The European Parliament is having its monthly plenary session in Strasbourg this week, when all the politicians – including 14 Finnish MEPs and their staff – will make the trip from Brussels.
It’s a controversial move that costs tens of millions of euros every year, wastes time and resources, and is increasingly recognised as environmentally unfriendly.
And it’s that rare topic that unites Finnish Members of the European Parliament from across the political spectrum.
So why does the European Parliament move every month?
The EU decided two have a two-seat parliament solution under a 1992, treaty before Finland became a member. Later, that treaty was amended with specific details that outline where plenary sessions are to be held (Strasbourg); where parliamentary groups would meet (Brussels); and where the Secretariat would be based (Luxembourg).
“Although Strasbourg is a more attractive city than Brussels, Brussels is the most convenient city for the seat” says MEP Elsi Katainen (Centre).
A 2013 European Parliament study concluded that a total of €103 million could be saved pevery year if the Parliament’s operations in Strasbourg were moved to Brussels. The European Court of Auditors concluded their own calculations in 2014 and identified even bigger savings of €114 million.
The second calculation takes the Council’s and Commission’s travel expenses into account as well, but Elsi Katainen sees more benefits if the seat of the European Parliament was permanently located in Brussels.
“It makes the cooperation with the European Commission and the Council of the European Union easier since both institutions are also located in Brussels. In addition, most of the stakeholders are located in Brussels and also they move to Strasbourg every month. So it is also many others than [just] people working in the Parliament whose monthly travel could be avoided” she explains.
Environmental concerns raised
While more than €100 million could be saved every year if there wasn’t a monthly ‘Strasbourg shuffle’ for politicians, their staff, and many other stakeholders, increasingly it’s the environmental damage that is causing concern.
“The transition produces an estimated 19,000 tonnes of CO2 every year. In comparison 4900 return flights between Berlin and New York emit the same amount of CO2” says another Finnish MEP Miapetra Kumpula-Natri (SDP).
“With the current climate emergency, we cannot afford such unnecessary actions. The Parliament offsets all its CO2 emissions, which is a productive first step” she adds.
Treaty changes are needed
Beyond environmental and monetary reasons, it is also an issue of image.
One of the two Finns Party MEPs at the European Parliament Laura Huhtasaari feels the monthly move reflects badly on the EU.
“In order to change the current practice of having several seats for the European parliament a treaty change is required. This would be very hard to implement given the requirement of unanimity between the Member States” she tells News Now Finland.
“It paints a very bad picture of the whole EU that this issue cannot be solved despite the urgent need for reform” she says.
The main obstacle in changing the treaty is that any change would have to be agreed unanimously by each Member State. Perhaps understandably, France has been unwilling to give up the idea that one of the seats of Parliament – perhaps most likely Strasbourg – might get the chop.
None of the Finnish MEPs we talked to in Brussels expressed satisfaction with the current system of a two-seat Parliament. But there’s few politicians who want to raise it on the Parliament’s agenda at the moment either.
Henna Virkkunen (NCP) agrees with Huhtasaari that moving back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg isn’t great for the Parliament’s image, but doesn’t think it’s an opportune moment for more change in the 27-member block.
“Considering these unstable times of Brexit and clear violations of the principle of the rule of law present in some Member States, now is not the best time to open up the treaty. When the time is ripe for the next treaty change, the single seat debate can hopefully be picked up again” she says.
The pros and cons of Brussels vs Strasbourg
Changing the treaty and deciding on one city or another as the permanent Parliament home – either Brussels or Strasbourg – has both positive and negative impacts on both locations.
The hassle for MEPs and their offices to go to Strasbourg each month is balanced by the many service providers in the eastern French city who benefit financially from the Parliament coming to town for the monthly plenary sessions.
Left Alliance MEP Silvia Modig says the European Parliament has a duty to help Strasbourg if the single seat would ever be fixed in Brussels.
“In case the Parliament was to be centralised in Brussels we would need to create a transition fund [for Strasbourg] for the period of transition. We also need to think what could be done in the Parliament building in Strasbourg if the work of parliament was centralised to Brussels” she explains.
Other groups in European politics are working to keep the status quo, opposed to any solution that cuts Strasbourg in particular out of the picture.
A taskforce led by the President of Strasbourg City Council Frédéric Bierry gathered responses from EU officials after the European Parliament elections in spring 2019 to find out their attitudes towards moving to his city every few weeks, lock stock and barrel.
Among the issues raised were the high hotel prices during plenary sessions and the lack of a direct train service between Strasbourg and Brussels.
Meanwhile in the pro-single seat camp, some had hoped for a change to the situation already last autumn.
Finnish National Coalition Party Petri Sarvamaa wrote in September 2019 in a Kokoomus newsletter that he hoped Finland would do something about it during its six-month Presidency of the European Council.
Sarvamaa also offers up an idea on how to stop the “moving circus”.
“The issue could be fixed in a certain timeframe and map as a part of the budget negotiations. This would benefit taxpayers as well as the climate” he wrote.
The budget he’s referring to, known as the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027, has not yet been agreed on by the Member States, nor does it have clauses on advancing the single seat issue. Those negotiations will continue under the current Croatian Presidency.
The European Parliament will most likely not see a change in the single seat issue, at least not for a while.
The EU’s different bodies will be implementing the Commission’s Green Deal, start trade talks with the United Kingdom after their exit last month and tackle breaches of rule of law in may of the Member States – as well as consider other pressing reforms and further expansion into the Balkans.
And that pushes any talk about reforming the monthly Brussels-Strasbourg move firmly on the back burner for now.