A majority of MEPs voted on Wednesday (20 November) for a resolution aimed at giving the European Parliament the power to change the EU treaty to decide when and where they meet, in Brussels or Strasbourg, a vote that irritates France.
With 483 votes in favour and 141 against MEPs gave their approval to a resolution saying that the Parliament should have the right to decide where to hold its plenary sessions, in which all the institution's members are gathered.
All of the Parliament's 12 plenary sessions take place in the French city, a symbol of Franco-German post-war reconciliation. Some meetings are also held in Luxembourg.
Most of the EU legislature's activities take place in Brussels.
The text seeks to allow the Parliament to be fully in charge of its own internal organisation, including the location of its seat.
Detractors of the monthly migration to Strasbourg have a number of arguments to call on, including travel costs, pollution and poor transport connections.
The expense of travelling from Brussels to Strasbourg has been estimated at between €169 and 204 million, or 15-20% of the Parliament’s yearly budget, while CO2 emissions associated with the trip are estimated at between 11,000 and 19,000 tonnes, MEPs say.
A symbolic vote
However, the MEPs' vote has no real impact on the decision of the seat's location for now. The Parliament does not have the power to change it, as the member states have the final say on any treaty change. The decision must be taken unanimously and France has no intention to accept such a change.
MEPs also asked the European Court of Auditors to conduct a full analysis of the potential savings generated from the Parliament having a single seat. They also requested a survey of EU citizens’ views on the prospect of maintaining Parliament’s three places of work, with specific reference to the financial, environmental and efficiency costs of this arrangement. The poll’s results should be made public by February 2014, in time for the EU elections campaigns.
For the moment the vote may be little more than symbolic but it may set a precedent for future treaty change discussions.
France opposed to a single seat
Apart from the Greens, all French MEPs voted against the transfer of the Parliament seat to Brussels. In the French National Assembly, MP Andre Schneider called on the government to clarify its position on the MEPs’ vote.
“The European Strasbourg is in danger! The anti-Strasbourg are gaining ground,” he proclaimed, warning against the 'centralisation' that would result from such a decision.
“From a legal aspect, this battle is lost and incomprehensible”, Hélène Conway-Mouret, the minister in charge of French citizens abroad, replied.
“To question the location of the EU Parliament would jeopardise all the compromises made on the seats of the EU institutions, something which I doubt member states are ready to engage in”, she said.
“I am surprised that while Europe has to face the economic and social consequences of the crisis, the EP is debating a question that is not in line with the citizens’ concerns and legally doomed to failure”, French EU Affairs Minister Thierry Repentin said.
“In times of economic difficulties, our citizens expect from Europe that it brings them answers to their preoccupations: jobs, youth unemployment, competitiveness of European enterprises, fight against organised crime, environment, immigration, energy”, the president of the EPP group, Joseph Daul said. “I don’t think that the first priority of European citizens is the seat of the EP. I regret that some MEPs focus their time and energy on this issue, for reasons of personal comfort”.
“We are used to these empty gestures”, Socialist MEP Catherine Trautmann said, adding that “like almost all Parliaments in the world it cannot decide where it will be located because another majority could change it again (…) This waste of time, energy and money is sadly inconsistent, as it is in contradiction with the Parliament’s administration (…)”
Constance Le Grip, the EPP rapporteur for the resolution on the single seat and VP of the Constitutional Affairs Committee stressed that “it’s not a binding resolution”. Regarding the request for an ordinary revision procedure via the article 48 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, Le Grip said tha “it is regrettable and even sad that the EP is wrong by using this new power for a useless and doomed initiative, motivated partly by personal convenience motives”.
The rapporteur Gerald Häfner (Greens/EFA) said: “This vote is of historic importance for European democracy. The Parliament is tired to be carried around between Brussels and Strasbourg, against its own will, by the governments. The EP is the only elected institution by 500 million European citizens, and not a subordinated authority. It’s for this reason that the Parliament will be able to use for the first time its power to initiate treaty change. It’s a historic turn – against the subordination by the Council and for the strengthening of democracy in Europe”.
According to a decision taken in 1992 at an Edinburgh EU summit, Strasbourg is an official seat of the European Parliament: 12 four-day plenary sessions per year must take place there. Any decision to change this would require an amendment to the EU treaties, a process which requires unanimity among all EU member states.
The value of current twin-seat system is often called into question, mostly due to the issue of cost. According to its opponents, the EU's 'travelling circus' costs taxpayers an estimated 200 million per year.
The European Parliament also has a third seat in Luxembourg, where its administrative offices (General Secretariat) are located. The EU assembly held a few plenary sessions in Luxembourg between 1967 and 1981.