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The European Parliament: A Travelling Band

The history of the European Parliament is one of steady movement. When its first predecessor was established in 1952, calculations of distribution of power and national participation lead the then six member states to agree on Luxembourg as the new institution’s seat.


However, no suitable meeting facilities were available in the duchy’s capital so, in subsequent decades, the Parliament hired the Council of Europe’s hemicycle in Strasbourg to hold its plenary meetings.


However, it soon became a practical disadvantage to be so far away from the Commission and Council, in Brussels. Therefore, it was agreed to hold all committee meetings in Brussels. Opposition from France and Luxembourg ultimately lead to a decision at the Edinburgh summit in 1992: Twelve plenary meetings per year would to be held in Strasbourg, all committees would meet in Brussels and the secretariat would work in Luxembourg. Since then, Parliamentarians have twice tried to bypass the rules and get rid of at least one travelling week per year, but their attempts have always been thwarted.


The report that passed the plenary on Wednesday requests that the other European institutions change the existing law in order to give the European Parliament the right to decide upon its own places and times of work. This requires a change in the treaties; something that all member states will have to agree on unanimously. In an interview with IV, Gerald Häfner, one of the rapporteurs on the report that passed the plenary on Wednesday, explains why this move marks a crucial step towards a more democratic Europe.


Mr. Häfner, your report is seen as an attempt to concentrate the European Parliament's work in one place. However, the current structure has existed for roughly 20 years, so why has this initiative only come about now?
This is a long story. When the decision for Strasbourg was made, there was no parliament that was in any way comparable to the one of today. It was not elected; it was only an assembly of envoys that had few powers. The reason why the arrangement of the Parliament’s work has to be newly tackled now is the fundamentally modified role of the Parliament after the Lisbon treaty. Now, the Parliament is a legislator on equal terms with the Council. Also, it is the only representation of the 500 million citizens on the European level. That is why it cannot be treated like an agency under the rule of the Council anymore.


Before any changes can be made, the Commission and Council will have to agree to this initiative. How fruitful has the dialogue with these institutions been up to now?
We propose a change to the treaties that will be tabled by the European Parliament in a European convention that might presumably take place in 2015. Our report is seen by some – who have not read it thoroughly – as just another attempt at dealing with the same thing, namely, travelling between Strasbourg and Brussels. But the initiative is about a question of constitutional law. It is about whether we as a Parliament take ourselves seriously or whether we see ourselves as hostages in the hands of other institutions. We want to trigger a constitutional debate about the competencies of the Parliament to decide upon its own work.
In the talks I have had with representatives from the Commission and Council, I had the impression that our report is seen as a much more interesting and important one than any other before. Would you therefore say that, assuming a change in the treaties occurs, the question of the seat will be secondary to the competencies of the Parliament?
That would be a misunderstanding. We demand savings from member states as well as citizens. Therefore we also have to avoid unnecessary costs and emissions ourselves, which are caused by the constant moving between two places of work. But the issue goes further: For example, the Parliament is not allowed to hold a plenary meeting after a Council meeting and discuss the issues tabled there. We help ourselves by calling it an "extended conference of presidents" - but that's absurd and unworthy of a modern parliament! We want to have the right to convene a plenary session whenever we consider it necessary.


There is also disagreement within the house with regard to the working places of the Parliament. How do you want to tackle this?
To be honest, this is not of concern for me right now. I want that this house that has been elected by the citizens is allowed to decide upon this question. I will be very happy to accept any result, as long as it is a free decision that is made along factual criteria and not national egoism or for the sake of tradition. The current setup had its reasons when it was established in the 1950s. But what was appropriate some 60 years ago is not sensible anymore, in the twenty-first century. So we simply need to find an answer to these questions.


What do you think might be the possible outcomes of a decision in Parliament?
Again: I will be happy with any solution, as long as one tries to find one. It could also be that the current setup is kept up if that is the democratic decision made by the Parliament. Being asked about the possible and likely, I myself think that the Parliament cannot maintain the constant travelling any longer. But in which place the house will finally settle I cannot and do not want to predict.


How do you personally perceive the ideal European Parliament after the next treaty change?
You will get to know my idea once we in Parliament are enabled to decide about that. For now I can say that I want a Parliament that is transparent, efficient, and democratically accountable. I want a solution which is acceptable and comprehensible both for my colleagues and the citizens.


You created this report together with Ashley Fox of the ECR group. How did the euroscepticism of this group influence the report?
My group and I want Europe and we want more Europe. If there had been any euroscepticism at the beginning of this work it at least did not survive the consultations. I fully stand for every line of this report and have taken care that it serves parliament as a whole. This report wants a stronger parliament. Euroscepticism is the complete opposite of that.


Johannes is the Intern Life Editor for Internal Voices and a trainee at the European Parliament


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