Members of the European Parliament should finally be allowed to choose their meeting place and ditch the costly, inefficient and anachronistic trek to Strasbourg, write campaign leaders
As European Union leaders met in Brussels at last week's summit on the crisis, MEPs were preparing for this week's trek from our working base in the Belgian capital to inaccessible Strasbourg. This anachronistic arrangement wastes some €180m every year and 18,000 tonnes of CO2. But there are clear signs that the European Parliament, its staff and some member states are ready to challenge the cost and inefficiency involved.
In a June 2011 vote on the EU's multiannual budget, the first absolute majority of MEPs backed a single seat by 373 to 285. Since then MEPs have repeatedly voted
for a single seat, in reports examining past and future spending during February, March and May. At last, detailed reports on the cost of the two-seat arrangement are being prepared by the parliament's administration, the first since 2002. A majority in all political groups – except the European People's Party led by Alsace MEP Joseph Daul – are now in favour of a single seat.
A May 2012 poll
in the parliament's internal staff magazine Newshound
– its highest participation ever – found that 75 per cent of its staff and assistants are in favour of a single seat: even the Luxembourg staffers want one by a majority of 65 per cent. This reflects an academic tracking poll during each parliament, which for 10 years has shown a consistent 70 per cent of MEPs in favour a single seat in Brussels.
Ahead of the 2014 European elections, MEPs have in the last year broken the code of silence surrounding the "travelling circus", as the New York Times
described it. The four-day sessions waste time, money and the efficiency of the parliament. The stress on MEPs, assistants, staff, representatives from EU institutions and Member States, lobbyists and journalists was detailed in our report A Tale of Two Cities
published last spring. We noted how only five capitals now have scheduled air links to Strasbourg, and that hotel prices more than double during a parliament week.
On June 5, the European Court of Justice held an open hearing into the vote by MEPs in March 2011 to vary our forward calendar and to hold two Strasbourg sessions of two days during a single week in October 2012 and 2013. France and Luxembourg – which hosts the parliament's back-office staff – demand an annulment of the vote, although France did not launch proceedings against parliament when it voted to scrap the Friday of Strasbourg plenary weeks in 2000. Nor did either object when the parliament scheduled only four 'mini-plenary' sessions of two days in Brussels this year, instead of the usual six or eight, nor when committee meetings are held in Strasbourg, contrary to the EU treaty.
France argued that the MEPs' vote contravenes the 1992 Edinburgh Decision between member states, namely that the parliament should hold 12 monthly sessions in Strasbourg, confirmed by the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. Paris said the objective of the vote was to reduce the length of time MEPs spend in Strasbourg. Luxembourg argued that parliaments' objective was to determine the location of its seat. The parliament said that the treaty does not impose the length of a parliamentary session.
The ECJ's advocate-general will publish his opinion on the case on September 6 with a ruling foreseen after the disputed week, October 22-26. An annulment of the calendar vote by five judges would only highlight the need for the parliament to formalise an opinion on its current working arrangements.
A broadcast earlier this month by ZDF TV
criticised the waste but asked: "What can the MEPs do about it?" The answer is that MEPs now have the power through Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty to propose treaty change. This mechanism is now being activated by our constitutionalists.
The British coalition government is an open supporter of a single seat in Brussels, as was the outgoing Netherlands government. Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, broke EU presidency etiquette by saying in a speech in November 2011 that "the parliament should have its seat in a single location". At the outset of Denmark's EU presidency, its budget minister, Bjarne Corydon, said that "we don't see the relevance in having two headquarters for the parliament". In private, ministers and European Commissioners alike express their distaste for the Strasbourg – and Luxembourg – arrangements.
Last week, EU foreign ministers met once again, inconveniently, in Luxembourg, where Council meetings are held in April, June and October, although ministers seek to avoid them. This is not just because of poor transport links, but also because they are remote from the key Brussels-based EU bodies, diplomatic representations and the media. "Tough luck" said Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, "It's in the treaty".
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle established a group on the Future of Europe earlier this year. Foreign ministers of ten member states have been working on a report, which examines the 'democratic deficit' and reform of the parliament. It must address the real issue.
In the parliament itself, a number of different initiatives are now directly focusing on the seat question in committee, in working groups and of course through the cross-party Single Seat campaign. The One Seat petition
launched in 2007 and supported by 1.27 million citizens will now be answered. Parliament President Martin Schulz – the first in office to declare himself publicly in favour of a single seat – has promised a plenary debate and resolution after the ECJ ruling.
Nobody doubts the historic significance of Strasbourg as a symbol of post-war reconciliation, even though memories of events 67 years ago are fading and the reunification of Europe since 1989 is of more significance to today's continent. Support for Strasbourg is eroding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently received an angry letter from Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries over the closure of the German consulate in Strasbourg. And French President Francois Hollande's only reference to Strasbourg during his election campaign was to point to the previous government's cut of 30 per cent in its financial support to Strasbourg as the 'Capitale européenne'.
Perhaps the surrounding austerity will allow Hollande and his colleagues to allow a more 'normal' parliament. The future should see MEPs, like their counterparts in the German parliament – who voted to move serenely from Bonn to Berlin – allowed finally to choose their meeting place.Edward McMillan-Scott and Alexander Alvaro are vice-presidents of the European Parliament and co-chairmen of the Single Seat campaign