France turns to EU courts to defend Strasbourg Parliament

Strasbourg’s exclusive rights to having the main seat of the European Parliament are enshrined in European treaties.

The French government has gone to new lengths to defend the European Parliament’s Strasbourg seat, filing a complaint against the Parliament’s 2017 budget vote, which took place in Brussels. EURACTIV France reports.

Paris last week (9 February) lodged a complaint with the Court of Justice of the EU over the EU’s 2017 budget. The legal challenge has nothing to do with the budget’s content but rather the fact that it was adopted in Brussels, not Strasbourg.

This, says the French government, is a violation of the EU treaties.

On 1 December, MEPs adopted the EU budget in a mini plenary session in Brussels. France has responded to by throwing the rulebook at the Parliament.

With the Brexit crisis in full swing and pivotal elections looming large in the Netherlands, France and Germany, some see the legal challenge as nothing more than a petty distraction. Jean Arthuis, a French liberal MEP and chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Budgets, called it “pathetic and laughable”.

But the French government is deadly serious.

“Europe is first and foremost a community based on the rule of law. Current affairs must not be allowed to shake the solidity of its legal foundations,” a source told Euraciv.fr. When the Commission launched a procedure against Irish state aid to Apple, the source added, it was not hit by similar criticism over its priorities.

Crammed agenda

In its defence, the European Parliament cited problems with the agenda. “The agreement on the budget was adopted on 16 November, the Wednesday evening before the plenary session. In two days it was not possible to do all the necessary translations and legal checks,” said Marjory van den Broeke, the head of the European Parliament’s press unit.

The Parliament also advanced another argument related to the treaties: the budget has to be adopted by MEPs within 14 days of the agreement reached between the Council and the Parliament. Waiting until the December Strasbourg plenary session was therefore not an option.

It may take months for the Court to reach a decision, and the Parliament’s technical and legal arguments could well sway the ruling in its favour.

But the fact that France was even prepared to start the process may make the Parliament think twice when it comes to this year’s budget.

“Insidious” attacks

France’s right-wing parties tend to be the most fervent defenders of the institution’s Strasbourg seat. Republican MEP Anne Sander was among the first to congratulate the Socialist government on its decision to take legal action.

“Respecting the treaties is a source of stability, especially when the EU is in danger. Voting on the budget is an important democratic act, so it is important for France to send a strong political signal by upholding the rules,” she said.

The Parliament’s new president, Antonio Tajani, appears to want to play by the rules when it comes to the Parliament’s procedures. During the adoption of the agenda for his first plenary session in charge on Monday (13 February), he criticised requests to move a debate on the establishment of a German road toll forward a day, to Wednesday (15 February), pointing out that under the treaties, sessions should last until Thursday afternoon (16 February).

But he was overruled by the majority of MEPs, many of whom spend Monday and Thursday afternoons travelling and stay only two-and-a-half days in Strasbourg.

Parliament asks for treaty revision on Strasbourg seat

A parliamentary committee adopted a report that calls on member states to abolish MEPs' monthly commute from Brussels to Strasbourg. The latest attempt to reduce the number of parliamentary seats might force the Council to discuss a treaty change.

The problems posed by the monthly commute to Strasbourg are well known in France. The lack of transport links and hotels is a constant source of anger and frustration for MEPs and their entourages.

“Attacks on the Strasbourg seat are insidious. The critics never take on the issue directly but always approach it through some other subject,” said Sander.

French Republican MEPs plan to oppose elements of Guy Verhofstadt’s report on European reform in a vote on Thursday. Amendments 52 and 53 criticise the Strasbourg seat.

« La France est très attachée au respect des dispositions prévues dans les traités, qui, en fixant le siège du Parlement à Strasbourg, traduisent la volonté des bâtisseurs de l’Europe de construire une Europe polycentrique et sont le résultat de compromis entre États membres. Remettre en cause le siège strasbourgeois du Parlement reviendrait à remettre en cause l’ensemble de cet équilibre. Strasbourg, ville témoin des déchirements de l’Europe, est devenue un symbole de réconciliation. En accueillant le siège du Parlement européen, du Conseil de l’Europe et de la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme, elle a acquis le statut de capitale européenne. Le gouvernement a constamment défendu cette position de manière ferme et déterminée. Ce recours s’inscrit dans le prolongement de cet engagement à faire respecter la lettre et l’esprit des traités sur ce sujet» a précisé le secrétaire d'Etat au Affaires européennes, Harlem Desir.

Le Protocole n° 6 annexé aux traités sur la fixation des sièges des institutions de l’Union européenne fixe en effet le siège du Parlement européen à Strasbourg et prévoit que les douze périodes de sessions plénières mensuelles, notamment la session budgétaire, s’y tiennent. Le vote du budget et plus globalement l’exercice par le Parlement de sa compétence budgétaire en séance plénière constituent un moment fondamental de la vie démocratique de l’Union. C’est la raison pour laquelle cet exercice est expressément mentionné par le protocole sur la fixation des sièges des institutions et qu’il est nécessaire qu’il se déroule lors de sessions plénières ordinaires.

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