Single EP seat wars – it’s that time of the year again

Like Christmas, the debate on a single seat for the European Parliament comes round once a year.

This time last year MEPs backed amendments calling for the Parliament to have a single seat. Today during the vote on this year’s budget report drafted by Labour MEP DerekVaughan, a whopping majority – 429 to 184 with 37 abstentions – voted in favour of a single seat for the European Parliament. Meanwhile, the Secretary-General of Parliament, Klaus Welle, will draw up a paper looking at the cost of maintaining the current arrangement before the summer recess in July. The most recent estimates put the annual cost of theStrasbourgtravelling circus at a fraction over €200m.

Yet despite its absurdity, there is precious little chance of MEPs getting the single seat they are after. This is because – as we all know – a single seat requires a treaty change, which requires the unanimous support of all member states and, guess what, there is more chance of seeing penguins on the moon than there is Nikolas Sarkozy and Jean-Claude Juncker giving up the Parliament buildings inStrasbourgandLuxembourg. Even the new Citizens’ Initiative with a petition signed by millions of Europeans will do little change the minds of the French and Luxembourg governments.

This is a shame because the problem is not going to go away. There are still a handful of people who open their well-thumbed copy of the EU treaties and remind us that the Parliament does have a single seat – inStrasbourg, but the reality is that the politicians and bureaucrats have already voted with their feet and chosenBrussels. The national embassies are all here; the Parliament buildings are well equipped and resourced; the European Commission and Council are across the road. The palace of glass and concrete on PlaceLuxembourgis a well-functioning, working Parliament.

Now don’t get me wrong -Strasbourgis a beautiful city, rich in culture, history and political symbolism. But its Parliament is simply not fit for purpose. To be honest, I don’t think anyone really enjoys the monthly travelling circus down to theAlsace. After spending a full-day travelling because the transport links are so poor, MEPs and officials arrive at lonely buildings on the outskirts of town, and to offices that are as inviting (and roughly the same size) as the average broom cupboard. Late night committee meetings and debates mean that you are condemned to a solid week’s sleep deprivation and caffeine induced frenzy.

When I think of the current ‘three-seat solution’, I’m reminded of ‘Yes, Minister’ and Sir Humphrey Appleby’s withering remark that basing the EU executive inBrusselsand the Parliament in Strasbourg is “like having the House of Commons in Swindon and the Civil Service in Kettering.”

But although the de facto seat of Parliament is inBrussels, the buildings inStrasbourg can still be used well. The Council of Europe sits next door and the Louise Weiss and Churchill building could easily support European Council summits or aEuropeanUniversity.

Over the past 30 years the European Parliament has been transformed from a talking-shop to one of the most powerful legislatures in the world. It deserves to be taken seriously. The current three-seat arrangement is a public relations disaster, a terrible waste of public money, highly inefficient and environmentally damaging. Let’s hope that one dayEurope’s leaders see sense and admit that it’s time to end this expensive charade.