Rules on parliaments’ seats

Parliamentary room
© Atlantis / Fotolia

Parliaments’ seats are not usually regulated at constitutional level. One of the few exceptions is the establishment by the Austrian Federal Constitution of the federal capital and seat of the highest federal authorities in Vienna. Parliamentary seats are often established by the rules of procedure adopted by the same parliament (e.g. Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania). However, as a general rule, the choice of the seat of a national parliament is linked to the choice of capital city. The capital is determined in some countries’ national constitutions (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal, Spain). Such ‘capital city clauses’ are regarded by some authors as part of a country’s constitutional identity.

Examples of relocations of parliaments

There are only a few examples of the relocation of parliamentary seats. Besides the relocation of the German Bundestag from Bonn to Berlin following German reunification, proposals were tabled in 2012 to relocate Georgia’s Parliament from Kutaisi back to the capital Tbilisi. Relocation would require a constitutional amendment. In 1990, the National Congress of Chile was relocated from the capital city of Santiago de Chile to the city of Valparaíso. An example of the relocation of a regional parliament is the Lower Austria Regional Parliament’s move from Vienna to the town of St. Pölten, which had become the new regional capital in 1986 by popular referendum. The relocation was based on a change in the Regional Constitution (Art 5(1)) adopted by the Landtag (regional parliament) of Lower Austria.

Relocation of the Bundestag from Bonn to Berlin

Neither the Basic Law nor the Rules of Procedure of the Bundestag establish the seat of the German Federal Parliament. This has led many authors to conclude that the question of where the Bundestag shall have its seat falls under its parliamentary autonomy (Articles 39, 40 German Basic Law). The seat of the Bundestag is however established by the Berlin/Bonn Act from 1994 following the Bundestag’s 1991 Decision on the Capital (Hauptstadtbeschluss), “Completion of the Reunification of Germany”. The decision of the Bundestag to relocate its seat from Bonn to Berlin was adopted as part of the implementation of the previously concluded Reunification Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, which established that the capital city of the Federal Republic of Germany would be Berlin (Art. 2(1)). The Reunification Agreement left the decision on the seat of the Parliament to the legislator (Article 2(2) and Protocol to the Agreement).

There was no ‘capital city clause’ with constitutional rank in Germany until 2006, when in the course of the reform of the federal state a new Article 22(1) was included in the Basic Law, establishing that the capital of Germany is Berlin. Moreover, it stipulates that “the Federation shall be responsible for representing the nation as a whole in the capital” and that “details shall be regulated by federal law”.

Some authors argue that the provision in Article 22 of the Basic Law does not mean that the capital city and the seat of the Government or the Parliament are identical. Rather, the characteristics of a ‘capital city’ have to be determined according to German constitutional tradition and federal theory. According to this opinion, all constitutional organs do not need to be sited in the capital city, particularly in the case of federal states. However, it is argued that the constitutional organs do not have full autonomy in determining their seat. Rather, the constitutional choice of a capital or any existing constitutional traditions is seen by some authors as limiting the power to change the seat of the federal parliament.

Conversely it is argued that Article 22(1) leaves it to the federal legislator to establish any issues related to the capital city question, e.g. the question of the seat of the constitutional organs. According to this viewpoint, the Bundestag, as a legislative body, can determine its own seat by law and according to its parliamentary autonomy.