9 Dec 2012

Questions over two assemblies for European Parliament

3:16 pm on 9 December 2012

At a time of financial crisis in Europe, when the European Union is swimming in a sea of debt, the European Parliament is being asked how it can justify having two parliamentary seats.

A group of parliamentarians is pushing to get rid of sessions in Strasbourg. They want to hold all debates in the main seat in Brussels instead.

The home of the European Parliament is in Brussels, close to the European Commission and the European Council.

However, Deutsche Welle reports that for historic reasons, the entire parliament is obliged to hold 12 plenary sessions a year in the city of Strasbourg in eastern France.

That means that for one week every month all 750 MEPs, plus their staff, travel to Strasbourg by plane, train or car. By road it's a distance of over 430km, a drive which takes around 4.5 hours - half a day's work.

That's quite apart from the financial and environmental costs associated with the Strasbourg circus.

The total cost of running the parallel operation in Strasbourg is estimated at 170 - 200 million euros per year ($US217 - $US255 million), more than 10% of the parliament's entire annual budget.

Campaigners also point out that it also costs an estimated 19,000 tons of extra CO2 emissions.

At a time when austerity cuts in many countries are forcing ordinary people to make savings in their everyday lives, people are asking why something wasn't done long ago to curb spending on Strasbourg.

More than 1.2 million EU citizens have already signed a petition calling for a single seat in Brussels.

"The problem is that actually the European Parliament doesn't have a say on the matter," said Alexander Alvaro, Single Seat campaign co-chair and a German liberal MEP.

"If it (did), I think it would have been changed a long, long time ago as we see also in the figures in votes."

However, Deutsche Welle reports that momentum for change is building among MEPs, most of whom back the idea of holding all parliamentary business under one roof.

In a vote in the European Parliament on 23 October, 74% of MEPs voted to prepare a "roadmap for a single seat" - just 21% voted against the motion, most of them French.

Treaty requirement

The problem for those who want to get rid of the Strasbourg sessions is that it's enshrined in the treaties that the parliament has to meet in the city 12 times per year. France has consistently blocked any attempt to change the treaties.

"Treaties can only be changed by member states by unanimity and we know that France is blocking this procedure so far, but I believe they also see the signs on the wall that this has to change now," Alvaro said.

But French MEP Nathalie Griesbeck is having none of it:

"The treaties laid down that the most important institutions in the European Union should be spread among the member states," she said.

"And France obtained the right to host the European Parliament in Strasbourg. So that's a very important legal reason."

Ms Griesbeck refuses to countenance the idea of treaty change:

"As a member of the European Parliament, I think we've got enough to worry about - and better things to think about - than using all our energy to change the treaties."

In the latest act in the row, the European Parliament decided to hold two separate sessions in one week in October in a first-of-its kind "super session."

Wednesday was left free to separate the two halves of the week.

The European Court of Justice is expected to rule that this move to get round the treaty requirement of holding 12 plenary sessions per year in Strasbourg was clever, but illegal.

However, they have yet to deliver an official ruling on the issue, so parliament went ahead with the plan anyway.

Economic fall-out

Strasbourg is a beautiful city with beautiful timber buildings, quaint streets and towering Gothic Cathedral, that has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

Deutsche Welle reports those who own businesses in Strasbourg are deeply concerned about the potential loss of revenue resulting from the loss of the parliament. Hotels and restaurants are routinely booked out when the politicians, lobbyists and journalists are in town.

The campaigners have put forward a number of ideas for ways to avoid harming the city's economy - Mr Alvaro proposes creating an elite European university.

"If, for example, you would have here a postgraduate university for European and worldwide students, high-quality, comparable to something like the MIT, Harvard, Stanford, we would actually create an environment where the economic benefit wouldn't be reduced to 12 weeks a year, but throughout the whole year you would have events going on, people coming, visiting, quality of life would get better," he said.

"So I believe France is quite short-sighted not to see these opportunities."

But Deutsche Welle says it seems even the most optimistic campaigners don't expect the situation to change within the next five years, given the major judicial hurdles at stake.

In the meantime, the legal wrangling is providing a healthy income for lawyers.