MEPs have managed to slip one of the European Parliament’s main disputes with the Member States – the location of its seat - into the discussion about the EU’s next R&D funding programme, Horizon 2020. EU deputies are proposing to relocate the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) to Strasbourg - saying its presence could help Strasbourg become the EU’s innovation capital. This in turn would make up for the loss in prestige and the negative economic impact that a move of the European Parliament to Brussels would cause.
Alexander Alvaro (ALDE), Vice President of the European Parliament, told Science|Business the idea to base the EIT – which is set to receive a massive boost in funding under Horizon 2020 - in Strasbourg, first surfaced in 2005, when the EIT was being set up. Alvaro, one of the leaders of the ‘Single Seat’ campaign which aims to end Parliament’s monthly expensive trip to Strasbourg says there was no majority for it at the time, but notes that times have changed, pointing to a recent string of “absolute majority votes for a single seat.”
Marisa Matias MEP (GUE/NGL) is now proposing the relocation of the EIT headquarters from Budapest to Strasbourg in her Horizon 2020 draft report. Matias, one of the MEPs responsible for guiding the EIT legislative proposal through Parliament as rapporteur in the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) committee, says the Parliament’s buildings in Strasbourg – which are deserted for most of the month - would provide the EIT with the space, “to host big conferences, seminars, training programmes and courses, as well as technology or science exhibitions.”
Strasbourg as the EU’s innovation hub
Apart from a strong university culture, Alvaro believes that Strasbourg has the right ingredients to become the EU’s innovation capital. “Since the regional border areas between France and Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium already profit from a closely interlinked network combining efforts in the business sector, infrastructure projects and not least higher education, there would be plenty of fertile ground for the EIT to take root and prosper.”
Phillipe Lamberts MEP (Greens) – who is responsible for guiding the EIT legislation through Parliament, together with Matias – told Science|Business that in addition, he would welcome the relocation from Belgium to Strasbourg of the College of Europe, a prestigious postgraduate institution set up by some of the EU’s founders. The College, “could then be expanded with the EIT,” he said, as a further step to help Strasbourg deal with the departure of the EU Parliament.
“Strasbourg is already a university city, the place where the French have located their famous National School of Administration, and its European department. I see potential for synergies there,” said Lamberts. “Strasbourg would be a good place for a university focused on Europe-wide issues.”
The EIT may have originally been envisaged as Europe’s version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but at present it is a relatively small, administrative body. The EIT coordinates programmes, and does not – yet - directly “deliver education,” Lamberts said. However, “[in the same way as] the College of Europe offers postgraduate programmes, you might think of research and innovation postgraduate programmes [being] run in this facility - which is actually huge, and pretty well adapted to being an educational establishment.”
“If we can save tax payers' money by reducing administration costs of the EU institutions, [by replacing the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament with something else] - not least by making use of the existing buildings - with something that will benefit both the regional and the EU's economy in turn, then so much the better,” said Alvaro.
“A lot of infrastructure is already in place, as the EP's buildings are not fundamentally tailored to a parliament, but could just as well be used as conference centres or educational facilities,” said Alvaro. The financial impact of running another institution would be relatively minimal, though there would need to be an investigation to see if there would be any “significant” or “damaging” effect on the EIT if it were moved from its current setting.
Although based mainly in France until the nineties, MEPs now spend most time in Brussels, where the Parliament’s counterpart in the EU legislature, the EU council of ministers, as well as the European Commission are located. Every month however, MEPs, staff, journalists, administrative personnel and truckloads of legal documents make a long and expensive four day trip to Strasbourg, where Parliament is obliged by a protocol annexed to the EU treaties in 1992 to hold a monthly plenary session. It is estimated the trips to France cost European tax payers at least €180 million a year.
On 4 July, in the latest of a series of absolute majority victories for the Single Seat lobby, MEPs voted in favour of a proposal which said, "The EU, not least in the context of the austerity policies being implemented in the Member States, must show responsibility and take immediate, concrete measures to establish a single seat for Parliament.”
To date, France has blocked any discussion about entirely abandoning Strasbourg as a parliamentary seat. “But the Member States will not be able to avoid the question of Parliament's seat in Strasbourg forever,” says Alvaro - who heads up the Single Seat campaign with Edward McMillan-Scott (ALDE), another Vice-President of the European Parliament. Alvaro stressed, “If a discussion on the location of the EIT can help in that decision making process, I know a large majority of MEPs won't complain.”