Strasbourg speaks in defence of hosting European Parliament

Strasbourg is an ideal place for the EU's Medicines Agency and Banking Authority. [Alexey Matveichev/Flickr]

MEPs have repeatedly argued that the European Parliament should abandon its Strasbourg seat. The Alsatian capital is poorly connected and the French authorities are reluctant to spend money improving infrastructure. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

“Ideas are worth more than money.” So said French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault visited the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday (9 May), but offered no miracle cure for the grumblings of European lawmakers about the accessibility of the institution’s official seat.

With an airport that has failed to attract many commercial carriers, the city of Strasbourg is much derided by the 751 MEPs from 28 countries that attend plenary sessions there every month. These sessions begin on a Monday afternoon and finishing at midday on a Friday.

“To get to Strasbourg today, I had to get up at 5am and I had to travel via Lyon,” said Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, a French Republican MEP (EPP group) who is publically in favour of maintaining the Strasbourg seat.

“Some of the British or Baltic members have to change flights three times,” said Fabienne Keller, a French senator and former mayor of Strasbourg.

Following the cancellation by Air France of its services from Roissy (April 2013) and Orly (March 2016), one politician notoriously even asked to be ferried to Strasbourg by private taxi, at the expense of the institution. Some members arrive at the international airport in Frankfurt, where they take specially-provided taxis or mini-buses. Others arrange to share lifts or take the chartered TGV from Brussels.

€148.7 million to improve the tram system

To help the city fulfil its role as a European capital, the French state and the local authorities came up with the idea of “three-year contracts” in the 1980s. These funding cycles have helped Strasbourg to co-finance infrastructure and transport projects for the politicians and international visitors.

Signed in January 2015, the current contract foresees a €148.7 million package for improvements to the tram line between the Strasbourg railway station and the European quarter, strengthening the city’s international outreach (World Forum for Democracy) and other research and cultural activities. The contract for the previous three-year period 2012-2014, allocated a budget of €244 million for similar objectives, with certain funds set aside for works on the second phase of the “LGV Est” high-speed train line due to enter into service this summer.

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“We are doing everything we can to protect this seat, which is part of our identity. The negotiations for the next contract are being opened now,” Roland Ries, the Socialist mayor of Strasbourg announced during the visit Ayrault.

The city plans to finance an integrated congress centre and exhibition complex with the three-year contract for 2018-2020.

“We have to be inventive, get back to the basics, recall the treaties [which establish the seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg]. I am pursuing this issue aggressively,” Ayrault said.

In December 2014, the Lower Rhine departmental council (which resides in Strasbourg) withdrew most of its minority stake in the current three-year contract for fear of spreading its financial resources too thinly. “The next contract must be clearer and not spread over too many projects, concentrating perhaps on transport and accessibility,” Ries told La Tribune.

One workplace instead of three

While France and the Alsatian authorities tread water, European lawmakers are making progress with their pro-Brussels cause.

“Substantial savings could be made by having only one place of work instead of three (Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg),” MEPs said in their report on the European Parliament’s estimated revenue and expenditure for 2017, which was adopted by the Budgets committee on 12 April.

This same report budgets €25.37 million for the movement of institutional personnel, national experts, interns and the staff of other European institutions between the three workplaces.

In November 2013, the Fox-Häfner report had highlighted the high cost of the geographically dispersed nature of the Parliament at between €156 and 204 million. These figures were questioned, with defenders of Strasbourg arguing they were inflated by around €50 million.

Local politicians in the Lower Rhine are understandably attached to their European institutions. In 2011, a study measured the impact of Europe on the local economy: “The European institutions are responsible for 11,234 jobs […] and create an added value of €637 million,” the report concluded.

The European Parliament’s share in this figure is small (€51 million) compared to other institutions like the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, the various embassies and Eurocorps, whose permanent presence in the city generates a more sustained effect that the Parliament’s monthly migration.

For Catherine Trautmann, a former Socialist mayor of Strasbourg and former president of the delegation of French Socialists in the European Parliament, this attachment touches on a deeper political question.

Re-legitimising the city’s European role

“The permanent quarrel over the seat, which paints the Parliament as the weak link of the institutions, weakens the whole of the European edifice. If the whole legislative process took place in Brussels it would be more opaque. With an increase in the number of delegated acts and agreements at the first reading, which prevent any real debate, we run the risk of turning the Parliament into a rubber-stamping chamber,” she warned.

So is the population of Strasbourg aware of the Parliament’s presence? The success of the annual “Open Days” (19,000 visitors this year) hides what is at best an indifference to the European roadshow.

Compared to the pro-Brussels lobby, which managed to collect 1.25 million signatures on a 2006 petition for a single seat, the defenders of Strasbourg are severely under-resourced: Trautmann’s “task force” only has a budget of €50,000.

The former MEP has promised to organise debates in the city on the European project and a civil society organisation, the Foundation for Strasbourg, has recently been established, aiming to re-legitimise the city’s European role. Its activities will start this summer with a comic book tracing the city’s European history from Gutenberg to the founding acts of Robert Schuman.

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