessions per year.

Investigation

US billionaires funding EU culture war

Conservative US billionaires, some with links to Trump, are paying anti-abortion lobbyists in Europe tens of millions of dollars to shape policy and law.

News in Brief

  1. Ocean Viking to disembark in Malta after ordeal
  2. Germany joins France in world outcry on Brazil fires
  3. British people lose faith in Brexit deal
  4. Brexit hardliners want further changes to EU deal
  5. German manufacturers confirm fear of recession
  6. Belgian socialists and liberals scrap over EU post
  7. Fall in EU migration leading to UK skills shortages
  8. Switzerland makes post-Brexit flight preparations

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

Explained: What is the European Parliament?

While domestic political parties often use the European Parliament as a dumping ground for unwanted politicians - and a majority of citizens don't bother to vote - the parliament, over the years, has become a dominant force in the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Spain heading for yet another general election
  2. EU to discuss Brazil beef ban over Amazon fires
  3. 'Our house is burning,' Macron says on Amazon fires
  4. What happens when trafficking survivors get home
  5. EU states and Russia clash on truth of WW2 pact
  6. EU considers new rules on facial recognition
  7. EU to pledge Africa security funds at G7 summit
  8. Letter from the EESC on per diem article

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  3. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  6. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us