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Wednesday, 08 February 2012 09:44

The European Parliament and its Hogwarts Express

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Who hasn't heard of the famous Hogwarts Express, which transports Harry Potter and his friends to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? But who knows about the similar train which runs every month between Brussels and Strasbourg? Ensuring the participation of members, assistants and staff of the European Parliament to the plenary session in Strasbourg, the magical device known only to the chosen few is not listed on the public schedule of the Belgian or French railway companies. A while ago, during my mission as an EP trainee to Strasbourg, I started questioning the role and functionality of the Parliament's three seats.

The whole issue began in 1952, when member states couldn't agree on the seats of the newly established European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Decades later, the EU member states decided unanimously to "fix" the question of the Parliament's location: the administrative staff is now based in Luxembourg, and the everyday activity of committees and political groups takes place in Brussels, but the official seat of the Parliament remains Strasbourg, where 12 plenary sessions are to be held every year. However, with every new treaty, the role and functions of the European Parliament increased considerably and its presence in the proximity of the Council and Commission became more and more relevant. With the majority of the Parliament's work already being carried out in Brussels, one might question the necessity of moving the whole "circus" to Strasbourg every month.

I asked a few colleagues about their opinion as staff members, as one of them told me, "going in December is great fun, and I like to take my husband with me, because Strasbourg is the city of Christmas."

But there is no consensus amongst the Brussels elite. Several voices have requested a location change: almost a year ago, former MEP Michiel van Hulten (Dutch Labour Party) published a report called "A Tale of Two Cities," pointing at the high costs of moving the EP to Strasbourg four days per month (€180 million and 19,000 tonnes of CO2 each year), the time-wasting and, not to be neglected, the stress it imposes on members and staff. A similar initiative - OneSeat - was started even earlier by Commissioner for Home Affairs and former MEP Cecilia Malmström. I asked a few colleagues about their opinion as staff members, and most of them don't have to go every month, but, as one of them told me, "going in December is great fun, and I like to take my husband with me, because Strasbourg is the city of Christmas."

On the other side of the debate, supporters refer to the symbolism of the French-German reconciliation. Bringing the war into the debate leaves one without much to say against this line of argument. However, while the idea of the European Union might have blossomed out of the necessity to prevent a new military conflict, today one can hardly see that focus anymore. Data protection, food labelling, tobacco packaging, and education for the elderly are only a few of the 90 issues on which Parliament has the right to legislate, and they all show a new and different European project from what we had than 60 years ago. In a Union seeking prosperity for all its citizens, where every nation is supposed to be equal, where the president of the European Parliament is a German citizen and nobody has any problem with that, how necessary is it to maintain this symbolism as a main argument for spending a fortune every year? Couldn't we build a museum instead?

Here comes the interesting part of the story: in times of crisis, fewer and fewer MEPs support the idea of travelling. Budgets are tight, criticism is high, and, with its increased powers after Lisbon, the institution is increasingly in the spotlight. However, for the time being, all arguments may as well be in vain. That's right: the European Parliament has no right to decide on its own seat. So, while MEPs might be debating and debating, what it takes to modify anything in the current arrangement, is a treaty change. And who changes the treaty? The heads of states and governments. For the seat to be changed there is a need for unanimity, and that obviously includes the vote of the French. 

For the time being, all arguments may as well be in vain. That's right: the European Parliament has no right to decide on its own seat.

This brings the discussion onto a whole different level. One can hardly talk about the opinion of the European Union per se. The two institutions - Parliament versus governments - have a different structure, identity and way of functioning. On the one hand, the majority of MEPs practically live in Brussels; some of them have been in office for half their lifetime. They think European, and they act European. The European Council, on the other hand is the place where heads of state and governments meet in the so-called high-level summits. And after the few days they spent in Brussels they go home and meet their constituencies.

So if you ask me, I think the Hogwarts Express has its charm, but Members of the European Parliament might as well perform their "magic" from Brussels. Unfortunately though, I doubt there will be a change any time soon. Schuman's dream has not yet been achieved - national ambitions can still lie in the way of common prosperity.

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 February 2012 09:47

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