Strasbourg seat faces 'death by a thousand cuts'
by Justin Stares
Even French MEPs are voting to get rid of the European Parliament's Strasbourg seat, writes Justin Stares.
"I would send you the photo you are after," said the helpful technician from his office in Strasbourg, "but it is on a disk with the rest of my things, which the removal people have left in Brussels". Beyond the well documented cost – more than €200m a year – and life-threatening greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of a small island, the monthly migration of the European Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg is above all else a hassle.
At four hours by car, Strasbourg is too far from Belgium to commute. Whereas Brussels is well connected by air, Strasbourg is pretty much inaccessible. Despite its culinary delights, parliamentarians pass through in the blink of an eye during "Strasbourg week", which is actually little more than three days' long. So few journalists follow the assembly southward that a Brussels fund had to be created to subsidise their journeys – hacks who benefited were asked to keep it quiet.
Almost no-one within the Brussels bubble can look you in the eye and defend the existing two-seat system, particularly now governments across Europe are running out of money. Nobody, that is, apart from the French - who point out quite rightly that the EU Treaty decrees that there should be 12 monthly parliament sessions in the Alsatian capital.
It is therefore with satisfaction that "dump-Strasbourg" campaigners point to what they say is a significant victory: the French are now voting to end the two-seat system. Earlier this month, when faced with a budget report noting the "significant savings that could be made if the European Parliament were to have a single seat", some 15 French Euro MPs approved.
"The tide has irrevocably turned in favour of good sense economically, environmentally and for the sound delivery of democracy in the EU - even 15 French MEPs voted for a single seat," Liberal Democrat MEP Edward McMillan-Scott, the public face of the single-seat campaign, told PublicServiceEurope.com.
The budget report was put to a public roll-call vote, meaning it is easy to analyse on websites such as VoteWatch.eu. While the majority backing the single seat was comfortable - 353 votes to 282, with 38 abstentions - the analysis shows that support for maintaining the status quo is still strong in certain countries. In addition to France – where, despite the rebels, a majority opposed the single seat - there is support for Strasbourg among MEPs from Poland, Spain and Germany - where the vote was evenly split. Unsurprisingly, budget-conscious northern European MEPs showed no such sympathy. Not one from the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark or Finland could be convinced by the pro-Strasbourg lobby.
The figures, it should be noted, are not a perfectly accurate reflection of EP sentiment. It is quite common for MEPs to press yes or no on their electronic counter without having a clue what they are voting for. Some of the rebels may even be under the impression that they were voting for a single seat in Strasbourg rather than Brussels.
The vote nevertheless follows another, in March, which backed a proposal to reduce the number of Strasbourg sessions from 12 to 11 - by shortening two sessions and squeezing them into one week. That secret ballot enraged Paris to the extent that it went straight to the European Court of Justice to challenge it. A verdict is pending.
Such is the sensitivity surrounding Strasbourg that a spokesman for the European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek asked to go off the record before explaining the president had no official position. In any case, the opinions of MEPs are largely incidental as only member states, acting unanimously, could jettison Strasbourg definitively by amending the treaty.
Single-seat campaigners want an amendment inserted when the treaty is altered to allow Croatia to become the 28th member state, probably in 2013. Their chances of success are no doubt slim unless France is given something substantial in return. Short of a coup-de-grace, the one thing MEPs can do is consign Strasbourg to death by a thousand cuts.