Friday, November 18, 2011

The next President must call for an end to the European Parliament's costly "travelling circus" - and so must David Cameron

This week was another busy week in Strasbourg, Parliament's second seat. Due to a stipulation in the Treaties which govern the European Union, all 736 MEPs and many hundreds of staff members must decamp from Brussels to the Alsatian capital for the Parliament's monthly plenary session.

This "travelling circus" costs the taxpayer nearly £175 million and produces an extra 19,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. At a time when public spending is under pressure across Europe and when urgent international action is needed on climate change, all of this is not just unnecessary, but is potentially also damaging to people and their livelihoods.

The majority agree. Nearly 70% of MEPs who responded to a survey in 2010 thought that all of Parliament's plenary sessions should be held in Brussels, not in Strasbourg. More importantly, nearly 1.3 million Europeans have signed a petition to end these needless costs and allow the Parliament to have a single seat in Brussels.

That is why I have co-signed the Official Seat Pledge, and why I have been calling on many of my colleagues in the Socialist Group and across Parliament to do the same. As various candidates line up to run for the Presidency of the European Parliament, we are calling on them to promise that they will push for a single seat for the Parliament. With the President's support, Parliament will be able to request a change to the Treaties which govern Parliament's official seat.

As I wrote earlier this year, I led an initiative to cut down on the number of Strasbourg trips, by condensing the two September sessions in to a single week. Whilst this would not be an end to the Strasbourg carousel, it would at least reduce the costs and the workloads involved for now (though the decision is currently being challenged in the courts by the French Government).

However, the agreement of all national governments, including the UK's, will be needed to change the Treaties. Unfortunately, the Tory-led Government has flip-flopped on the issue. In May this year, David Cameron supported the One Seat campaign. Yet in September, in a behind-the-scenes deal, he betrayed his own MEPs - not to mention UK taxpayers - and withdrew his support.

Strasbourg is a symbolic and historic city, having been at the centre of conflict in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is right that we recognise that by having important European institutions in the city, such as the Council of Europe (not part of the EU), the EU's Ombudsman, and perhaps further institutions in the future.

But at such a high economic and environmental cost, a second seat for the European Parliament is not the right way to do this. If we are to put an end to the Parliament's costly to-ing and fro-ing between two cities, David Cameron needs to think again and act in the interests of UK and European citizens - rather than his own.

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