The capital of Alsace, Strasbourg is an ancient cathedral city of some 400,000 inhabitants on the French side of the Rhine. In common with the rest of Alsace, Strasbourg has changed hands several times between France and Germany over the centuries and many of its inhabitants speak both French and a German dialect known as Elsassisch. For this reason, the city has been regarded as a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation since the second world war.

In 1949, on a proposal from the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, Strasbourg was chosen as the seat of the new Council of Europe. After early meetings in the Hôtel de Ville and Strasbourg university, a Maison de l’Europe was built to house the Council of Europe. By 1952, this building was also serving as the venue for meetings of the Common Assembly of the new European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Since 1958, the European Parliament, the successor body to the Common Assembly, has held most of its monthly part-sessions in Strasbourg. A larger Palais de l’Europe was built in 1977 to accommodate both the Council of Europe and the directly-elected European Parliament, replacing the original structure. By the mid-1990s, this too had been outgrown, and a third, even larger building – purpose-built for the Parliament – was opened in July 1999, adjacent to the Palais.

The new parliamentary building in Strasbourg is named after Louise Weiss (1893-1983), a campaigner for women’s rights and European integration between the wars, who served as a Gaullist Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1979 until her death. The Parliament’s chamber or ‘hemicycle’ in this building is the largest single parliamentary meeting room in the democratic world, with seating for 863 members and staff (plus 680 people in the public gallery). The chamber gained a certain notoriety in August 2008 when a large segment of its ceiling collapsed: had it been occupied at the time, dozens of people would have been injured or killed. Other buildings in the Parliament’s Strasbourg complex – which now covers some 350,000 square metres in all and contains over 2,600 offices and 50 meeting rooms – are named after Winston Churchill, Pierre Pflimlin (1907-2000), the former mayor of Strasbourg who became French prime minister and President of the European Parliament, and Salvador de Madariaga (1886-1978), a Spanish historian, diplomat and politician. The Council of Europe, for its part, now occupies half a dozen further buildings in the vicinity of the Palais de l’Europe, including notably one designed by Richard Rogers for the European Court of Human Rights, which opened in 1994.

Strasbourg’s status as the self-styled ‘parliamentary capital of Europe’ has been under threat since the 1980s from moves to concentrate the European Parliament’s activities in Brussels, where the European Commission is based and the EU Council of Ministers meets for all but three months a year. Not only are the routine meetings of the Parliament’s committees and political groups held in Brussels, but an increasing proportion of its staff came to be located there (rather than Luxembourg) and the Parliament began to hold two-day ‘mini-plenaries’ in the city in the early 1990s. Although the Council of Europe, including the European Court of Human Rights – as well as since 1991 the Eurocorps – would in any case have remained in Strasbourg, the city was determined to retain the normal monthly sessions of the European Parliament. This position has been defended tenaciously by French governments of all political complex­ions, to the point of Strasbourg’s status being seen as ‘non-negotiable’. By showing themselves prepared to block other decisions on the siting of newly-created European institutions, the French finally secured a formal decision in December 1992, at the Edinburgh meeting of the European Council, that Strasbourg should be the ‘seat’ of the European Parliament and that its ‘12 periods of monthly plenary ses­sions’ should continue to be held in the city. Since this decision did not curb the desire of many MEPs to move to Brussels, the French National Assembly, backed by the French government, took the further step in 1994 of blocking the agreement to increase the num­ber of members (to reflect German reunification) in time for the June 1994 European elections, until ‘precise and written’ assurances were given on the holding of the four-day monthly sessions in Strasbourg and the lease on the new premises was signed. A protocol annexed to the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty confirmed the Edinburgh decision, giving it treaty status for the first time.

Although the behaviour of the French on the subject of Strasbourg may be thought unreasonable, they are not alone in their attachment to the city as a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation. Many German politicians feel the same way: as Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt once replied when asked whether he favoured Brussels or Strasbourg, ‘My head is in Brussels but my heart is in Strasbourg.’ Some had expected the continuing enlargement of the European Union to tilt the balance of opinion in the European Parliament decisively in favour of Brussels, given the city’s better air links with the capitals of the new member states and lower salience of Franco-German reconciliation to political élites in central and eastern Europe, but this has not happened. The majority against Strasbourg in the Parliament is not sufficiently strong or consistent to confront the success of the French government in securing the city’s legal status as the seat of the Parliament – a situation which can only be changed by governments, acting unanimously, followed by ratification in all national parliaments.

Since 1920, Strasbourg has played host to the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine, the oldest pan-European organisation, founded in 1815. ARTE, the Franco-German public service television channel, which specialises in artistic and cultural programming, has also been based in Strasbourg since its creation in 1992 and now occupies premises close to the European Parliament.

See also seats of EU institutions.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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