EU petitions committee debates Brussels-Strasbourg 'travelling circus'
Campaigners working to abolish the so-called travelling circus that sees the European Parliament move from Brussels to Strasbourg for one week every month, have had their complaint heard by the parliament's petitions committee, the first 'official' exchange of views on this contentious issue in any of the European institutions.
The first citizens' initiative ever, an online petition to call on European authorities to establish one 'seat' for the parliament, launched by former MEP and current minister for European Affairs Cecilia Malmström, was the subject of some heated discussion at the petitions committee hearing.
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The first Austrian signatory to the campaign, Peter Strempel, also a communications consultant here in Brussels, presented the petition to the committee, which now has some 1.2 million signatures.
He compared the figure of €200 million – the cost to the European taxpayer of the constant shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg – with what the EU spends on its student exchange programme Erasmus.
"Erasmus costs us €46 million annually. It is shocking that so much less is spent on this mechanism of European integration than on the 'travelling circus'," he said.
The petitioner also highlighted the cost of the two-seat parliament to the environment. Mentioning a study published a year ago that argued that the Strasbourg trip generates at least 20,000 extra tonnes of CO2 emissions – equalling 13,000 return flights from London to New York – he noted that this contrasts with the EU's own goal of reducing the effects of global warming.
In response, a representative of the parliament's legal service pointed out that the parliament actually had no powers on this issue as EU leaders have to decide the matter themselves unanimously.
Supporting the petitioner, UK Liberal MEP Diana Wallis, said: "Although I understand all the legal argument as to why we can't do anything, my concern for this committee is to show a way of dealing with the petition that acknowledges that so many have signed it."
She suggested two possibilities: proposing a question or resolution to the council and issuing a report on the subject. She also called for the development of a detailed mechanism on how to deal with petitions of more than a million signatories.
"We need to have a proper mechanism to deal with these sorts of petitions sooner rather than later," she said. "If this can't be dealt with by the parliament now, what will we do when after the approval of the Lisbon treaty [which gives a new but vague standing to such petitions] when we will have delivered to us a lot more of these million-strong petitions?"
Some French MEPs in the committee strongly disagreed with any suggestion of permanently moving the parliament away from Strasbourg.
"Do the citizens know about how rich a community [in Strasbourg] we have?" asked French Liberal MEP Janelly Fourtou, wondering where financial rationalisations will lead next. "If this is all about rationalisation, should we next be rationalising the languages that we use?"
She also highlighted the importance of Strasbourg as a symbol of post-war Franco-German reconciliation. "Strasbourg is a symbol of peace," she said.
But Belgian liberal MEP Frederique Ries called on the committee to end the years of silence on the issue. "We must break this rule of silence, this 'Omerta'"
"The Union is autistic in regards to its citizens here," she said.
The issue is now to be brought to the co-ordinators' meeting on Tuesday (26 February) to discuss whether the issue can be moved forward.