Wednesday, 9 March 2011

'One down, eleven to go' in Strasbourg battle

Travel-weary members of the European Parliament issued an aggressive challenge to France today, voting to skirt the requirement that they meet in Strasbourg twelve times a year by combining two of the 'Strasbourg sessions' into one. It remains to be seen whether member states, who are the only ones who can decide where the institutions meet, are going to challenge this.

Every month the entire European Parliament is made to trek from Brussels to Strasbourg, France - which lies on the German-French border not far from Switzerland. This is because the original European Treaties designated Strasbourg as the headquarters of the parliament. Over time, the real work of the parliament has moved to Brussels in order to be closer to the other two EU institutions as well as lobbyists and NGOs. But the founding treaties still require the parliament to meet in Strasbourg twelve times a year, and all binding votes must take place there. The majority of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) hate the monthly "traveling circus" which requires them to go to Strasbourg for five days every month. A 2007 survey by Liberal MEP Alexander Nuno Alvaro showed that 89% of MEPs want to end the Strasbourg sessions.

But MEPs don't have a say in where they meet. Changing the Strasbourg requirement in the treaties would need the unanimous support of all member states, and France has always refused to support moving the parliament permanently to Brussels. In 1999 France built a massive new building for the parliament in Strasbourg, despite objections from MEPs who said they didn't want it. Now France points to the expense of the building to justify maintaining the Strasbourg seat.

Because the parliament is on recess in the month of August, it means that in September or October MEPs have to meet in Strasbourg twice in one month. Today MEPs, asserting their right to set their own calendar, voted in a technical amendment to combine these two sessions into one in October in 2012 and 2013. Though it was opposed by the leaders of the two largest political groups - the EPP and the Socialists - it still passed by 100 votes. Most of the support came from Northern European MEPs, and it was interesting to see that this was one issue in which David Cameron's new anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists group, which split from the EPP two years ago, was able to differentiate itself from the mainstream conservative group. Without the support of the ECR, the amendment likely wouldn't have passed.

Controversally, this 'combined session' will not be two weeks long but rather just one week - the length of a normal session. Time will tell what France has to say about that. This is a dangerous road after all - if they let this pass, what's to keep the parliament from combining six sessions into one and meeting in Strasbourg just twice a year? France will likely challenge this at the European Court of Justice.

But for the moment MEPs are claiming a "small victory" in their battle with France to end their monthly trek to Strasbourg. "One down, eleven more to go," declared Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini after the vote. "The whole multi-seat operation is an outdated and wasteful system that damages public perception of the EU." British Conservative MEP Ashley Fox called it "the first nail in the coffin of the travelling circus."

The monthly trek is not only inconvenient for MEPs and their staff, it's also expensive for the European taxpayer and harmful to the environment. There is no regular fast train between Brussels and Strasbourg, so if you want to take public transport to make the journey you have to take an excruciatingly slow train that takes five hours and stops at every tiny village along the way. Most people drive there, which takes just as long. All of the documents are also driven down in enormous trucks. The big wigs usually end up flying down (a flight of less than 30 minutes). All of these MEPs, their staff, lobbyists and functionaires have to stay in hotels while in Strasbourg. And as you'd imagine, rates go up by as much as 5x during these parliament weeks.

Essentially, it would be like requiring the entire US congress to uproot itself once a month and conduct a week of sessions in a mirror Capitol Building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And it would be like requiring them to go there for no other reason than to rubber-stamp legislation that has already been decided. I myself have never even been to a Strasbourg session. There's never been any reason for my publication to send me there. There is rarely any mystery in how the full parliament will vote because the issue have already been resolved in committee in Brussels.

A study conducted for the Green Party in 2007 found that the monthly traveling circus costs European taxpayers €200 million a year. That same study showed that it causes excess CO2 emissions of 20,000 tonnes per year - more than is emitted by some nations.

The issue tends to ebb and flow from public debate in the EU, and 2007 was the year when the issue came to a head. At that time European Commission Vice President Margot Wallström even came out against the Strasbourg sessions. "Something that was once a very positive symbol of the EU reuniting France and Germany has now become a negative symbol—of wasting money, bureaucracy and the insanity of the Brussels institutions," she said. But France never budged, and MEPs had to accept that they had no power over their own institution's location. The issue came off the front burner.

As Sargentini noted today, small efforts like this one highlighting MEPs dissatisfaction with the current system keeps the issue in the spotlight, even though it has largely faded as a hot topic over the past three years. And at the very least, the one-seat campaigners can be glad they put an end to those unpleasant Octobers when MEPs had to go to Strasbourg twice in one month. That is, if France doesn't step in and put a stop to it.


Pedro said...

France can reconvert the "new building" in Strasbourg into something else for all I care. Or they can use it to set up some agency there at a later point. but the travelling circus is an embarassment, which serves no other purpose than France's ego and to keep an irrelevant place like Strasbourg in the map.

Chris said...

Everyone together..... Boooo France!!!!