Forced travels become costly for the EU

The European Court of Justice backed France on Thursday with its ruling related to the two seats of the European Parliament. It annulled the Parliament’s decision taken in March 2011 to combine two separate sessions on one week in October 2012 and 2013. The aim of the Parliament was to streamline operations and reduce costs.

There is a contradiction between the EU member states’ competence to decide on the seat of the Parliament, and Parliament’s competence to decide on its internal organisation. According to the court, the Parliament has no right to change the length of the sessions the way it did.

France, which took the case to court, appealed to the concession made to it in the treaty in the Edinburgh summit in 1992 according to which the Parliament has an obligation to hold twelve separate sessions in Strasbourg. The Parliament claimed it has a degree of autonomy in deciding on its internal affairs, such as the calendar change.

Parliament’s three places of work, Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg were practical in the cooperation of the six founding EU-countries. After the enlargement of the Union – and in particular with the austerity measures required in the economic crisis – the Parliament’s two seats policy causes erosion in the confidence of the citizens and puts the credibility of the European Union to test.

According to the treaty, the member states have the right to decide where and when the Parliament convenes. The Parliament has for many years been active and repeatedly claimed the right to decide on the location and the length of its plenary sessions. Currently, nearly 90 percent of the members are in favor of Brussels. Therefore, the Parliament will use its right to propose a treaty change enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty. Like any other parliament, it wants to decide on its own place of work.

More than 1.27 million Europeans have signed a petition calling for a single seat. This will be brought to public debate by Parliament’s petition committee during the spring.

Parliament building in Strasbourg costs European taxpayers around 180 million euro per year. In the next seven-year budget period, this converts into 1.2 billion euro for buildings that stand unused 321 days of the year.

In addition to property costs, we need to count the monthly travels of some five thousand Parliament employees and eight trucks moving between Brussels and Strasbourg and causing annually 19 000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Contrary to Brussels, Strasbourg’s location is logistically difficult resulting in increased costs and loss of time. Only five EU capitals have a direct connection to Strasbourg airport. Coming from the border areas of the EU, such as Finland, MEPs’ commute may well stretch to ten hours.

Parliament works together with the other EU decision-making bodies, the Council and the Commission, which are located in Brussels. The organisations, journalists and other stakeholders are also based in Brussels. It is difficult for Parliament to exercise its legislative functions and power to oversee the Council and the Commission from four-hundred kilometers away, where it is supposed to work one quarter of the time.

Strasbourg is known to be the historical symbol of the European unification. Now it reflects the absurdity of the EU institutions, waste of financial resources and inefficiency. According to the European Parliament and the European taxpayers, the EU cannot afford it.

The member states will have to take Parliament’s autonomy seriously and debate it constructively. The Parliament has demanded the Council by June 2013 to produce a roadmap on how to resolve the issue of the seat. The treaties are not carved in stone. They need to be changed to correspond the present and the future.

Anneli Jäätteenmäki, MEP, Vice-chair of the ALDE group
Alexander Alvaro, Vice-president of the European Parliament, Co-chair of the Single Seat campaign

Translated from the Finnish letter to the editor published in Helsigin Sanomat 15 Dec. 2012