Friday

9th Dec 2016

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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?

News in Brief

  1. Council of Europe critical of Turkey emergency laws
  2. Italian opposition presses for anti-euro referendum
  3. Danish MP wants warning shots fired to deter migrants
  4. Defected Turkish officers to remain in Greece
  5. Most child asylum seekers are adults, says Denmark
  6. No school for children of 'illegal' migrants, says Le Pen
  7. Ombudsman slams EU Commission on tobacco lobbying
  8. McDonald's moves fiscal HQ to UK following tax probe

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Swedish EnterprisesHow to Use Bioenergy Coming From Forests in a Sustainable Way?
  2. Counter BalanceReport Reveals Corrupt but Legal Practices in Development Finance
  3. Swedish EnterprisesMEPs and Business Representatives Debated on the Future of the EU at the Winter Mingle
  4. ACCASets Out Fifty Key Factors in the Public Sector Accountants Need to Prepare for
  5. UNICEFSchool “as Vital as Food and Medicine” for Children Caught up in Conflict
  6. European Jewish CongressEJC President Breathes Sigh of Relief Over Result of Austrian Presidential Election
  7. CESICongress Re-elects Klaus Heeger & Romain Wolff as Secretary General & President
  8. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAustrian Association for Betting and Gambling Joins EGBA
  9. ACCAWomen of Europe Awards: Celebrating the Women who are Building Europe
  10. European Heart NetworkWhat About our Kids? Protect Children From Unhealthy Food and Drink Marketing
  11. ECR GroupRestoring Trust and Confidence in the European Parliament
  12. UNICEFChild Rights Agencies Call on EU to put Refugee and Migrant Children First

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. MIRAIA New Vision on Clean Tech: Balancing Energy Efficiency, Climate Change and Costs
  2. World VisionChildren Cannot Wait! 7 Priority Actions to Protect all Refugee and Migrant Children
  3. ANCI LazioRegio-Mob Project Delivers Analysis of Transport and Mobility in Rome
  4. SDG Watch EuropeCivil Society Disappointed by the Commission's Plans for Sustainable Development Goals
  5. PLATO15 Fully-Funded PhD Positions Open – The Post-Crisis Legitimacy of the EU (PLATO)
  6. Access NowTell the EU Council: Protect our Rights to Privacy and Security
  7. ACCAThe Future of Audit Means Adaption to Today’s Global and Digital World
  8. Swedish EnterprisesNew Rules for EU Anti-dumping Measures
  9. European Jewish CongressTakes Part in Building Resilient Communities
  10. UNICEFUniversal Children’s Day: UNICEF Calls for Global Action on Child Rights Violations
  11. Counter BalanceThe EU Bank Cannot be a Key Player in Europe's Response to the Plight of Refugees
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsEvidence of Human Rights Violations and International Crimes in Crimea