28th Mar 2017


Strasbourg for EU summits

The sound of a thousand trunks rattling over cobblestones must signal the start of another European Parliament session for Strasbourg locals, but over four months on from the One Seat campaign achieving its one millionth signature, we seem no closer to ending the monthly trip to Alsace.

Launched by Cecilia Malmström in May 2006, One Seat campaigned for the European Parliament to sit only in Brussels, and achieved its target by September. It proved so stirring that it was even responsible for the unusual sight of Eurosceptics united alongside Europhiles for the same cause.

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The issue of Strasbourg is so engaging because it not only symbolizes the positive things the EU is about but also fuels many of the negative perceptions people have of the Union.

So while Strasbourg stands for former enemies united by the same values and flourishing in the stability of peace, it also represents inefficiency and unnecessary expense that sceptics are so fond of highlighting.

Those who maintain that Strasbourg should remain a seat of the parliament stress the importance of history, and the city's symbolic value.

A small cost compared to war

When BBC radio interviewed French MEP Alain Lamassoure last year, quizzing him on the expense of the Strasbourg sessions, he justified them by saying that 200 million euros was a small cost compared to war.

This is of course true, after all nothing is as costly as war, but the closest Strasbourg has come to hostilities in the past 60 years is an unseemly scrabble for the last slice of a tarte flambée and it seems hardly likely this would escalate should the parliament ever leave town.

But, with the French holding a veto on this issue, will this ever happen? It is easy to empathise with the reluctance of the French. No national government would be quick to give up something so prestigious or economically valuable. This is something the rest of the Union must recognise before the current stalemate is broken.

But the French must themselves acknowlegde a whole host of problems Strasbourg sessions create. They have become increasingly problematic for the institutions, embassies, NGOs and journalists who all incur great costs making the (far from straightforward) trip south and, perhaps more importantly, spend over the equivalent of a working day getting there and back.

For as long as the Parliament continues to use the Strasbourg building for just 48 days a year, the Union will struggle to fight the perception that it is wasteful and has a casual attitude to public funds.

The trip is also contradictory to the EU's vow to tackle climate change. A convoy of lorries making a lengthy and unnecessary journey (not to mention the additional flights and cars that head to France) suggests a culture of "do as I say, not as I do" rather than leading by example, as the EU must do.

Strasbourg for EU summits

In an attempt to break this deadlock and find a solution acceptable to the French, I, along with Malmström and three other MEPs, tabled Written Declaration 0033/2006 suggesting that the parliament no longer sits in Strasbourg but as a quid pro quo the city hosts quarterly European Council ("summit") meetings.

By doing this Strasbourg would not lose any prestige nor would the city's spirit of reconciliation be forgotten.

What's more, it makes sense. The Parliament, the Commission and the regular Council of Ministers interact daily and require close contact. They should remain full-time in Brussels.

In contrast, the summit meetings are supposed to take a strategic view and would benefit from being a certain distance from Brussels, encouraging more independent reflection, away from the hurly burly of the permanent institutions.

Strasbourg obviously fulfils this criterion and the building could easily be adapted to host summits, with the security and excellent press facilities it already has.

The constitutional package

Much of the continent is now awaiting the outcome of the French presidential elections, and progress on the Strasbourg issue, since the blaze of publicity in September, has stalled.

The issue of the constitutional treaty – whether to save it, modify it or replace it – will be discussed soon after those elections. Whatever package is agreed should include a solution to the problem of the parliament's monthly trek to Strasbourg .

By doing this the EU can demonstrate that it is listening to its citizens. It also shows willingness from the Union to improve its efficiency, cut costs and asserts a desire to keep moving forward.

We know France will not simply accept a simple loss, but with the status quo so evidently preposterous, it should look at this credible, realistic and generous alternative put forward by the 199 MEPs who signed my Written Declaration.

I will miss the tarte flambée though.

The author is a Labour MEP


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