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European Parliament (Two-seat Operation)

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

In the week when the Prime Minister is at a special European Council meeting in Brussels to negotiate the multi-annual financial framework, with Europe on a precarious financial and social footing, the debate is important and timely. The subject goes to the heart of the European debate—the economic debate on how Europe spends its money, and a wider debate about what Europe was intended to be and what it has become. The issue is the ending of the two-seat arrangement of the European Parliament, which has become known, not inappropriately, as the Strasbourg circus.

The European Parliament is the only Assembly in the world with more than one permanent seat, and the only one that does not have the power to determine its own location. The two-seat arrangement was formalised in the 1997 treaty of Amsterdam, compelling the Parliament to sit in Strasbourg for 48 days every year, for 12 plenary sessions, in which legislation receives its final vote. For the rest of the year Parliament sits in Brussels, where virtually all the other institutions of the EU are based. The reason is symbolic: a sign of Franco-German reconciliation—a Parliament held on the fields of previous conflict.

As to the practical reality of that symbolism—it is expensive. Brussels is the place where Committee and political group meetings take place, and where Members of the European Parliament have their offices. It is where most other EU institutions, such as the Commission and the Council, are based, and where most of the staff live; so when the monthly plenary sessions take place thousands of people must decamp to Strasbourg: MEPs, their staff, civil servants, Government representatives and diplomats. Lorries are stacked up with office documents and papers, and hit the roads to France. Transport connections to Strasbourg are so bad that it is not possible to fly there from 21 of the 27 EU countries. That means that MEPs—including those from the UK—must take lengthy two to three-leg trips to get to Strasbourg.

The amazing thing is that all that happens so that people can travel to a replica of the Brussels Chamber, in Strasbourg. The part that would be funny, if it were not true, is that the Strasbourg Chamber is left empty for 317 days a year. It is Monty Pythonesque—the Monty Python Strasbourg circus; but it is not funny, because it is expensive. It costs about €200 million each year, which is about €1 billion over the seven-year budgetary period. Each year about 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide is released from the convoys of lorries, flights and cars transporting paper, politicians, officials and forms on the 500 km journey to France. Well over 100,000 tonnes of CO2 is estimated to be emitted in that way over the seven-year budgetary period. Once, in 2008, the travelling circus was cancelled because the Strasbourg buildings were in need of repair and it was not possible to go there. On that one occasion €4 million was saved.

Let us not forget that what I have described is happening at a time when politicians across Europe are scrabbling for budget savings. They are cutting public services in a desperate attempt to regain control of the continent’s finances. If we want a simple way to save £1 billion over this budgetary period, with no cuts to public services and no extreme pain—no outcries across Europe, rioting on the streets of Greece or plastic bullets fired at students in Spain—I would suggest to the Minister, and to the Prime Minister, that surely this is it.

When we consider what we can do, things become a bit frustrating. The two-seat arrangement is embedded in treaties, which, of course, require all 27 member states to agree to an end to what is, frankly, a farce. My colleague Ashley Fox MEP has been doing a fantastic job gathering signatures to a petition in this country, to try to force a debate on the issue in Parliament. It can be found at However, it is not only in the UK that a consensus is building, at a time of great financial difficulty, that this unfunny farce needs to stop. Through exceptional and quite historic work Ashley Fox has demonstrated that there is tremendous momentum and desire among a majority of MEPs to put an end to the situation. He has significant support from our European neighbours. He gathered the number of signatures necessary in the European Parliament to hold a secret ballot on just reducing the number of times the Parliament decamps to Strasbourg. Without the pressure of party Whips, what the French have called l’amendement Fox was carried by a majority of 104. That may seem a small step but it is significant in demonstrating that the will of the European Parliament is to do the sensible thing, and that the Parliament is being held back by an anachronistic, impractical, regulatory democratic deficit.

There is not just a little consensus. Ending the Strasbourg circus—the two-seat arrangement—was in the coalition agreement. Hon. Members will know that often there are not many questions to do with Europe on which the entire House will agree; but the two-seat arrangement is such a question. The coalition agreement pledges to end the Strasbourg circus. I have tabled an early-day motion which has support from across the political parties. We have support from our European neighbours as well. The change would save £1 billion in the next EU budget.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate, which is important. Does she think that the scandal—and that is the only word for it—is made worse when the EU comes to us wanting to increase the budget, whereas we want to keep it the same or, ideally, reduce it? They could make an easy saving, and it rubs salt in the wound.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. One reason why so much social strife is erupting, and not only in this country—it is easy to think that it is only here that there is questioning of the way the EU holds itself together, and its value, but it is happening in other countries as well—is that people are having their pockets pinched, and their daily lives are becoming harder, while a global elite has an idea into which it is prepared to pump ridiculous amounts of money. There are benefits to be had from a Europe that speaks with one voice in an increasingly global, competitive world, and if the nations of Europe saw that the people governing it were representative of them, were careful with their money, and were concentrating on solving the practical realities, they would be far more tolerant of the measures that Europe imposes on them. As my hon. Friend says, they are being imposed by an elite that still thinks that it is acceptable to waste £1 billion on some outdated symbolism. I thank him for raising the point, and could not agree with it more. It relates not only to making easy budget savings, but to the credibility of the entire European project.

With budget negotiations taking place, the two-seat arrangement should be exceptionally low-hanging fruit for the Prime Minister, and I hope that he will see that. There is consensus that it is a massive problem, which we must solve; but why has it not been solved? Why has it not been stopped, if the idea that the farce must end is so intuitive? What is in the way? It is—perhaps understandably, from their perspective—the French. They have taken l’amendement Fox, which gained a majority in the European Parliament, to the European Court of Justice, because they considered it raised some issues. We are still awaiting the outcome. I have previously discussed in this Chamber some of the Court’s interesting decisions, such as the SiMAP and Jaeger rulings on the effect of the working time directive on the NHS. They did not set a great precedent for sensible rulings to benefit the member states of Europe, but we shall have to wait and see what the Court decides.

The French are loth to give up the tourism industry in Alsace, and I suppose that those who live in Alsace can understand that, but it seems an odd priority for the whole of Europe to adopt now. In addition—this is the point where the debate becomes a much wider one—the French are wedded to the symbolism of the two seats of the European Parliament: mended relations between the French and the Germans. Some might argue that the relations that needed mending, that have been mended and that could be mended further are the relations between the English and the Germans, but that is a debate for another time. There are also those within the European project who see £1 billion in symbolism as money well spent, which goes to the heart of the problem. The Strasbourg circus has become a symbol of European priorities and of why people are so fed up with an institution that is becoming out of touch.

What we do about the Strasbourg circus reflects a choice that Europe must make—and, I suggest, fast. It can remain a project built on anachronistic symbolism and an emotional commitment based on fear of the past and certain member states’ shame about past actions, which were indeed abominable but which cannot be allowed to overshadow and rule the future. It can be willing to pump money that nobody has into maintaining anachronistic emblems of unity in a fast-fracturing world. I am not alone in thinking that that is nothing less than dangerous. Alternatively, Europe can get real. It can face practical realities and the differences among and diversity of its member states. It can celebrate and be stronger through diversity, instead of relentlessly homogenising through misled fear. It can put pragmatism above the fantasy of a perfect Europe dreamed up around the dining tables of the global elite. Ending the Strasbourg Circus is not only about saving, with minimal pain and disruption—

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for ending the circus. The word that keeps cropping up is “elite”. Does not the whole enterprise of shuffling around Europe highlight how out of touch the entire European project is with the people of Europe? It is evident from the headlines across Europe at the moment. Does she agree that the very least the European Parliament could do is to suspend that shuffling around for a couple of years while the financial position is particularly difficult?

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a sensible point, which returns to the idea of a global elite who are out of touch and have no connection with the people over whom they rule. It is not only Britain that is questioning its position in the EU; other countries are now doing so as well. It is dangerous for the global elite to ignore the concerns raised by the people. I do not think that institutions can govern and legislate a national attitude or a national psychology. Governments and regimes that try to legislate how people feel end up looking scarily like the communist and totalitarian regimes that we have been so proud to dismantle in Europe. If Governments cannot legislate national attitudes and how people feel, they must take account of them and construct political realities around the psychological realities of the countries they represent.

If we cannot achieve a common-sense solution, we could at least push for a pilot on suspension. However, another issue is that Europe is very inflexible and rigid about what it sees as the right way and the wrong way to do things. The idea of pilots within Europe could be extremely useful. This is a diversion from the debate, but a pilot exemption from some EU social and employment laws would be useful. A pilot would be an interesting way forward if we cannot get a common-sense solution.

We face a choice, and we must make it fast. Ending the Strasbourg circus would send a signal that Europe puts facing facts and getting real above introspection about a dream. Persisting in symbolism in defiance of reality is what most threatens the dream of a harmonious Europe. As one of my heroes Muhammad Ali said, the best way to achieve a dream is to wake up. If we want to secure our own economy by stabilising Europe, ending the Strasbourg circus is a crucial step with a symbolism all its own. I hope that the Prime Minister can play a leading role in doing so this week.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for securing this debate. I would like to take this opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government to the points that she and other hon. Friends have raised.

As my hon. Friend has noted, the Government’s position on the question of a single seat for the European Parliament is well known. As we outlined in the coalition programme for government, we are in favour of a single seat. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reiterated that position recently in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West. It remains the Government’s view.

The strong case in favour of a single seat for the European Parliament has been well made in this debate. As my hon. Friend set out, there are strong cost and efficiency arguments in favour. Many in the European Parliament agree. The single seat campaign in the European Parliament, run by a group of MEPs from a number of member states, makes the same points. The campaign has strengthened its case by attributing figures to the additional costs being incurred as a result of the dual-seat operation. The estimated additional cost, about €180 million per annum, is clearly difficult to justify in the current financial climate in the European Union.

Efficiency arguments in favour of a single seat are also persuasive. Moving away from a situation in which the European Parliament has staff in three different locations is likely to improve the efficiency of the institution as a whole and streamline its work. I agree wholeheartedly with the environmental arguments discussed by my hon. Friend in favour of a single seat. A shift to one location would save hundreds of hours of travel time and associated carbon emissions for Members of the European Parliament, their staff and national Government delegations. I congratulate the majority of MEPs who recognise that the current situation and the associated environmental costs are out of step with what is being asked of member states and their citizens to meet the EU’s ambitious climate change targets. MEPs do not want to be seen to preach one thing and do another.

It is important for us to acknowledge the pressure that the European Parliament has increasingly been putting on the European Council about the question of a single seat. It is to be welcomed. Members of the European Parliament have taken steps to address the problems inherent in the current situation. In the name of efficiency, MEPs recently took a decision, initiated by Ashley Fox, MEP for the South West of England and Gibraltar, to host two of the requisite 12 plenary sessions in Strasbourg during one week in October. Hon. Members will be aware of the ongoing court case in the European Court of Justice concerning that decision. The move by MEPs is clearly indicative of a growing consensus in the European Parliament that the current situation must change.

I also note the votes in the European Parliament on 23 October on the question of a single seat, which were adopted by significant majorities, the largest of which was in response to a vote calling for immediate, concrete action towards a single seat. It was passed by a total of 432 MEPs in favour, with 218 MEPs against. Such pressure, coming as it does from the European Parliament itself, should help drive the issue up the political agenda throughout the EU.

Longer-term reform, however, including any potential move to a single seat, would, of course, require changes to the treaties underpinning the European Union. Hon. Members will know that a protocol appended to the European Union treaties governs the location of the seat of the European Parliament. It was agreed by member states at the Edinburgh European Council in 1992. Amending the protocol requires unanimous agreement among all 27 member states. The difficulty of doing that acts as an obvious constraint on action on the single-seat issue, but, in the meantime, we fully support the European Parliament’s efforts to reduce the waste brought about by its two locations. We understand the frustration of MEPs that they are not free to decide the location of their sittings.

We will treat any proposal for treaty change on its merits. We have ensured that the UK is no longer liable to contribute to future eurozone bail-outs. Now, our absolute priority is to address the crisis in the eurozone and to ensure that the single market is not damaged. That is critical because the single market is of such benefit to jobs and businesses across the country.

When the time comes to consider broader proposals for reform, tackling the waste of the European Parliament’s two seats needs to be considered, too. I imagine that MEPs will be doing the same when the opportunity arises, not least on account of the pressure from the one-seat campaign, to which my hon. Friend alluded, and its recent petition that saw more than 1 million EU citizens sign up to its push for a single seat. Who knows? Having given out the campaign’s web address, my hon. Friend might attract even more signatures.

Although resolving the dual-seat issue is tied to treaty change, our drive for greater efficiency in the EU and its institutions is not. My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK has a series of tough objectives for the negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework, which will be the focus of discussions at the upcoming November European Council.

In the discussions on heading 5, the administrative part of the multi-annual financial framework, the UK will push for significant savings. The UK has delivered 33% savings in administration in all Government Departments and expects the EU institutions to show similar efficiency and restraint.

We continue to stress to other EU members and those who lead its institutions that any suggestion of waste in the budget damages the standing of the institutions and of the EU as a whole. Examples such as the fact that the median basic salary of EU officials is more than €50,000 per annum more than that of UK officials, or the fact that last year the European Commission planned to spend more annually on its buildings than on measures to protect the environment or to promote justice and the rule of law, already have a negative impact on the EU’s reputation as an organisation. The dual-seat issue only adds to perceptions of EU profligacy at a time of severe financial restraint.

My hon. Friend spoke of the position of the French Government, for whom the issue is understandably sensitive. The UK enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with France, and we co-operate on a wide range of issues. We are all conscious of the historical importance of the city of Strasbourg. The Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament dates back to 1952, when the decision on its location brought an important balance to post-war Europe, but the world has moved on. We are in a new century, and the case for two seats is becoming harder to defend and the practical arguments in favour of a single seat cannot be ignored.

The UK’s position on the site of the European Parliament is well known among other member states, and as a Government we have reiterated that position on several occasions. As I have already made clear, a move to a single seat requires treaty change agreed unanimously by member states. We will continue to work with our European partners, as we must, to look for a more rational settlement that results in less waste, is less costly to European taxpayers and less damaging to the environment.

I thank my hon. Friend for requesting the debate and for tenaciously pursuing the issue, about which she rightly feels strongly. The current situation, in which the European Parliament is based in three separate locations, is difficult to justify. The arguments in favour of a single seat, in terms of the associated cost savings and efficiency impacts, are difficult to ignore.

The Government will continue to support the notion of a single seat for the European Parliament, and to work with our European partners to pursue the coalition commitment to that end.

Sitting suspended.