The long-running battle between the European Parliament and France over where the institution's permanent seat should be located has reached boiling point in recent months, following the parliament's vote in March to combine two of its mandated Strasbourg sessions into one. The fight has now been taken to the European Court of Justice, and following a call from Dutch parliamentarians today, the war could for the first time pit member state against member state.
The official headquarters of the European Parliament, as mandated by the EU treaties, is Strasbourg, France. The EU treaties require the parliament to meet there twelve times a year. But for well over a decade the working offices of the parliament have been in Brussels, where the other EU institutions are based (they surreptitiously built a giant parliament building there by telling France it was going to be a "conference center"). So once a month the entire European Parliament is made to make a five hour trek from Brussels to Strasbourg to hold three-day sessions. It would be like the US Congress uprooting itself once a month to hold sessions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The majority of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) hate the monthly "traveling circus". A 2007 survey by Liberal MEP Alexander Nuno Alvaro showed that 89% of MEPs want to end the Strasbourg sessions. MEPs have tried to force the issue several times, but changing the treaties to end the Strasbourg requirement would need the unanimous approval of all member states – and France has always promised to veto such a move. They are insistent that one of the EU capitals should remain in France – even if no actual work is done there and it is merely a place where things already agreed are rubber-stamped.
In March MEPs thought they had finally found a sneaky way to go above France's head and end at least one of their twelve annual trips. They voted in a technical amendment to combine two of the Strasbourg sessions into one one-week session starting in 2012. These two sessions are normally both held in September, since the parliament has the whole month of August off. That means there are two 'travelling circus' trips in September. This month's are happening next week and the week of the 26th.
Not so fast, said France. They launched a legal challenge against the parliament in the European Court of Justice, arguing that anything less than twelve separate Strasbourg plenary sessions per year violates the treaties. Luxembourg, which holds the other EU capital (there are officially three – Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg), has joined the French in the court case.
Privately, the Northern European countries are known to fiercely oppose the monthly travelling circus. But they have never taken official positions against the practice for fear of angering France, and knowing that picking a fight would be fruitless. But now the Dutch Labour party are trying to force the government of the Netherlands into taking a position in this court case, which would mark the first time a member state has officially opposed the Strasbourg plenary.
Dutch MEP Judith Merkies and national MP Nebahat Albayrak today called on the governing coalition of Liberals and Conservatives to enter the fray on the side of the European Parliament. During the European election campaign of 2009 both the Dutch Liberals and Dutch Conservatives campaigned on a pledge to oppose the travelling circus. The Labour politicians say they are calling on the coalition to honor this pledge and join the court case on the side of the parliament.
But this is a big ask for the Dutch government. For a small state, angering one of Europe's most powerful countries for what is essentially a sideshow issue may not seem worth the political cost. After all, there are bigger fish to fry right now in the battle to save the euro and impose austerity. But then again, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has certainly not shied away from angering other member states recently. This week he proposed that the indebted 'PIIGS' countries of peripheral Europe be put into "guardianship" and be made wards of the European commission, prompting an enraged response from the European commissioner from Spain.
For the Netherlands to enter the fray they would probably need cover from a large member state, most likely the UK. Rutte and UK prime minister David Cameron are close political allies, and it is feasible that both countries could file briefs and possibly be joined by Sweden and Denmark. This would certainly be a logical policy goal for the new 'Anglo-Nordic bloc' created by David Cameron to force more streamlined and logical decision-making in Brussels. But then France would probably bring in other member states to back its side, perhaps Italy and Spain.
The Labour MPs say that if the Dutch government does not respond to their call, they will put the issue to a vote in the Dutch parliament. This may force the government to file a supporting brief in the court case. Knowing this, Rutte may already be coordinating with the UK to prepare a coordinated response.
If the parliament wins the ECJ case it would be a victory in just one battle of a long war. But the game plan is this: if the parliament can combine two of their plenary sessions into one, who's to say they can't combine 12 of their sessions into 6? Taking that to its logical conclusion, could the parliament just meet in Strasbourg for 12 days a year and call each day a session? France is keenly aware of this slippery slope and that's why they have launched this aggressive challenge to the move. But if the ECJ rules against France, it could be the first nail in the coffin for the travelling circus.