Thursday

27th Feb 2020

Opinion

The EU's Strasbourg taboo has finally been broken

  • 'The chances of France giving up the Strasbourg seat for nothing are slim to non-existent' (Photo: EUobserver)

This week MEPs made sure that this Strasbourg session was one to remember. Having backed an EU Financial Transaction Tax on Tuesday, MEPs voted the following day to open up one of the EU's biggest political taboos – whether or not to abolish the Strasbourg sessions.

The ‘One Seat' campaign – to base the Parliament permanently in Brussels – has existed for many years. Gradually, through use of the Rules of Procedure and the introduction of ‘mini-plenary' sessions in Brussels, the role of Strasbourg has been diluted. But the question of challenging the treaty requirement for twelve sessions to be held in Strasbourg each year has been a hot potato that no one dared touch - until this week.

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In the weeks leading up to the session MEPs from across parties and nationalities collected over 200 signatures for amendments to replace the two proposed Strasbourg sessions in October 2012 and 2013 with one. But their procedural trick was to insist that the vote on the amendments be taken under a secret ballot, on the basis of Rule 169.

Knowing that their political group would not know how they voted, MEPs voted to abolish one Strasbourg session each year by a majority over 100. It may not sound much, but this vote sends a clear signal. The size of the majority indicates clearly that MEPs no longer want to spend twelve weeks a year in Strasbourg.

Before and immediately after the vote, a predictable war of words ensued between the pro and anti-Strasbourg camps. Essentially their arguments boil down to the following: the ‘pro-Strasbourg' camp cite the treaty and talk of the symbolic importance of Strasbourg in Europe, while the ‘antis' say that the twelve sessions cost €200m, are extremely inefficient because of the travelling time caused by Strasbourg's inaccessibility; and that the ‘travelling circus' between Brussels and Strasbourg is farcical.

Having been to more Strasbourg sessions than I care to remember, it is high time EU leaders put an end to this fiasco. At a practical level, it is absurd for Parliament, Council and Commission officials to trundle down to the Alsace once a month. All three institutions are based in Brussels. The Parliament's committee and political group work and its interaction with the two other main institutions is all done in Brussels. The working facilities in Brussels are far superior to those at the Strasbourg seat which, frankly, is simply not fit for purpose.

The sessions themselves are a desperately inefficient way of working. Most MEPs have to spend a full day travelling to and from Strasbourg since there are few international train services or direct flights to Strasbourg airport. Officials face a minimum eight hour round trip. Since the sessions start on Monday afternoon and end on Thursday afternoon you are essentially trying to cram a hard week's work into three days.

A recent report commissioned by a Vice-President of Parliament, Edward McMillan-Scott, found that the Strasbourg sessions caused a huge increase in stress and decline in productivity. No major company or Parliament would have countenance such bizarre working practices, so it defies logic that a Parliament which is a co-legislator representing 500 million people should.

Now that MEPs have laid down a clear political marker, how can the campaign being taken further? Ultimately, the aims of the ‘One Seat' campaign cannot be achieved by the Parliament. But they can be achieved much easier by the Member States as a result of the Lisbon Treaty.

The introduction of the simplified procedure means that the European Council can amend the treaties without an inter-governmental conference (IGC), provided that it does not change the EU's powers. Since no one can argue that the EU's competences are affected whether it chooses to site its Parliament permanently in Brussels or not, there is no reason why this procedure could not be used.

The one major hurdle is the need for unanimity. The chances of France giving up the Strasbourg seat for nothing are slim to non-existent. But the facilities in Strasbourg are perfect to be used as a university and/or to be used as the location for all European Council summits.

These would provide a comparable, and more sustainable revenue stream for Strasbourg itself, and great prestige for France. Just as UK Prime Minister John Major bartered away the Strasbourg sessions in exchange for CAP reform in 1992 so their abolition could be exchanged for something else.

Wednesday's vote should be the beginning rather than the end of the debate on the future of the Strasbourg seat. Parliament has won a small but largely symbolic victory. The real battle lies in the European Council between the Member States. At a time when the EU is facing a profound crisis of confidence, with many Member States highly indebted and the Eurozone imperilled, the question of where the European Parliament is located seems trivial.

But symbols are important. At a time when most people across the EU are suffering the effects of the recession in their bank balances and declining living standards, knowing that the European Parliament has saved €200m per year would make a difference to their perception of it. For an institution that many feel is wasteful and aloof from the people it represents, abandoning the Strasbourg sessions would be a significant step in the right direction.

The writer is a political adviser to the Socialists and Democrats group's vice-chairman of the European Parliament's economic and monetary affairs committee.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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