Pacta sunt servanda? Supporters of the Strasbourg seat largely base their arguments on the city's history as a symbol of European reconciliation, writes Alexandr Vondra

The debate over the European Parliament’s two seats in Brussels and Strasbourg raises the question of whether agreements should be forever binding, regardless of changing circumstances.
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By Alexandr Vondra

Alexandr Vondra (ECR, CZ) is a member of Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee and Former Czech Defence Minister

19 Jan 2021

Strasbourg is home to three institutions of the European Union and normally hosts conferences and monthly MEP meetings. Since the mid-1990s, several successful petitions have been raised against the Strasbourg seat, yet Parliament still maintains two sites, despite the consensus of the majority of MEPs. Can COVID be a game changer?

Supporters of the Strasbourg seat largely base their arguments on Strasbourg’s history as a symbol of European reconciliation and highlight their opposition to centralism. Meanwhile, the arguments of the One Seat Movement centre firstly around financial issues. According to the 2014 auditors’ report, maintaining the second seat costs around €109m per year.

This is a significant amount, considering that many people see absolutely no point to the Strasbourg seat. In addition, opponents underline the need to consider the comfort of Members and staff, many of whom do not want to travel every month. It is no coincidence that the term “traveling circus” is used frequently in the Brussels bubble.

“The two seats are stipulated in the Treaty, and change would require the consent of all Member States - including France. And there is no will on the part of the Member States to put pressure on France”

But after a large number of MEPs fell in love with Greta Thunberg’s movement and sounded the alarm about an alleged future apocalypse that can only be prevented by the total transformation of European industry in favour of green goals, a third cause has emerged: ecology.

Calls for the European population to be environmentally aware look indisputably hypocritical and ridiculous when juxtaposed with the carbon footprint brought about by regular travel to Strasbourg. Thunberg, who visited the European Parliament despite anti-COVID restrictions for other visitors, received a massive round of applause from MEPs, brought one good thing that even her opponents must acknowledge: she emphasises the personal responsibility of each person and each institution.

It is a clear denial of this principle, when the advocates of the second seat, on the one hand vote in favour of declaring a climate emergency throughout Europe and on the other, elevate their symbolism above austerity not only in relation to finance but also to nature.

That is why I proposed an amendment in 2019 that calls for a reduction in the carbon footprint by making the Parliament decide on a single seat - 419 MEPs voted in favour of the amendment. Most MEPs are aware of the fact that Parliament needs to lead by example, but everyone understands that this is only a symbolic gesture.

The two seats are stipulated in the Treaty, and change would require the consent of all Member States - including France. Given that there is no will on the part of the Member States to put pressure on France, the two seats will continue to exist, despite the wishes of most MEPs - at least in theory. In reality, Parliament has not held a plenary session in Strasbourg since February 2020, its longest absence.

The reason is, of course, COVID. People have had to give up many things they were used to over the past year. For many, it has been an extremely painful year: they have lost their jobs, their income, their hobbies, their friends, and some even their family members. At the same time, we have learned how to do many things differently - sometimes, they are even easier.

“Calls for the European population to be environmentally aware look indisputably hypocritical and ridiculous when juxtaposed with the carbon footprint brought about by regular travel to Strasbourg”

The private sector has already adapted to this, and offers people more flexibility and simplicity. Parliament has also shown that it is able to operate within a single seat, although making such a change permanent would initially have unpleasant consequences for the charming Alsatian town of Strasbourg.

Yet France resists. Despite assurances by the current parliamentary leadership that the sitting will return to Strasbourg at the earliest opportunity, for some advocates of the two-seat concept, the health of Members and staff is an insufficient argument for even a temporary break.

Following President Sassoli’s announcement that the September plenary session would be held remotely and/or in Brussels, the local mayor immediately spoke up and threatened Parliament with a lawsuit. A spokesperson for the French government called the Parliament’s decision to cancel the sixth session in a row “scandalous”.

Pacta sunt servanda - agreements must be kept - even if finances, environmental consequences or public health repercussions paint a very different picture. What does this say about us and our ability to adapt to the changes we often call on European citizens to adopt? That’s up to you to decide.

Read the most recent articles written by Alexandr Vondra - Georgia’s democratic transition offers hope for the Black Sea country’s future

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