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Let’s put a stop to the Brussels-Strasbourg merry-go-round, Minister Koenders

5 Feb 2017

Let’s put a stop to the Brussels-Strasbourg merry-go-round, Minister Koenders

Foreign Minister Bert Koenders appears frequently in the media criticising the European Parliament. That’s fine with me, because there is of course a great deal to criticise about all the waste and the conflicts of interest which surround the EP. But he went too far when he attacked the Parliament over the fact that once a month we move lock, stock and barrel to Strasbourg. The fact is that by far the majority of MEPs find this monthly trip irritating in the extreme. There is, however, nothing we can do to change it, as that is in the hands of the member state governments. That was why in 2015, in the runup to the Dutch EU presidency, I contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to propose that they suggest an alternative to the EP for the city of Strasbourg, to make up for its lost revenue. I’m still waiting to hear back, but on Thursday the Dutch Parliament in The Hague will host the State of the Union debate, to which MEPs are also invited. I fancy a nice confrontation with the minister. Who knows, we might at last be able to do business.

Last September I explained the whole business of the Brussels-Strasbourg merry-go-round in a YouTube video and asked everyone to sign a petition to put a stop to it. I did that in my capacity as vice-chair of the cross-party ‘Single Seat Steering Group’. With the same hat on a year earlier I approached the Foreign Ministry with a proposal. For the city of Strasbourg the prime concern is of course financial. If the EP stops meeting there, hotels and restaurants would lose business. But our group reckoned that the city would earn a great deal more from an institution which was permanently established there, rather than leaving a building empty three weeks out of four, when everyone is back in Brussels. My idea was that at the end of the Dutch presidency, which is to say just before the summer recess, the government should produce an informal paper listing alternatives for Strasbourg. This would require an amendment to the EU Treaty, which states that Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament. For this reason the support of all heads of government, including the French, would be needed. Only with a workable alternative for Strasbourg could a French veto be avoided.

There are a lot of ideas going about: a European university could be housed in the present EP building, or the European Court of Justice could be moved from Luxembourg, giving Strasbourg, which already hosts the European Court of Human Rights a valid claim to the title ‘City of European Law’. The problem is only that if you move an existing institution, the member state which currently houses it will also have to be compensated, setting off a chain reaction. So you have to give proper consideration to all of the links in the chain before you come up with a proposal.

From the ministry I received an assurance that they were interested in my plan and that we would shortly pick a date for a meeting. That sounded great and I’d very much like to sit down with officials from Foreign Affairs to work out a plan. The only problem is that to date I’ve heard nothing more from them. A concrete agreement, let alone a working group, is nowhere in sight. Yet the Minister felt he could criticise the Dutch Members of the European Parliament, on the grounds that we are still going back and forth between the two cities. During Thursday’s discussion in The Hague on the State of the Union, what I want from him is a thorough explanation. I’m not a spiteful person and if we can start work on Friday, I’ll clear my diary with pleasure. The Strasbourg-Brussels merry-go-round has gone on long enough, and the Minister Koenders should remember that it’s deeds, not words, that count.

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