24th May 2019

Strasbourg seat unlikely to see debate at EU summit

The Austrian chancellor has warned the European Parliament's chief not to create a fuss over the two seats of the bloc's legislature at the EU leaders summit next month.

The parliament's president, Josep Borrell, was tasked by the political group chiefs in the EU assembly to raise the issue with governments at the 16-17 June meeting in Brussels.

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But the Austrian presidency has moved to prevent a clash on the matter with French president Jacques Chirac.

"The Austrian chancellor has told Mr Borrell very clearly this is not something we can change," a senior EU diplomat told the Financial Times, adding that the parliament's leader "would be stupid" to create a fuss on the subject.

Similar concerns have been expressed by several MEPs during the debate on the issue, particularly heated after the outbreak of the scandal over the rent payments to the city of Strasbourg last month.

"It is a pure demagogy to say we're going to leave Strasbourg," French vice-president of the parliament, Green MEP Gerard Onesta told the EUobserver.

"France will not agree to change anything," he added, pointing out that changing the parliament's seat would need unanimous support from all 25 leaders.

Around 170,000 people recently signed a petition to have just one seat for the European Parliament. The move has been introduced as a model citizens' intiative as envisaged by the EU constitution.

Under the constitution, EU institutions would be obliged to deal with any issues endorsed by 1 million or more petition signatories.

Symbols versus figures

The €200 million arrangement, often dubbed Europe's "travelling circus" as MEPs once a month move between Brussels and Strasbourg with their staff and crates of documents, has been questioned several times, last time in 2000 during the Nice treaty talks.

But the official seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg has been enshrined in the EU treaty since 1992, and removing the clause could at worst require a full revision of the content in the treaty.

Paris considers the Strasbourg seat a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation and a matter of national prestige.

The mayor of Strasbourg, Fabienne Keller, stressed the fact at her hearing with MEPs over the rent allegations earlier this month.

She said the choice of the Alsatian capital was "made to underline that Europe was constructed to guarantee peace".

"I would say its the meetings that you have in Brussels that cost €200 million a year", she argued.

Meanwhile, centre-right MEPs have been warned by their German leader Hans-Gert Pottering about the potential damage the Strasbourg city rent scandal could do to the EU's image in France.

"He said that following the rejection of the EU constitution in France this could be another serious blow for support to Europe from the French citizens and we do not want to allow this to happen," said one MEP.

The city of Strasbourg has been accused of cashing around €80 million since 1979 from a deal with the European Parliament, including €22 million on insuring itself against the risk that the legislature would leave - despite the treaty-based provision guaranteeing its official seat there.

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