MEPs vote to reduce Strasbourg calendar


The European Parliament has given the green light to merge some of its plenary sessions as a means of reducing its travel costs and related carbon emissions, in a move that some say could pave the way to further restructuring of parliamentary sittings. But French MEPs have called on President Nicolas Sarkozy's government to challenge the decision at the European Court of Justice.  

In 2012 and 2013, two sessions will take place during the same week in October in order to save one trip to the French city. 

Yesterday's (9 March) vote saw 357 MEPs vote in favour of the move, while 253 voted against amid 40 abstentions. 

Continuous travelling between Strasbourg (the European Parliament's official seat) and Brussels (its de facto seat) has long been a bone of contention among MEPs.

Traditionally, Europhiles and nationals of the EU's older member states have ranked among the twin-seat Parliament's biggest supporters, while Eurosceptic MEPs and those from newer member states complain about the cost and negative environmental impact of the EU's so-called monthly 'travelling circus'.

Minds are so divided on the issue that MEPs regularly find themselves at loggerheads. Indeed, prior to the vote, UK Conservative MEP Martin Callanan (European Conservatives & Reformists) accused German member Bernd Posselt (European People's Party) of having lost touch with reality in his attempts to "defend the indefensible," as he described the monthly decampment of 736 MEPs and their staff from Belgium to France.

Opening a Pandora's Box?

This is "the beginning of the end for Strasbourg," Callanan told EURACTIV. According to the Conservative MEP, the parliamentary authorities and President Jerzy Buzek allowed the vote to go ahead because they saw it as legitimate, despite the lobbying of some MEPs against it.

German MEPs are renowned for wanting to save EU money, so "Posselt is being positively anti-Germanic" in wanting to keep Strasbourg, said Callanan.

He explained that behind the vote, which was taken by secret ballot, was a cross-party, cross-national effort. "This was not just the Tories," Callanan observed.

Violation of the Treaty?

Posselt, meanwhile, called into question the accuracy of figures that are regularly cited in attacks on the two-seat system. In an email sent to MEP colleagues, seen by EURACTIV, he described one figure that was circulating, €150m, as "fantasy". "Experts speak of €50-70 million," he said, blaming the size of that figure on a lack of organisation rather than on the Strasbourg seat itself.

After the motion had passed and the decision to merge two sessions into one in October 2012 and October 2013 had been taken, Posselt issued a statement claiming that the vote was "partly illegal".

The concentration of two regular Strasbourg plenaries in just one week "is a clear violation of the Treaty, which speaks of twelve monthly plenary sessions".

"According to the Treaty, Strasbourg is not the second seat, but the only seat of the European Parliament, and whoever wants to save session time, money and CO2 has to concentrate work at the Alsatian metropolis and not[in Brussels]," Posselt said in his statement.

Many French MEPs, however, want to see the decision challenged in court. They are calling on the French government to assess whether it is possible to challenge the vote at the European Court of Justice in a bid to see it declared contrary to the EU Treaties.

In a telephone interview with EURACTIV, German MEP Bernd Posselt (European People's Party) claimed that the European Parliament has only one seat (Strasbourg), but three places of work: Strasbourg, Luxemburg and Brussels.

He advocates further concentration of parliamentary work in Strasbourg rather than in Brussels. According to him, the Parliament has a much greater political impact than in Brussels, where it is one of many institutions.

He also claimed that MEPs had a greater capacity for free thinking in France: "In Strasbourg, we are often much more daring than in Brussels."

Asked why he deemed the cost of €150 million to be a "fantasy figure", he said that it dated back to the EU-15. At the time, said Posselt, the buildings in Strasbourg did not yet belong to the Parliament and those figures included leasing rates.

He sent EURACTIV his position paper on the issue of common preconceptions regarding Strasbourg.

In response to Posselt's allegations of the illegality of the vote given that the treaty prescribes twelve monthly plenary sessions, UK MEP Roger Helmer (European Conservatives & Reformists) pointed out in an email that "we don't in fact have twelve monthly plenaries anyway," as there is none in August and there are two in September.

Italian liberal MEP Sonia Alfano (ALDE) said in a reply to Posselt's email that "keeping this seat in Strasbourg has political motivations but also economic ones for who we know," alluding to France.

The French delegations were predictably hugely upset. French MEP Catherine Trautmann (Socialists & Democrats) released a statement that mentioned taking the matter to the European Court of Justice.

The centre-right French delegation issued a statement labelling an amendment tabled by UK Conservative MEP Ashley Fox (ECR) "an attack on Strasbourg" as a symbol of European reconciliation. "To forget this is extremely dangerous."

Fox himself gave EURACTIV the following comment: "I am delighted with the result. It clearly demonstrates that MEPs from all groups want to save the taxpayer money and save thousands of tonnes of CO2."

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) MEP Marta Andreasen released a statement to the press warning that MEPs' "self-congratualtory reduction of Strasbourg trips by one" must be put into context.

"To me it's like taking 500 pounds from someone, giving them 15 back and expecting them to be grateful," she said.

"Let's put this move by MEPs into context. It is a very small step in the right direction. I fear, however, that many will now rest on their self-congratulatory laurels and no longer push for what really needs to happen: the abolition of trips to Strasbourg altogether," Andreasen said.

"Until MEPs show they are sincere in practicing what they preach about 'austerity measures' and end the ludicrously wasteful, not to say expensive, charade that is Strasbourg plenary sessions, I feel certain that most people will feel like I do, unimpressed and demanding their 500 back," she concluded.

Vice-President of the European Parliament Edward McMillan-Scott (ALDE), commenting after the vote said: "In the light of today's vote, which clearly shows that a majority of MEPs are fed up with the Parliament's constant travel between Brussels and Strasbourg, I will work with colleagues to put forward a proposal to have the entire seat issue debated and voted on by Parliament as a whole, making use of its legal right to propose changes to the Treaty."

"The Parliament has been silent on this issue for far too long, but spoke out today. It's time to take our destiny into our own hands," he concluded.

Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini (Greens) commented the vote saying: "One down, eleven more to go: clearly, the whole multi-seat operation is an outdated and wasteful system that damages public perception of the EU. It is scandalous that the chairs of the two biggest political groups continue to prevent the European Parliament debating the outdated arrangement as regards the EP seats. While MEPs cannot decide, it is their role as public representatives to ensure the issue remains on the EU agenda and that member states do the right thing. Today's decision keeps the issue on the radar."

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 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.

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.

A petition, launched in May 2006, was handed to the European Commission on 21 September that year by a group of parliamentarians led by Swedish EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmström in her former capacity as an MEP. 

It reached the symbolic one million signature mark in November 2006 (EURACTIV 20/04/07), while yesterday the website of the 'One Seat' campaign recorded 1,268,308 signatures. 


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