The host city of the European Parliament’s plenary sessions has launched a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening its image as a symbol of post-war European reconciliation and fending off accusations that the assembly’s monthly trek to Strasbourg is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
As euro deputies were meeting for the first time this week for the Parliament’s opening plenary session in Strasbourg, the city launched a charm offensive to win the hearts of the new MEPs.
Nawel Rafik-Elmrini, Strasbourg’s deputy mayor in charge of European and international affairs, organised the distribution of welcome kits to provide the 736 newly-elected MEPs with information on how to get around the city.
In June, a welcome desk was opened at the European Parliament’s Brussels premises to help MEPs sort out practical aspects of their monthly commute to Strasbourg, including housing, transportation and tourism.
“Our objective is to show that the Strasbourg municipality is reaching out to MEPs and meeting them more regularly during their mandate,” Rafik-Elmrini told a group of Brussels-based journalists last week.
Strengthening Strasbourg’s European role
The city is also seeking to strengthen its European role by building bridges between the European Parliament and its elder relative, the Council of Europe.
The two institutions are set to sign a convention in September, with common actions already launched in the area of education and a joint seminar organised in July between Eastern and Western university leaders on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Rafik-Elmrini said more contacts will be organised between the two institutions. “It is true that there is almost a schism between the European Parliament and the Council of Europe,” she admitted, adding that the municipality was working to redress this.
The deputy mayor cited an initiative called ‘The Strasbourg Dialogues’, where members of both institutions discuss topics of common interest. “This is the first stone” towards establishing more contact between the two institutions, she admitted, “but it is essential”.
The Council of Europe will again find itself at the centre of attention in the autumn with celebrations organised around the institution’s 60th anniversary on 1 October, in the presence of former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been invited to attend.
Rafik-Elmrini said Strasbourg’s European strategy was also built around the ‘Strasbourg Club‘, an initiative launched in 2003 and aimed at reinforcing links between urban areas in western and eastern parts of Europe. The club now includes the mayors of 35 cities, including Warsaw, Bratislava, Sofia and Bucharest. Meetings are organised on a regular basis and are aimed at building bridges between the EU’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ members.
Monthly Strasbourg trek ‘healthy’ for EU
Asked about the necessity of keeping the Parliament’s monthly trek to Strasbourg, Rafik-Elmrini was uncompromising.
“For us, this is unquestionable. The city has an historic and legal legitimacy” which is written down in the EU treaties, she said. “History carries a weight which is still relevant today,” she added, referring to Strasbourg’s image as a symbol of European post-war reconciliation.
MEPs spend most of their time in Brussels where the European Parliament holds its political group and committee meetings, but EU treaties require them to hold at least twelve plenary sessions per year in Strasbourg, where votes are held.
The total costs are estimated at around 200 million euros per year.
This so-called ‘travelling circus’ has come under fire from MEPs themselves, with a group of parliamentarians pushing for relocating the assembly full-time to Brussels. The ‘One Seat’ campaign gathered one million signatures, which were presented to the Commission in 2006 (EURACTIV 21/09/06).
But Rafik-Elmrini is unapologetic, insisting that the EU institutions’ dispersion outside Brussels is healthy. “One has to avoid the concentration and centralisation of powers, which never was in the spirit of the EU treaties,” she points out.
“This polycentricism is healthy for the EU,” she adds, arguing that it even allows for “greater clarity” between the different roles of the EU institutions. “Brussels decides, Luxembourg judges and Strasbourg adopts,” she said.
“The Europe of Strasbourg is not in contradiction with the Europe of Brussels,” according to the deputy mayor. “On the contrary, they are fully complementary.”
Once a month, the European Parliament's 'travelling circus' hits the road, with 736 MEPs going to Strasbourg. They are followed by their 2,000 assistants and administration employees, and lorries carrying their 3,500 moveable filing cabinets ('cantines').
The overall costs – including buildings maintenance – reach about 200 million euros per year, according to Dr. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a former MEP. Over the five-year legislature, the totals amount to about one billion euros, he says.
The decision to hold most of the Parliament's sessions in Strasbourg was laid down in a 1992 summit agreement, which was confirmed by the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. Any decision to change it would require an amendment to the EU Treaties, a process which requires unanimity between all EU member states.