The European Union serves many essential economic and political functions that often go unnoticed by Europeans too hung up on its failings. But it’s not necessarily Europeans’ single-mindedness that earns the EU such scrutiny. When the EU wastes money, it has a tendency to do so in spectacular ways. Nothing embodies this more than the present situation in which the European Parliament finds itself.
The European Parliament is an international institution like no other, with members coming from the 28 Member States of the EU, but the parliament itself is uniquely international for another reason. The Parliament has three permanent locations, one in Brussels, Belgium, one in Strasbourg, France and another in the small country of Luxembourg. European law actually dictates that at least twelve meetings of the Parliament must be held in Strasbourg every year, where its members meet in its plenary sessions, while committee meetings are held in Brussels and the Parliament’s administrative offices are inexplicably located in Luxembourg.
Jean Monet, one of the founders of the modern-day European Union dreamed of creating a single ‘European District’ where all of the Union’s institutions would be located. In reality, this proved more difficult than he imagined due to bickering between different Member States, each wanting the prestige and economic revenue that come with proximity to the community’s institutional seats.
While Brussels has emerged as the most important ‘European city’, home to the Commission, the Council of Ministers, the European Council and a chunk of the Parliament, Luxembourg and Strasbourg have also become important administrative seats. Luxembourg is notably home to the European Court of Justice and Strasbourg also hosts the European Court of Human Rights. To compensate other Member States, many of the EU’s agencies and regulatory bodies are scattered across the continent.
Nothing embodies this chaotic history more perfectly than the Parliament. Originally placed in Strasbourg, the Commission built an expensive complex in Brussels and moved some of its work there, hoping to eventually win the battle with France and Luxembourg. Many states protested and a final agreement that enshrined the present system was eventually reached by the European Council in 1992 during a summit in Edinburgh.
The situation remains highly contentious to this day and often attracts the ire of the EU’s opponents, highly critical of the money wasted by the arrangement. One study revealed that the annuals costs of shuttling MEPs and officials back and forth and maintaining the buildings comes to more than €100 million annually and results in around 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
While proposals are made almost annually to relocate all of the institution’s activities to Brussels, the French obstinately veto the idea. French President François Hollande most recently dismissed the proposal in February in a speech before the Parliament. The French also invested millions in new parliamentary facilities in 1999 and the city of Strasbourg would lose precious revenue generated by the thousands of officials and staffers coming every month should the Parliament be completely relocated.
European Members of Parliament (MEPs) are highly aware of the bad press that the complex situation generates for the institution. In a landslide vote of 483 votes in favor to 141 against and 34 abstentions, MEPs passed a resolution this week backed by British Conservative Ashley Fox and German Green MEP Gerard Hafner demanding that the Parliament be consolidated in one single city. “What was once a symbol for peace and reconciliation in Europe,” Hafner said referring to the symbolic importance of Strasbourg, “is becoming a symbol for the absolute incapacity of the EU to reform itself.”
Despite the widespread backing, only a handful of France’s 74 MEPs backed the report. Fox called on the French delegation to be, “honest that they are acting in their selfish national interests,” while the French socialist deputy Catherine Trautmann, a former mayor of Strasbourg, complained that the report gave ammunition to eurosceptics. In the end, the report is unlikely to gain any momentum, as the Parliament has no power to make changes to the institution geography of its facilities. That prerogative is jealously guarded by national leaders.