It had seemed like the coronavirus epidemic would fade away over the summer and that starting in September, everything would be almost back to normal. That would have also meant that the European Parliament could return to its plenary sessions in Strasbourg, France. But today we see that the situation is anything but normal, and the dispute over whether to restore this costly “circus on wheels” has, with renewed vigor, flared up again. After a week-long drama, the President of the EP, David Sassoli, threw in the towel and canceled the session planned for next week.
It was the most sensible thing to do under the current circumstances. Although strict limits have been set, it was expected that around 2,000 people, mostly MEPs, their assistants, and EP staff, would travel from Brussels to Strasbourg because of the plenary session. At the same time, both Brussels and Strasbourg are on the list of high-risk coronavirus areas. Under normal circumstances, no one would have ever thought to allow such a mass of people to travel. And as it turns out, the parliamentary immunity that some have attempted to use as an argument in favor of such travel does not yet protect MEPs against the risk of COVID 19.
The time of pandemic is certainly an unusual period, and dreaming of a return to normal is logical. However, this case goes beyond logic. The vast majority of the 705 MEPs did not miss meetings in Strasbourg in March, April, May, June or July, and they will not miss them in September either. Many have even begun to imagine that the pandemic could lead to the Member States finally hearing the call of a majority in parliament — as well as a voice of reason — and at least agree to launch a process to move the EP’s seat to Brussels, where other EU institutions have their headquarters. Most of the MEPs spend their time working in committees and factions in Brussels anyway.
However, after talking to Sassoli, French Prime Minister Jean Castex expressed his “strong regret” that the deputies would not travel to Strasbourg in September. He recalled that France was “deeply committed” to Strasbourg as the seat of the EP and hoped that the October plenary session would finally take place in the Alsatian city. His statement confirmed that even the coronavirus outbreak has not forced the French to reconsider their stubborn “devotion” to be the home country of the European Parliament. According to official estimates, European taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of euros a year to keep the EP running.
However, this amount would be much lower if the EP would have its seat in Brussels. The cost of a mere regular transfer of the EP staff and MEPS to the weekly plenary sessions 12 times a year has been estimated by the European Court of Auditors at €114 million. A similar amount is spent on the maintenance of the EP’s Strasbourg headquarters, which is only used once a month for a week.
These calculations are among the most classic, and most justified, arguments of the critics of European integration, who, quite logically, consider the expenditures on the EP unnecessary. And although MEPs themselves regularly revolt against traveling to Strasbourg for their sessions, the political will is unwavering: France insists on keeping the EP seat in the historic city on the Rhine, which is considered a symbol of post-war Franco-German reconciliation. And Germany quietly supports the French position for the same reason.
Nevertheless, September´s plenary session, as well as hotel reservations of about 700 MEPs, have now been canceled. The vote on the European Commission’s planned loan to finance the Recovery Fund and the debate on the State of the Union report presented by Ursula von der Leyen will take place next week in Brussels. But October is just around the corner, and so is the question of the next EP plenary session. The debate over what will happen next continues; but no matter the outcome in October, not everyone will be satisfied.
Title image: Women jog in front of the European Parliament on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, in Strasbourg, eastern France. On the building, a poster says “Use your power. The European general elections in the 27 countries of the EU will take place from May 22 to 25, 2014.” (AP Photo/Christian Lutz)