Thursday, March 10, 2011

Flawed arguments about Strasbourg

"We reserve us all possibilities given by the treaty, also the option to go to the Court of Justice of the European Union." - Laurent Wauquiez, French minister for European affairs
When Michiel van Hulten reported in February that MEPs are fed up with the traveling circus between Brussels and Strasbourg, the political establishment reacted to it like a horse reacts to a fly. "I urge you not to engage in polemics that will damage Europe’s standing. That would only play into the hands of the Euro-sceptics", said France's ambassador to the EU. Joseph Daul and Martin Schulz, respectively leaders of the EPP and the S&D group, dismissed the report as “a waste of time”, adding "that this was not an issue MEPs should deal with".

The European Parliament in Strasbourg
by night, CC BY-NC-SA, by m4tik
Now that MEPs voted to scrap a trip to Strasbourg per year, the French government and other stakeholders are howling with rage. French members of the EPP group "denounce the attacks on Strasbourg" and ask the French government to take the case to the ECJ; Wauquiez is seriously considering to follow suit (possibly in vain).

You hear that there is a lot of emotion and not so much rational thinking behind these arguments. Bernd Posselt, German member of the EPP, has even compiled a list of "preconceptions" that the pro-Brussels camp is supposed to have, and he completely boycotts the Brussels seat.

But many of the pro-Strasbourg arguments are flawed. I went through some of Posselt's arguments to start with.

Posselt: The "democratic deficit of Europe will get worse if Europe becomes more centralized", as centralization would "go against the general movement of history" and "concentrations of powers increase the risk of abuse of powers".

==> Many observers say that the Parliament needs to be close to the institutions it controls, and that it could not fulfill its function if it were to work from the distance. Besides, when it was decided in the 1950s where to base the EEC, Robert Schuman supported decentralization of European institutions and "was joined in his ideas by Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, small countries that were afraid that their cities could not integrate a large number of foreigners." There was never a political motivation for the decentralization of the institutions. Instead, "the ministers were unable to decide on a site, choosing three provisional capitals and therewith bringing about de facto decentralization."

Posselt: "In Brussels the Parliament is more in the category of “and others” after NATO, the Council and the European Commission, while in Strasbourg, it is the center of attention."

==> Quite the contrary, the existence of "Brussels" and of face-to-face relations led to a European public sphere that allows for the shaping of opinion through discussions between different stakeholders (albeit in a bubble). Opinions could not be negotiated as well if they had to travel back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg.
In addition, the disappearance of the European Parliament from Strasbourg would for the first time give adequate visibility to the Council of Europe and the European Court on Human Rights.

Posselt: "To abandon Strasbourg would be a shock to the European identity which was much defined after the war by the contested border region of Alsace."

==> Plain wrong. The identity in Alsace after WWII, partly German and partly French, was bounced around between Alsatian affection for France and the repulsion that France showed for Alsace. "The Alsatian became the “lowest creature in France that one [could] mock . . . without facing a consequence". Had Alsatians "been proud of their 'double culture' before the war, now there was a 'desire to forget the language and the culture, to undergo assimilation and to be like the other French in order to not longer have anything in common with the German enemy.'"

In conclusion, many arguments in favor of a Parliament in Strasbourg are based on historical or ideological reasons. And many of them are flawed. The Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights would deserve more limelight than they have, while the Parliament should check decision-makers in Brussels as it is supposed to do. Instead, as several commentators suggest, new European institutions could fill the vacant space in the Strasbourg buildings.

Update (17/04/2011): A new paper published by 90 MEPs suggests a similar direction as I have taken here. It wants to make Strasbourg the European City of Justice by moving the ECJ over there. 


  1. Hi,

    though well argumented, there are also many arguments against Brussels as the Single Seat. Centralisation is not the answer to the decline of interest of its citizens in its institutions. Strasbourg is a good seat for representative functions which cannot be achieved in Brussels.

  2. Dear Severin,

    Brussels as a single seat for all institutions might not be desirable. But a situation where a single institution is split over two cities is completely unsustainable. The majority of the Members of Parliament are against the Strasbourg seat. My understanding is that most of them simply want a single seat in Brussels where they can directly hold the Commission and Council to account.

    Best wishes,