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France takes the European Parliament to court

With 357 votes for and 255 against, the calendars of the European Parliament 2012 and 2013 have been adopted. Instead of 2 plenary sessions with one week to separate, they have decided two short plenary sessions with only one day in between. This made the French government reacts immediately, by taking the European Parliament to the Court of Justice. They think that this is against the Lisbon Treaty.

Each month thousands of boxes like these, are moved back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg. Photo: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lars Klitgaard Christensen

The European Parliament has only one official seat. In Strasbourg. However, all the members of the parliament, interpreters, journalists etc. are travelling back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg each month. Three weeks a month is in Brussels, while the plenary sessions are in Strasbourg, as according to the treaty.

The travelling circus

This arrangement, often referred to as the travelling circus, has existed since 1965, where the member states of the European Communities (EC), the previous version of the European Union (EU), decided that the symbolic value of having Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg as the three seats of the Parliament would be strong. The official seat of the Parliament is Strasbourg, where the plenary sessions are held. Luxembourg is the seat of the secretariat, and Brussels got the group meetings, the committees and the external parliamentary activities.

Even though the Council of Europe has nothing to do with the European Union, their buildings have been used for the plenary sessions until 1999, when the new buildings in Strasbourg were finished.
In the post-war time in 1949, Strasbourg was selected as the seat of the Council of Europe, due to the historic wars between France and Germany. This seat should be a symbol of “never again”.

Some critics say, that the cost of the travelling of the European parliament is between 180 and 203 million Euros each year. This is more than the BNP of for instance Tonga, Sao Tomé & Principe or Kiribati.

– A study group from the free university of Brussels came out with a report in November 2007, saying that the cost of the two seats of the European Parliament is estimated to be between 180 and 203 million Euros each year. Read it here.

– The same report estimate the environmental costs to be 18884,5 tonnes of CO2 each year.
– Another report from the European Association of Young Entrepreneurs came out with a report in February 2012, claiming that the numbers from this report is wrong, and the real cost is 51,5 million Euros and 4199 tonnes of CO2. Read it here.

From symbol to politics

The times are changing, and what is happening in the European Union is not symbolic anymore. It is about politics. Therefore a group of members of the Parliament started a campaign, The Single Seat Campaign. Edward McMillan-Scott and Alexander Alvaro, both from the alliance of Liberal and Democrats, are frontrunners in this campaign.
The reason they fight “the travelling circus”, is that they think that it weakens the European Parliament as an institution.
“All other activities of the European Parliament is happening in Brussels, except from the secretariat in Luxembourg. The committees and group meetings are happening in Brussels. Our staffs are in Brussels. And the Council and the Commission, the two other institutions that belongs to the triangle of decisions in the European Union is situated in Brussels.” Alexander Alvaro says.

Difficult to change

Even though many members of the Parliament wish “the travelling circus” to end, it is not easy to change. It is written in the treaty, that the seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg, and that there shall be 12 plenary sessions in Strasbourg each year. To change this, it takes a change in the treaty, where all member states have to agree. But it might be unlikely, that France will ever give up the European Parliament.
When the calendar of the European Parliament was put into voting in September 2011, it was decided, that the two plenary sessions in October should be held within one week from 2012. This means, that instead of one week in Brussels, one week in Strasbourg, another week in Brussels and another week in Strasbourg, the plenary sessions are shortened down to two days, then a day off and then two days of the next plenary session. This means, that they save a trip back and forth from Brussels.

Immediate French reaction

The decision from the European Parliament led to an immediate French reaction from the French government. According to them, it is written in the treaty, that there must be 12 plenary sessions of 1 week in Strasbourg each year. Therefore they have taken the decision to the Court of Justice, in hope that they will say, that the calendar is not valid, because it is against the treaty.

This makes no worries in the camp of the single seat campaign.
“This voting shows, that a majority of the members of the Parliament want to decide themselves, when and where the European Parliament is seated”. Alexander Alvaro says.

The local authorities are worried

At the municipality of Strasbourg, the Leader of the delegation of European and International affairs, Guillaume Delmotte, have no doubt: The home of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg, and will forever be here.
“Strasbourg is a symbol of the relationship between France and Germany. This is why it has been chosen. This is why it should be here. In a time with crisis, we need symbols more than ever.” Guillaume Delmotte says.

– The official seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg.

– There are 12 plenary sessions of four days in Strasbourg each year – this means that the European Parliament in Strasbourg is used 48 days per year.
– In 2012 and 2013, two of the plenary sessions will be only 2 days, which means, that the buildings will be used only 44 days per year.
– According to the municipality of Strasbourg, more than 10.000 persons have a job related to the European institutions in the city, and the economic gain in estimated to be around 600 million Euros each year.