France to challenge cost saving Strasbourg vote

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by G.A.Ponsonby

France is set to challenge the European Parliament in court in a story which spreads itself across Europe.  The French are making their challenge in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg over the Brussels based European Parliament’s decision to combine two of the twelve plenary sessions that they must hold in Strasbourg each year.

The agreement to continue to keep Strasbourg as a seat of the European Parliament was made at a European Summit in Edinburgh in 1992 and was enshrined in the European Constitution under the Lisbon Treaty.

However MEPs have voted by 357 to 253 to merge together two sessions scheduled for the city in 2012, and similarly in 2013.

At the moment much of the Parliament’s work takes place in Brussels but the move to Strasbourg twelve times a year means the transport of 6,000 members of staff and several tonnes of documents at a cost of around €200,000,000.

Supporting the move to merge the sessions, SNP MEP Alyn Smith said: “By reducing the amount of times the entire European Parliament has to decamp from Brussels to Strasbourg, this decision will save taxpayers’ money and reduce the environmental impact of shifting thousands of people and resources to-and-fro.  It will also make our working lives more efficient and productive.“

However, French European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez has said that under existing EU law it is illegal for the Parliament to run two sessions together into one week.  He also voiced concerns that “Europe must not be built in a single city, crammed into a handful of buildings.  This would reinforce the technocratic image that has already done it so much harm.”

Strasbourg is also the seat of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Ombudsman but there would be a definite loss in prestige if the Parliament no longer sat there.  Although it is easy to dismiss this, most cities and their home countries would react in the same way.

French ministers also have serious concerns on the effect to the economy of Strasbourg, not only in terms of the loss of staff to the Parliament but also to the whole service industry in the city which has grown up to provide for MEPs, their staff and the various other groups visiting the Parliament.

In what is seen by many across the political spectrum as a positive move by the European Parliament, MEPs are hampered in taking things further as they have very limited control over when the Parliament sits.  It would take a treaty change for the move to a single seat for the Parliament.

Dutch European Affairs minister Ben Knapan has said publicly that the Dutch would support a move to a single site.  Similar views have been expressed by other governments.   However, although questions have long been raised on the use of Strasbourg, national interests have meant that horse trading between nation states resulted in the retention of the city in return for support from France on other issues.

Mr Smith claimed that member states retain the power to undo previous decisions and added: “This legal case will make clear what this problem stems from – a decision of the member states in my own city of Edinburgh at the summit in 1992 when John Major’s government traded it for the retention of the UK budget rebate.

“But what was done by the member states can be undone by the member states, and I have called on Scottish European Minister Fiona Hyslop and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague to raise this at the first opportunity.”