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05/03/2012 Parliament headquarters: the battle continues between the pro- and anti-Strasbourg camps

It has been clear for some time that some MEPs have it in for the double headquarters of the European Parliament – Brussels for committee work and political group meetings and Strasbourg for the plenary sessions. The battle of reports is raging between defenders of the Alsatian capital and its detractors. But beyond the statistics, is it just politics at play?

Double headquarters of Parliament: simply a question of numbers?

A year ago, a study commissioned by Edward McMillan-Scott (ALDE UK) and carried out by the University of Zurich was released on the subject. It revealed the exorbitant costs of the monthly migration of MEPs and civil servants from the European Parliament in Brussels to Strasbourg.

One parliament, three places of work

The European Parliament’s headquarters are in Strasbourg but it has several places of work: Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg. The twelve plenary sessions of the year – one per month except August and two in September – take place in Strasbourg. Parliamentary committees are held in Brussels (with its proximity to Council) as are the six extra plenary sessions per year.  Lastly, the city of Luxembourg hosts the General Secretariat (administration and translation/interpreting services).

The McMillan-Scott report, entitled “A Tale of Two Cities” reveals in effect that the double headquarters bring an annual cost of €169 million to €203 million per year and a carbon footprint of 18,884 tonnes of CO2 per year. Furthermore, it states that 91% of MEPs would prefer Brussels to Strasbourg if there was to be a single site and even among the French only 28% would choose Strasbourg. These results however must be viewed in context as only 417 Parliament employees were surveyed and only 61 of these were MEPs.

On the pro-Strasbourg side, the figures seem to be quite different. In response to the report mentioned above, the European Association for Young Entrepreneurs (AEJE), based in Strasbourg, decided to carry out its own study. In this study, presented to the European Parliament on February 14th last, with the backing of MEP Nathalie Griesbeck (ALDE France) and in the presence of several other MEPs, the AEJE compares the 2011 figures with figures it has put together from the General Secretariat of the European Parliament.

According to the General Secretariat, the annual cost of the Strasbourg headquarters amounts to €51.5 million per year i.e. 10 cents per European citizen in 2010. Similarly, the carbon footprint generated is reported to ‘only’ be 4,199 tonnes of CO2 per year. The study was welcomed by Nathalie Griesbeck who was delighted to finally have “a clear and detailed study that does away with all the received ideas spread by the anti-Strasbourg camp”.

With regard to the real costs of having several headquarters for the Parliament, Véronique Mathieu (EPP France) has clarified that MEPs receive the same per diem whether they are in Brussels or in Strasbourg. They just save less of it during the week in France. It should be noted that MEPs are not officially based in Belgium either as they are supposed to return regularly to their constituencies. However, for the many civil servants and assistants who are in fact based in Brussels, the issue is not clear cut.

The Luxembourg MEP Frank Engel (EPP) points to the facts that “among those who are against Strasbourg, many are MEPs who regularly commute between Brussels and their national capital for personal reasons”.

The AEJE report did not simply provide statistics to undermine other statistics, it also set out 22 recommendations for reducing costs, improving access to the city (why are there no low-cost airlines at Strasbourg airport?) etc. These recommendations are directed at the city of Strasbourg, the region and also the French state if it wants to defend its European capital.

A primarily political issue

Fewer sessions…

… for the same number of days spent in Strasbourg. This is what 58% of MEPs voted for in March 2011 thereby removing two Strasbourg sessions per year.

As French MEP Sandrine Bélier (Greens/EFA) said, “this is not just a battle of statistics or a technical question. It is primarily political.” As such, it is on the political, and even symbolic, legitimacy of the Strasbourg headquarters that its defenders need to be convincing.

According to Bulgarian MEP Marya Nedelcheva (EPP) who attended the presentation of the report, “the Strasbourg headquarters is the symbol of continuity in Europe which is vital for citizens in this period of crisis”. Frank Engel for his part feels that “Strasbourg should not have to apologise for being a European capital”.

MEPs also noted that removing one of the headquarters would involve a revision of the treaty and therefore would necessitate the agreement of all 27 Member States. Yet it seems unlikely that the States will want to open the sensitive issue of institutional headquarters. Frank Engel feels that this would also draw attention to Brussels which, in his opinion, is “anything but a European capital”.

Nathalie Griesbeck noted the support expressed for the Strasbourg headquarters by the new President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz at his first speech outside Parliament that took place at Strasbourg’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Pro-Strasbourg MEPs are hoping that the AEJE report is just the first step and that it is acted upon. Some would also like to see citizens getting involved in the debate.

Edward McMillan-Scott (ADLE)

Source : http://www.euractiv.fr/parlement-strasbourg-siege-ejectable-article
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