MEPs' row with France threatens Euro-elections

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The Independent Online
THE European Parliament has locked horns with France over moving its monthly gatherings from Strasbourg to Brussels, in a row that could jeopardise this year's European elections.

France wants the parliament to sign guarantees that it will move into a new building in Strasbourg, but MEPs are rejecting this. Newly assertive, they are fighting to decide not just where they meet, but what powers they have.

Heads of government decided in 1992 that Strasbourg would be the permanent seat for the parliament, but many if not most MEPs reject this. They want to move it lock, stock and barrel to Brussels, the home of most European institutions and many of the parliament's own offices.

Plans to increase the size of the parliament to reflect German unification have yet to be ratified by the French parliament, and Paris threatens to make acceptance conditional on keeping MEPs in Strasbourg. A pounds 300m building is to be constructed there, and France wants guarantees that it will be used. If the arrangements are not ratified, it would throw the elections - and boundary changes in Britain - into turmoil.

But an pounds 800m complex is being built in Brussels for the parliament. MEPs want to end their shuttle between Brussels and Strasbourg, which many claim undermines their effectiveness. 'The battle over the seat will determine this parliament's role and powers in the long term,' said Peter Price, Conservative MEP for London South-East. 'If we win, we shall have shown not only to the French but to other governments as well that the European Parliament cannot be blackmailed into submission.'

The parliament is fighting for acceptance by governments of its new decision-making powers. Sir Leon Brittan, the European Union's trade commissioner told MEPs yesterday that he would support their campaign to make ratification of the Gatt deal, agreed last year, conditional on a parliamentary vote. 'It is only right that this house, which has followed the Uruguay Round with such interest over the years, should be able to take the final vote expressing the agreement of the peoples of Europe to this agreement which was so long in the making,' said Sir Leon.

The Maastricht treaty gave MEPs new powers over some international agreements, but there is dispute over which ones. Including the Gatt would give MEPs a veto on an important agreement, though not the right to amend it - powers parallel to those of the United States Congress.

A decision on the ratification of Gatt depends on member states. It is likely to cause controversy, with some fearing that more power is shifting to European institutions; Westminister, for instance, will not get such a vote. Britain does not oppose the European Parliament's rights, but seeks details from Sir Leon of what his proposals entail, British officials said yesterday.

The parliament is unlikely to vote down the agreement, which has substantial support. Its importance is in confirming MEPs' right to be involved in such important decisions. It will also help Sir Leon's campaign to replace Jacques Delors as Commission President. Sir Leon's readiness to accept the growth of the assembly's powers will boost his democratic credentials.