Hope for a single European Parliament seat
Momentum has shifted in favour of abolishing the EP's second seat in Strasbourg despite French court case, insists Edward McMillan-Scott MEP
June's plenary session in Strasbourg saw what a year ago would have been a momentous event, MEPs voted to support a single seat of the European Parliament. Specifically, they voted for paragraph 127 of the Garriga Report - Multi-Annual Financial Framework - which "points to the significant savings that could be made if the EP were to have a single seat" and was supported by 353 votes, 282 against and 38 abstentions.
A major breakthrough some may think, but in reality momentum has been building for a single seat - in Brussels - for some time now. The usual wall of silence is slowly, vote-by-vote, being dismantled. Last year, I set up the Brussels-Strasbourg Seat Study Group - a cross-party group of senior MEPs campaigning to end the controversial two-seat arrangement. With our new powers and responsibilities under the Lisbon Treaty, we have a responsibility to work efficiently. And in the current climate of economic austerity and having regard to our carbon footprint, a debate on the EP's working arrangements is unavoidable.
A report we commissioned called "A Tale of Two Cities", was published in February and found that the additional cost of meeting monthly for four days in Strasbourg is €180 million and 19,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. This time-wasting and lengthy relocation of the parliament requires materials and people to be shuffled around by car, lorry, train and plane - effectively resulting in the loss of at least 30 day's work per year. Furthermore, an attitude survey conducted by the University of Zurich's psychology department found that some 90 per cent of MEPs and staff preferred Brussels. Evidence, surely, that the time is nigh for a discussion in the EP on this issue? Not that easy.
The next obstacle blocking the parliament's right to determine its own working arrangements was objection to amendments put forward to modify the 2012 and 2013 calendars - to put two Strasbourg weeks into one in October each year. While common sense clearly rules that this would be much more environmentally friendly and cost and time-effective, certain factions within the parliament – specifically, the pro-Strasbourg stonewalling group leaders Daul and Schultz - had the vote postponed. Eventually, the vote took place in March. The result was 357 in favour, 253 against and 40 abstentions. The will of the MEPs had been heard.
Unfortunately, the very same will seems to be wholly disregarded and disrespected by the French government, which immediately announced that it would take the case to the European Court of Justice. The French claim that it contravenes the treaties. One may question whether they are spending their time and money on this because of legal technicalities, or due to the fact that the French Presidential election is looming and Strasbourg makes a fortune from the parliament's treks to the city. During plenary weeks, hotels in Strasbourg increase their rates by up to 100 per cent.
Many are more inclined to believe the latter, which is why the study group has been offered pro-bono support from renowned international law firm Sidley Austin LLP. Overturning the calendar vote would be to symbolically overturn the democratic voice of the parliament, and to deny MEPs the right to decide where they work as well as giving no consideration to the cost to the European taxpayer.
While many in the EP - both for and against one seat - have been vocal on this issue, under EU law individuals cannot intervene in court cases between member states and EU institutions. But, following agreements that both the UK and Dutch governments have made to support a single seat, the study group hopes that they can persuade other member states to support the parliament. We also urge the French government to make public the text of their case to allow voters to see the arguments they are using to oppose the parliament's democratic decision. Regardless of the outcome, which could take nearly two years, there has been an evident shift in the mentality of those in the EP. For the first time, speaking out about the ridiculous and much-mocked travelling circus does not cast a shadow over MEPs. Instead, we are starting to see the light.
Edward McMillan-Scott MEP is Vice-President of the European Parliament, responsible for democracy and human rights, and chairman of the Brussels-Strasbourg Seat Study Group