'Wasteful' Strasbourg roadshow of MEPs must end
by Ian Hudghton
As the French government bids to maintain a second seat for the European Parliament in Strasbourg, many politicians have pledged to fight on for a single seat – says MEP
Each year, as August draws to a close it is 'back to school' across Europe. This is quite literally the case for children and students who return to their classes after weeks, sometimes even months, of free time. It is also the case for numerous workers in all sectors as the traditional summer holiday period comes to an end. And it equally applies to parliamentarians across the continent: the recess is over and real legislative work must recommence.
In reality, of course, the summer break is not just about holidaying. Students must often find jobs to pay the way, while others take the opportunity to complete much needed work at home. For politicians, it is a chance to get away from lengthy meetings and to get out and about to meet constituents. Nevertheless, the summer offers a change in the routine and a change of pace and it is only natural that as September approaches - the return to work is not always welcomed with unbridled joy. Where did all the time go?
This annual dose of an increased Monday morning blues comes with a unique twist for those who work in the European Parliament. During the course of the normal routine, MEPs - and all the parliamentary staff and assistants - must make the time-consuming and money-burning monthly trek to Strasbourg, to meet certain Treaty requirements. In September, however, the travelling circus must hit the road twice in a Brussels-Strasbourg-Brussels-Strasbourg weekly routine. The back-to-school parliamentarians return with the thought of numerous delayed flights at the backs of their minds.
The melancholy feelings of parliamentarians are, however, the least of the problems with the monthly Strasbourg roadshow. The cost to the taxpayer is immense: upwards of €200m a year - an expense which is unjustifiable at any time, but even more so in a time of economic turmoil. The impact on the environment is also huge, with the parliament leaving a dirty carbon footprint for no objective reason. In every possible sense, the Strasbourg seat is unsustainable.
Which is why this year MEPs have been able to return to work with a small spring in their steps. The parliament last year decided that instead of September being a double Strasbourg whammy, the plenary would be held over two sessions in a single week in October. This would fulfil the treaty requirement of meeting 12 times per year in Strasbourg - while saving MEPs that second September trip to Alsace and saving taxpayers some €15m – not to mention the environmental benefits of 1,600 fewer tonnes of carbon emissions.
The parliamentarian joy may, though, be short lived. After only a few days back for the new term in Brussels - during a Strasbourg preparatory week no less - the Advocate General to the Court of Justice delivered his opinion in the case brought by the French government objecting to the parliament's scheduling innovation. The two-sessions-in-a-week plan was he said "inconsistent"; the October calendar represented a single session, which had been "artificially split in two". Accordingly, the parliament's calendar is illegal and presumably the second September trip should be reinstated.
In reality, it is the insistence that the parliament meets 12 times a year in Strasbourg that is 'inconsistent': inconsistent in logic, inconsistent with any notion of good governance and inconsistent with calls from across the European Union to rein in unnecessary public spending. The 'artificial split' lies in the way the institution has been divided between two main cities, with a de-facto permanent base in Brussels but a legal seat in France. And if a strict interpretation of the law says that the calendar is illegal then it is the law that needs changing, not the parliamentary schedule.
In the 14 years since I was first elected to the EP - I have seen various initiatives taken to end the monthly trip to Strasbourg. I was one of the original members of the One Seat campaign - a campaign that has successfully gathered more than one million signatures from EU citizens also determined to end the waste. But all efforts to date have been unsuccessful and the parliament remains the only legislature in the world with no say over where it meets. At a time when the leaders of the EU are desperately trying to find a way out of the economic mess - and at a time when public antipathy to the European institutions is running at a high - it is inconceivable that the Strasbourg seat can be defended for much longer.
Fortunately the Advocate General's opinion is not the final say and the case will proceed to the European Court of Justice, with a judgement expected in November - clearly too late for this year's calendar. The Advocate General has called for "a dynamic interpretation of the treaties" on this matter and it is to be hoped that the court shows more dynamism than he did himself. In the longer term, more than a dynamic interpretation is needed. The curtain must come down on this wasteful Strasbourg roadshow.
Ian Hudghton MEP is president of the Scottish National Party
Taxpayers the losers from EP's Strasbourg visits
The Single Seat campaign is 'going public' to increase pressure on EU governments to address the European Parliament's costly and polluting trips to Strasbourg, writes Edward McMillan-Scott MEP
Sadly, the EUCJ or the European Parliament cannot rewrite the treaties since the treaty protocol is the result of 'freely cooperating sovereign nation states'; a concept cherished by many in the British Isles. This is but one sad example of the suboptimal effects of multiple unanimity rules, which are part and parcel of an intergovernmental approach.