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United in Diverse Cities? The Brussels-Strasbourg Caravan

There is one single international organization having a significant number of its officials and members travel approximately 500 kilometers there and back from its place of work to its seat every month. Some months even two times, as there are two plenary sessions of the European Parliament (Parliament), usually in Strasbourg, even though the members of the European Parliament are in Brussels most of the time. According to the working calendar, which takes the form of a decision proposed by the Conference of Presidents deciding about the dynamics of work of the European Parliament, the EP usually holds one week of committee meetings, one week of group meetings (both in Brussels) and one week of plenary session (in Strasbourg). Afterwards, during the green weeks, the members are either back in the country of their election or somewhere around the world participating in a delegation. White weeks mark pauses for summer and for Christmas and New Year in December. The Strasbourg plenary sessions take place from Monday to Thursday, but due to the travels, everyone arrives in Strasbourg around 1 p.m. on Monday (so half of the working day is lost due to traveling, although they make up for it by keeping plenary open sometimes almost until midnight) and leaves around 1 p.m. on Thursday. It is not only the members of the European Parliament and its officials, who move for two days and two half days almost every month from Brussels to Strasbourg, but the members and officials of other EU institutions (Council of the European Union, European Commission, etc.) as well as journalists, service providers, lobbyists, etc.

Many have raised the question in interviews, articles, and press releases that the “caravan”, “carousel” or “circus” of moving the whole European Parliament and its attachments to Strasbourg for four days is an enormous waste of resources. According to news articles, it costs about 19,000 tons of CO2 for the environment and about €114 million yearly, and this estimate is from 2017. Meanwhile, there is a plenary meeting room in Brussels that is used frequently to organize the so-called Brussels-plenaries or “mini-plenaries”, which usually take place for one and a half days and include only one voting session, about six times a year. Extraordinary plenary meetings may be conducted in Brussels as well, one was organized for example in 2022, when Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the European Parliament. The European Parliament has skipped multiple times traveling to Strasbourg due to the coronavirus. After a while, French officials started to become anxious about the return of MEPs to Strasbourg, which finally happened in May 2021.

Brussels, therefore, has the facilities. However, France and its supporters intend to keep the plenary sessions for Strasbourg. There were even court procedures filed by France standing up for the Strasbourg sessions, for example, in 2017 after the meeting adopting the budget was organized in Brussels instead of Strasbourg. There were, however other voices in France saying that the seat should be only in Strasbourg. It is logical to assume, that if someone would ask random citizens in the streets of Belgium, they would speak in favor of having the seat of the Parliament in Brussels, but if someone would ask citizens in Strasbourg, they would like to have it there. It would be interesting to see what the people in Luxembourg would think about this conundrum, as a significant part of the European Parliament’s administration is seated in Luxemburg along with another Hemicycle (plenary meeting room), although its size is not enough to accommodate the 705 MEPs. Moreover, the fact that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has its seat there makes the situation more complex.

Bart Staes, a Belgian Green MEP has suggested that the European Parliament should stay in Brussels, and in return, Strasbourg should receive all agencies that were seated in the United Kingdom after Brexit. Frédéric Bierry, the president of the Bas-Rhin City Council located in Strasbourg has argued for having a single EU Parliament seat in Strasbourg, which would be in the interest of Germany as well in his opinion. He has also explained that establishing a single seat elsewhere would endanger 28,000 jobs in Strasbourg and would mean a huge loss for local economic activity. Jean-Marc Ayrault and members of the French party Les Républicains have stood up for the same position. Contradicting this opinion, the Five Star Movement from Italy has argued for abolishing Strasbourg sessions. Luigi Di Maio stated that MEPs spend about 40 days yearly in Strasbourg and this “déménagement” costs more than 1 billion euros every mandate. Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt was part of a campaign to decide about one seat and there was even a “Single Seat Steering Group”, with cross-group members from ECR, EPP, S&D, ALDE, Greens, and GUE, coming from the UK, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Austria, and the Netherlands. German politicians, like Angela Merkel and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, have also criticized having a double seat.

What is the reason for the double seat in the 21st century? Is there a chance for the EU to decide in favor of one seat or should the situation remain as it is? This article will try to assess the situation concerning the future work of Parliament.

Origins of a European Totem

The first hemicycle of the European Parliament was in the Schuman Building in Luxembourg, established in 1973 when the construction of the building was finished and Parliament had its own premises. In the beginning, the European Parliamentary Assembly held its meetings in different locations made available by other institutions and host countries. With the increase in the number of members after the 1979 direct elections, the European Parliament outgrew its seat in Luxembourg. Since 1973, the Schuman Building has been home to a part of the European Parliament’s secretariat. Following the Merger Treaty, the cities of Luxembourg, Brussels, and Strasbourg became temporary places of work for Parliament. Before the merger, the assembly of the European Coal and Steal Community was meeting in Strasbourg, in the building of the Council of Europe. Services of the Secretariat were established in Luxembourg and Strasbourg was to host plenary sessions. In the 1970s, a debate has sparked on the choice of a single seat for the European Parliament and it has been recurring in European public affairs ever since. The Luxembourg plenary was rebuilt to be able to accommodate the Parliament for part sessions, as the growing amount of work required to hold sessions both in Strasbourg and Luxembourg as well. There were 35 meetings held in Luxembourg between 1973 and 1979, meaning almost half of the meetings were organized in Luxembourg, the other half in Strasbourg, and the calendar was adopted by the Bureau. The building of the hemicycle debating chamber in Luxembourg has sparked fears that Strasbourg would be gradually abandoned. However, after the first European elections held in June 1979, the number of MEPs reached 410, and thus the Luxembourg chamber was not appropriate for hosting part-sessions anymore. Afterwards, the hemicycle has been used to host events and meetings and this is still perfectly preserved today.

The predecessor of the Commission was meeting first in Luxembourg and after a crisis of indecision regarding the seat of the European Commission and of the meetings of ministers, the situation was settled. The new institutions were to be chaired in a rotating format and due to the alphabetical order, Belgium was the first country with the responsibility. The debate was ongoing (interestingly, De Gaulle supported the idea of Paris), but in the end, the Belgian government has acquired the convent and the school of the nuns of Berlaymont and has built the buildings that are in use today. The European Parliament has decided to hold committee meetings in Brussels and in 1981, it has acquired a building for this purpose on rue Beillard, the current building of the Committee of Regions and the Economic and Social Committee. In 1987, the building of the current Brussels Parliament site has commenced, and in September 1993 the European Parliament has held its first plenary session in its Brussels premises.  

Legal aspects of the double seat of the Parliament

According to surveys from 2014, the overwhelming majority of citizens from five member states supported to end the traveling of the European Parliament and only between 12-18%  support the current practice. The situation has probably not changed since the experiences of the energy crisis.

The European Parliament has voted multiple times on only using one seat. British conservative Ashley Fox and German Green Gerald Haefner prepared a non-legislative report in 2013 that was adopted by the European Parliament calling for the launching of the Article 48 TEU procedure for treaty revision to allow the Parliament to decide about its own seat. On Thursday, 27 April 2017 the plenary has decided on a single seat with 425 voting for, 141 against, and 78 abstaining, a majority supporting the end of traveling every month. However, the European Parliament has no right to decide about its seat, as an assembly of a (unique) international organization.

The protocol to the treaties obliging Parliament to organize 12 plenary sessions per year in Strasbourg was adopted in 1992. Since then, the legal basis of the Strasbourg seat is anchored in Protocol No. 6 attached to the Lisbon Treaties, stating in its sole article that “The European Parliament shall have its seat in Strasbourg, where the 12 periods of monthly plenary sessions, including the budget sessions, shall be held. The periods of additional plenary sessions shall be held in Brussels. The committees of the European Parliament shall meet in Brussels. The General Secretariat of the European Parliament and its departments shall remain in Luxembourg.”

This means that the European Parliament has no legal possibility to change the situation on its own, the best it can do is launch a treaty revision procedure in accordance with Article 48 TEU, as described above. The member states need to agree to all changes. In the end, any modification to the Treaties needs to be confirmed in line with the constitutional requirements of each member state, in some cases in the form of referendums—and French citizens have already refused a treaty change through their direct decision in 2006, when they were anxious for French interests.

France has never supported any change to the location of the plenary during any treaty amendment, stating the fact that Alsace is a region that was subject of many conflicts during history between France and Germany, therefore, Strasbourg is now a symbol of peace in Europe. However, there is a financial side to the question as well (as described above by Bierry).

There were some interesting cases in front of the European Court of Justice regarding the question of the seat of the Parliament. In 1988, in joined cases 358/85 and 51/86, France contested the resolution of the European Parliament from 24 October 1985 on building meeting facilities. The largest meeting room of the Parliament in Brussels contained only 187 seats, therefore the facilities became inadequate even for some political groups, not to mention the whole Parliament. Thus, the resolution has decided to construct a larger building with more adequate facilities. The French Government disputed the competence of the European Parliament to make such decisions, but in vain, as the ECJ has considered that the intended use fell within the limits of the Parliament’s powers. It should be noted that this decision was taken before the adoption of Protocol 6, when the European Parliament was using the current building of the Committee of Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee for its committee sessions.

In the case C-73/17, the French government was seeking the annulment of four acts adopted by the European Parliament regarding the exercise of its budgetary powers and the additional plenary sessions that took place in Brussels on 30 November and 1 December 2016. The first and second act was the agenda of two plenary sessions taking place in Brussels regarding the debates on the joint text on the draft general budget for the financial year 2017 and the explanation of votes. The third one was the very legislative resolution on the draft general budget and the fourth one was the conclusion of the adoption of the general budget of the EU for the financial year 2017, when the president has declared that the budget has been adopted. The French government considered that the four contested acts infringed Protocol No. 6. annexed to TEU and TFEU and Protocol No. 3. annexed to the ECSC Treaty regarding the seats of the institutions and certain bodies, agencies, and departments of the EU, while they were not adopted during a Strasbourg plenary session, but a Brussels one. In the end, the Court of Justice of the European Union has decided in favor of the European Parliament, stating that the Parliament has the right to fully use the deadlines in Article 314. TFEU (6), which would not have been possible in the case of a Strasbourg plenary. Therefore, the European Parliament did not breach the Treaties by holding the budgetary debates and votes in the Brussels hemicycle and neither is the president of the European Parliament obliged to wait for the next Strasbourg plenary to announce the results. In Case C‑92/18, France has even filed an application for judicial review of the previous decision—interestingly, with the help of Luxembourg—but the previous decision was upheld.

There was another case (C-345/95), where the decision on the calendar regarding the European Parliament’s work was considered to be an act and was the subject of scrutiny by the ECJ. In 1997, the ECJ has annulled the calendar adopted by the European Parliament, for only foreseeing 11 sessions instead of 12 in the Strasbourg hemicycle and the rest in Brussels for practical reasons. In joined cases C‑237/11 and C‑238/11, the ECJ has annulled the decision of the European Parliament regarding the 2012 and 2013 calendar of plenary part-sessions. The European Parliament is not able to meet the obligation foreseen in the Treaties for holding twelve part-sessions in Strasbourg by holding one meeting each month, as during the summer and the winter break, there are no sessions. Therefore, it is a long-standing practice that Parliament has two plenary sessions in October every year, divided by one week. The whole apparatus has to travel from Brussels to Strasbourg two times in October only one week apart. Parliament has tried to find a way to avoid traveling to Strasbourg two times in October by traveling to Strasbourg on Monday, holding one session on Monday and Tuesday, having a break on Wednesday, and holding another session on Thursday and Friday. The ECJ has ruled in favor of France stating that this decision was against Protocol Nr. 6. annexed to TEU and TFEU.

How long will the caravan continue its journey?

The monthly voyage of Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg has been an eyesore in the EU’s budget, environment policy, and reasonable functioning for a long time. The argument based on values and historical facts, stating that there is an important symbolism behind the three places of work is understandable. However, many have brought up the question of how necessary the moving of the whole apparatus of the EP and members, officials of multiple EU institutions, journalists, lobbyists, experts, etc. is. Especially considering the financial, timely, and human resources ramifications. In the plenary meetings, there are debates regarding “climate emergency” and yet people speaking for mitigating its effects arrive in the hemicycle causing unnecessary pollution.

There are many sides to this debate as well. Some think the organization of plenary meetings should be kept the way they are now, others are in favor of moving the plenary meetings to Brussels and further opinions are in favor of moving the European Parliament to Strasbourg altogether (however, there are surely other concepts, like moving it to Luxemburg, the concept of De Gaulle regarding the Paris-seat, or to any other member state for that matter).

Indeed, France and especially the Alsace would suffer a considerable financial loss if the “caravan” were to be abolished. Due to the fact that changing the current seat of the European Parliament and the division of the number of plenary sessions between Brussels and Strasbourg would require amending Protocol No. 6 of the Lisbon Treaty. Not only a treaty revision procedure would be necessary, but in the end, the support of France as well, as the decision would have to be made unanimously and would need the confirmation of each member state according to national constitutional norms. Convincing the French government and the citizens of France would require significant financial and symbolic incentives.

In the end, it is a political question weighing values and symbols against resources and other political goals, like targets of the Green Deal. It is probable that the European Parliament will remain united in diversity, being seated in diverse cities, caravanning into the Future of Europe.

Árpád Lapu is a policy adviser on constitutional issues at the European Parliament since 2019 and a PhD student of the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary. Between 2017-2019, he worked as an adviser at the Cabinet of the Minister of Justice of Hungary, conducting comparative constitutional analyses. He has earned his JD at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary, has a BA in international relations from the University of Szeged and an MA in European and international administration from Andrássy Gyula German Speaking University in Budapest. He has completed an Edx MicroMaster in cooperation with the Catholic University of Louvain (UCLouvain) in international law. His field of research is non-participation in armed conflicts in international law and constitutional norms regarding non-participation in armed conflicts. He has written publications regarding the future of the EU ETS system of the European Union, institutional reform proposals of the Union, and researches in the field of social sciences.

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