The recurring debate about the seat of the European Parliament made once again the headlines when MEPs voted to ask for the right to decide where they should meet and have their seat, favouring the idea of a single seat in particular in order to save money. Which are the arguments of the different parties?
One consensus: Strasbourg is a European capital city. Nobody challenges this fact, even the most fervent supporters of a concentration of the EU institutions in Brussels. Strasbourg is a European capital city for different well-known reasons across Europe and the world: founding acts of Europe were adopted there, it is the seat of “parliamentary Europe” since 1949 (when the Council of Europe was created; it was later joined by the EP after the EEC Treaties were signed), historical legitimacy, symbol of reconciliation across the continent, etc.
So, Strasbourg is not only a European capital city because the Treaties stipulate it; it is fully legitimate and the Treaties only confirm this.
The differences. What are the arguments of those in favour of a concentration of the EU institutions in Brussels?
– The first argument is about the costs. Opponents to the Strasbourg seat claim that financially and environmentally, it is very expensive: it would cost between €160 and over €200 million a year and the carbon print would be around 20,000 tonnes CO2. But these numbers are based on incomplete estimates and extrapolations from 2002!
To clarify the truth, the European Association of Young Entrepreneurs (EAJE) has published a study in February 2012 (see report “Le siège dans tous ses Etats”) which shows, on the basis of official documents provided by the EP, that the annual cost of the Strasbourg seat is 4 times lower, at €51.5 million to be divided as follows: 18 million a year for the 12 sessions (1.5 million per session) and €33.5 million for the infrastructure.
So, the cost of parliamentary democracy in Strasbourg is equivalent to 0.1€/citizen/year.
The opponents of Strasbourg claim that the centralisation would enable to save money. They had to multiply the real costs by four in order to try to convince the people! This leaves us puzzled.
What would be the costs of a full transfer of the EP activities to Brussels (moving, investments, and transfers of families…)? What would be the permanent fix costs: as the EP owns its buildings in Strasbourg, would it stop to maintain them (€33.5 million in 2011)?
Finally, can we reduce the parliamentary activity to a simple budgetary item?
It is the same with the “environmental cost”: it is proven that the Strasbourg buildings are a model of ecological efficiency among all EU buildings: the carbon print is 4,200 tonnes CO2 a year, according to the “environmental declaration of the EP” published in May 2011, i.e. nearly 5 times less than the fanciful claims of the Brussels supporters. Why do they manipulate the figures if they think they have legitimate arguments?
– A second argument is the “troubles” caused by the trips to Strasbourg. But can European elects, which, by definition, represent all the European people and so, have to travel a lot across Europe, really invoke such an argument? It is, by the way, a common practice among MEPs to travel, not only between Brussels and Strasbourg, but also to several European capital cities and within their country of origin. So, if travelling to Strasbourg causes troubles, why do they voluntarily travel a lot in many European countries to hold meetings of their commissions or political groups?
It is the same for EU public servants – working for the EP, but also the Commission and the Council –, who have to travel a lot. Would we like to challenge the fact that many meetings (ministers, diplomats, experts) are held in the Member States, in particular during Council Presidencies, because it would cause “troubles” to the very same EU public servants?
– A third argument is the claimed inefficiency of the European Parliament. It would work better in Brussels than in Strasbourg. This is paradoxical, at a time when the EP never had so many powers and such an influence, never hesitating to modify Commission’s proposals and to confront with the Council and having increasingly a say on the European political agenda. All this happens with a seat in Strasbourg, far from the other capital, Brussels, perceived by the citizen as a “European bureaucratic bubble”. Furthermore, many actors underline the many problems in Brussels, such as insecurity or failures by the city, in contrast to Strasbourg.
This is why we return the argument and affirm that the Strasbourg seat has given the European Parliament the best conditions to exert its powers and its independence, contributing to its success.
However, we do not ignore the real difficulties raised by the MEPs and regularly addressed to Strasbourg, regarding the accessibility, the putting up and the material working conditions. For economic reasons, these problems are particularly acute for the MEPs’ assistants – who are the most critical towards Strasbourg. This is why our report concludes on the necessity to improve the situation, presenting 22 recommendations that we forwarded to national and local officials. It is the duty of France and Strasbourg, in collaboration with the EP’s administration, to meet the expectations in order for this European capital city to be up to its legitimate ambitions.
In reaction to the anti-Strasbourg campaign, some call for a single seat in Strasbourg. It is not the position of the EAJE.
In the current situation, we favour, one the one hand, the respect of the current Treaty’s rules, which are the fruit of a fragile compromise adopted by the Member States unanimously, and on the other hand, the improvement of the Strasbourg seat’s environment. To ask to reopen negotiations of the Treaties on this issue, as some people wish it, would amount to asking the Member States to re-discuss the localisation of all EU institutions and this would be a long, costly and risky process which would create a lot of tensions among Member States.
What would be the “political cost” of such an operation? Would it meet the current citizens’ expectations? The EU, our governments and MEPs do not have more urgent things to discuss at the present?