Ahead of the 2014 European elections, MEPs have finally broken the code of silence surrounding the wasteful 'travelling circus' to Strasbourg
As just over 600 of the 754 MEPs left Strasbourg last Thursday lunchtime - with just 76 remaining to debate and vote on human rights 'urgencies' that afternoon - planning for the next plenary session in the capital of Alsace was already underway. Now, it appears that French President François Hollande will plead with MEPs during their November session to give Strasbourg another chance. If so, he risks humiliation, because opposition to the costly anachronism is now at two-to-one among MEPs - and 75 per cent of staff agree.
Last Thursday morning's debates stopped 40 minutes early because of lack of business. This is relevant not least because parliamentary group leaders, in their agenda-setting exercise for the next plenary session, have to take into account the temporary closing of the Brussels hemicycle due to apparent structural defects. A two-day 'mini-plenary' planned in Brussels on November 7-8 may not now take place there: some want extra time in Strasbourg instead. The issue centres around the decision by MEPs in March 2011 to vote to reorganise their calendar by holding two Strasbourg sessions of two days during a single week in October 2012 and 2013, rather than holding two separate four-day sessions in the same month. France and Luxembourg opposed this by taking the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice. A public hearing was held on June 5, attended by the pro bono legal advisers to Single Seat, Sidley Austin LLP.
On September 6, the Advocate-General published his opinion - backing France and Luxembourg's argument that the MEPs' vote is not in line with the 1992 Edinburgh decision between member states. The 1992 decision provides for 12 ordinary plenary part sessions in Strasbourg, as confirmed by the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. However, Advocate-General Paolo Mengozzi also said that the treaty does not stipulate the length of a session. He recalled that the European Parliament had voiced strong objections to the requirement to meet in Strasbourg and – as the 12 Strasbourg sessions are mandated by treaty – if the parliament wished to change this requirement it had the freedom to invoke its new powers to ask for treaty change.
He also recommended that the court take into account the overall context - including the need for coherence in the calendar and the strong objections to the current arrangements that have been raised. As we write, two weeks after its publication, the opinion is available in almost all European Union languages except English. The court's verdict is expected before the end of the year, but by then the EP will have held its first double plenary session. In a defiant statement to Strasbourg's local newspaper on September 12, the co-leader of the European Parliament's Green group Daniel Cohn-Bendit argued that the ongoing case in the European Court of Justice was a sideshow. He wants a debate and a resolution in November, stating that MEPs should have the right to decide when and where they meet.
We wholeheartedly agree and supporters of the single seat have been campaigning for this for months. In a recent vote on the desirability of a single seat, Socialist group leader Hannes Swoboda voted in favour. President Martin Schulz, his predecessor, has also declared himself in favour of a single seat - the first sitting president of the parliament to do so - although he says he favours Strasbourg. Support has even come from the member states; in the Netherlands and Great Britain, the seat question featured in their respective coalition agreements. And Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski advocated a single seat for the EP in a speech on November 28, 2011, in Berlin. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group has long been the only group to take a pro-single seat stance. Although Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian premier for nine years and leader of the Liberal group, is constrained from supporting his own capital in public. But Martin Callanan, leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, is unequivocally pro-Brussels.
In a June 2011 vote on the EU's multiannual budget, the first absolute majority of MEPs backed a single seat by 373 against 285. Since then, MEPs have repeatedly and consistently voted
for a single seat - in reports examining past and future spending in February, March and May. On July 4, MEPs voted 432 against 218 - nearly a two-to-one majority - for a single seat in the mandate for the 2013 EU budget. More detailed reports on the cost of the split-site arrangement were submitted to the parliament's bureau by its administration on September 10. However, the estimated extra cost of maintaining the additional working places - Luxembourg and Strasbourg - at €148m does not include fixed costs: the amortisation of the buildings now owned by the parliament, which would be at least €30m and provides no breakdown of each location's running costs.
The environmental footprint of the trek estimated at some 19,000 tonnes of carbon emissions was also overlooked, as are the additional personal costs to MEPs and staff. A May 2012 poll,
in the parliament's internal staff magazine Newshound
– with its highest participation ever – found that 75 per cent of staff and assistants are in favour of a single seat; even the Luxembourg staffers support it by a majority of 65 per cent. This reflects an academic tracking poll conducted during each parliament - which for 10 years has shown a consistent level of 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 p
ublished last spring. We noted that hotel prices more than doubled during a parliament week and transport links are so abysmal that the institutions must charter their own means of conveyance and from October - even transiting through Paris ends with the transfer of Strasbourg flights from Charles de Gaulle to the unusable Orly airport. In the EP itself, a number of different initiatives are now directly focusing on the single seat question in committees - in working groups and of course through the cross-party single seat campaign.
Edward McMillan-Scott and Alexander Alvaro are vice-presidents of the European Parliament and co-chairmen of the Single Seat campaign