Thursday

2nd Apr 2020

Borrell in World War II row with Nordics over Strasbourg seat

European parliament president Josep Borrell has caused anger among Nordic MEPs by suggesting that 'some Nordic country' did not suffer enough during World War II to understand the true meaning of the parliament's Strasbourg seat.

During a signature ceremony for the purchase by the parliament of its own buildings in Strasbourg on Thursday (28 September), Mr Borrell dismissed the "oneseat.eu" petition campaign calling for the abolition of the parliament's second seat in Strasbourg.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Borrell has stepped on Nordic toes (Photo: European Parliament)

Referring to Strasbourg as a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation after World War II, Mr Borrell said "this historic dimension cannot be perceived in the same way in 'some Nordic country' which did not participate in WWII".

He was apparently moved to make the remarks by the fact that a Swedish MEP initiated the campaign and many Swedes have signed up to it.

However, upset Finnish MEPs took the remark as referring to all Nordic countries and on Friday demanded an apology from Mr Borrell, suggesting he should go back to history class.

Going back to the history books

"His statement that the Nordic countries would not have experienced the war is telling of a really poor knowledge of history," Socialist MEP Riitta Myller told Finnish media, adding she could assist Mr Borrell in his history education.

"It is embarrassing to learn that the speaker of the European Parliament is not sufficiently informed about the continent's history to know that Finland was attacked by Soviet forces in the Winter War", Finnish conservative MEPs said.

Mr Borrell later issued a written statement saying his speech had been misinterpreted.

"There can be no doubt that these countries and its peoples are assured of my full friendship and sympathy for the dramatic and brutal events they lived through in those years," Mr Borrell wrote.

"Obviously I was referring at that moment to one of those countries where there are most petitioners in favour of one single seat - not in Strasbourg - for the European Parliament," meaning Sweden which was neutral during the war.

"To suggest that the President of the European Parliament is ignorant of the history of Europe and had any intention other than to refer to a particular country... demonstrates a certain amount of bad faith and a taste for useless polemics," Mr Borrell wrote in his defence.

"I am nevertheless and in any case truly sorry if the feelings of the Finnish, Danish or Baltic peoples were hurt."

Mixing up the facts

But Mr Borrell's apology has not pleased all Nordic politicians involved in the matter.

"I am deeply surprised and hurt, and I will ask for an explanation of this," Swedish Liberal MEP Cecilia Malmstrom, who first initiated the oneseat.eu campaign, told EUobserver.

"Since when is suffering in World War II a criteria for having permission to speak your mind on EU matters?"

Ms Malmstrom said that the Strasbourg matter is discussed by millions of people all over Europe- something that should keep Brussels happy, as both the commission and member states have called for citizens to present Brussels with their views.

The Liberal MEP also said Mr Borrell had mixed up facts when hinting that more or less only Swedes had signed the anti-Strasbourg seat petition, when in fact more Belgians and Dutch have participated so far.

"I suppose Belgians and Dutch suffered sufficiently in the war, so the argument falls on that, Mrs Malmstrom said.

The issue that won't go away

In May MEPs launched a "citizen's initiative" to collect a million signatures against having a European Parliament seat in Strasbourg. The move was based on a democracy clause in the frozen EU constitution which allows for citizen's to petition the commission on an issue, with a million signatures obliging the commission to consider the issue.

The EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom – herself a Swede - has expressed her support for the campaign, saying "something that was once a very positive symbol of the European Union, reuniting France and Germany, has now become a negative symbol - of wasting money, bureaucracy and the insanity of the Brussels institutions."

Last week, however, the Finnish EU presidency announced it would stay away from the touchy subject and would not raise the issue at forthcoming meetings.

The official parliament seat in Strasbourg has been enshrined in the EU treaty since 1992 with any revision requiring unanimous approval of all member states, something France is unlikely to give.

Magazine

Parliament president: red-carpet mannequin or hot seat?

The post of president of the European Parliament can be (almost) whatever the person elected makes out of it. Some stick to their ceremonial duties - while others have used the presidency for more Machiavellian power games.

Already doubts over Belgium's new 'anti-corona government'

Belgium's King Philippe has given interim prime minister Sophie Wilmès the task of forming a government, after seven opposition parties agreed to support it. The agreement came after a political drama - and there are doubts if it will hold.

Analysis

What does Erdoğan want?

By opening Turkey's border, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to push Europe into supporting him in Ankara's negotiations with Russia's Vladimir Putin for a deal on Syria's Idlib.

'Fragmented' Slovakia votes amid corruption woes

Saturday's elections in Slovakia could herald the rise of the far-right People's Party Our Slovakia, or the emergence of a populist anti-corruption candidate, in a country wracked by mistrust since the assassination two years ago of an investigative journalist.

Five new post-Brexit MEPs to watch

Five MEPs to keep an eye on from the 27 new members who are joining the European Parliament this week, following the UK's departure from the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking Europe’s Economy Circular – the time is now
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  3. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  4. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms

Latest News

  1. Journalism hit hard by corona crisis
  2. EU fighting shortages and faulty medical supplies
  3. New EU navy operation to keep migrant details secret
  4. MEP: Constituents are our window into this tragedy
  5. Without European patriotism, EU decline is inevitable
  6. EU cancels April Fool's 'fake news'
  7. A coronavirus 'Marshall Plan' alone won't be nearly enough
  8. Trying to think straight about coronavirus

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us