September 24, 2015
Before going back to school, every pupil makes sure to have the best pencils and notebooks. In a child’s mind, it is a question not just of reputation, but effectiveness: with a nice pencil and a nice notebook, he or she will write a lot better, make fewer mistakes and make real progress. In a surprising parallel, the European Parliament also expects society – that is, voters and taxpayers – to give it the best tools, not so much for its own international prestige, but for its ability to adopt effective laws under the transparent and democratic conditions that modern governance demands.
With every Treaty, the European Parliament earned its stripes. Merely consulted on proposals initially, it has become a co-legislator on an equal footing with the Council of Ministers (representing the 28 Member States). At each stage, the Parliament has expanded its staff and its facilities. In 1999, a magnificent chamber was built in Strasbourg for plenary sessions, while Brussels would house the technical committees and everyday work of the Parliament. In the same space of time, motivated by an ambition to become THE Parliament seat, Brussels (a word encompassing certain MEPs, local politicians and construction companies) began campaigning for a second and even more imposing chamber, rightly called “Caprice des Dieux” (or “Whim of the gods”). The aim was to cut off the provincial arm of the Parliament’s legislative work – in other words, Strasbourg.
Caprice des Dieux – how capricious!
However, at the end of September this year, well-known press agency Politico published news of various Parliament indiscretions. The Belgian daily paper Le Soir followed soon after with more details. Readers learned with great surprise that the Brussels-based European Parliament, built 20 years ago, is on the verge of ruin: not financial ruin (it costs more than €1.8 billion annually – three and a half times the already high cost of the French National Assembly) but architectural ruin. According to the authors of the document quoted by both press agencies, the Parliament premises are in a state of “dilapidation” and require “major renovations”. Veterans of the Brussels scene will recall the many suspicions of corruption and defects that accompanied the building of Caprice des Dieux, now obsolete and all but destined to be knocked down after less than 20 years of use. Moreover, none of the authors of the document, or the articles summarising it, seem to be shocked by this.
But it gets worse…
Seeing the renovation of the Parliament’s Brussels buildings as a foregone conclusion, the document – like a Minotaur thirsty for space and power – calls for new offices, new premises and new structures intended for future MEPs from future Member States (despite the lack of any realistic timeframe for these enlargements). It would like to see “an ideal space” for VIP receptions. The authors of the document even wish to use the whole of Parc Léopold along with the Bibliothèque Solvay, the superbly-built art nouveau Brulabo building and – a favourite of mine – the Wiertz Museum, so important for understanding fin-de-siècle art.
We could make fun of all this, if another key question did not come to mind: why get fatter? While the European Parliament in Brussels demands more facilities, more staff and more money, we hear its voice less and less. The widespread use of trilogues reduces legislative activity to secret confined meetings that rule out any debate in plenary session; leading one to ask how MEPs who do not take part in trilogues spend their time! All the more so since the Juncker Commission withdrew numerous legislative texts under the wonderful goal of “Better Regulation”. What’s more, in recent months we have seen a sort of lethargy and profound silence in the Parliament from a lot of MEPs. With some exceptions, the leading voices either have retired or were not re-elected. What does the Parliament really think of the Juncker Commission’s grand plans, and what does it propose? Migrants, British referendum…it is a mystery! Apart from isolated statements, the European Parliament has not taken a clear position on any of these issues.
A hidden agenda to fight Strasbourg?
Coincidentally, on the same day as the publication of these articles, the City of Strasbourg announced it will hold a press conference in Brussels on 21 October 2015 (10.30am-11.00am at the Résidence Palace). The goal is to defend its seat and strengthen the EU’s political dimension at the expense of its bureaucratic tendencies, as symbolised by Brussels. Failing to perform in legislative affairs in Brussels, demanding additional resources and on top on this, some behind the scenes trying to dismantle the Strasbourg seat: frankly, this is all too much!Daniel Gueguen