When two become one - the Strasbourg super-session
By Benjamin Fox
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.
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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?