1. What is the European Parliament (the EP)?
The European Parliament (EP) is one of the three main institutions involved in the creation of European law, along with the European Commission and the European Council of Ministers. It is the only directly elected EU body. Following the 2014 elections, there are 751 MEPs who represent the EU’s 503 million citizen across the 28 Member States. The UK has 73 MEPs. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) serve five-year terms.
2. What is the role of the European Parliament?
The European Parliament’s powers have steadily increased with each change of the EU treaties, the most recent being the Lisbon Treaty, which provided for new law-making powers. The main role of Parliament is to scrutinise, amend and adopt EU legislation passed down from the European Commission. Although distinct from member state legislation, EU laws become law in each member state by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972. EU law also takes precedence over existing member state law, which must be amended if it is found to conflict EU law.
3. How does the European Parliament input practically to the creation of EU legislation/laws?
Proposed EU legislation is formally scrutinised within the Parliament’s 20 permanent committees. Each committee is responsible for a specific policy area and is made up of a number of full member MEPs and substitute member MEPs. Each Committee addresses specific issues such as education, the environment, and economic and monetary affairs. The political make-up of the Committees reflects that of the European Parliament as a whole.
The committee process works as follows:
When a piece of draft legislation is sent to Parliament from the Commission, it is given to the relevant committee to deal with who elect a ‘rapporteur’. The rapporteur is responsible for writing a report on the Commission document on behalf of the committee. A typical report would consist of a number of amendments or changes to the text where the rapporteur thinks that improvements need to be made.
Normally, one or more additional committees produce an opinion on the original proposal, which they will ask the main committee to consider in its report.
Once the rapporteur has produced the report, other committee members may also submit amendments to the text.
The report then goes to vote in the committee. The committee votes on whether to accept each submitted amendment into the text, and finally whether to accept the report as a whole.
When the report is accepted, which the majority are, it is voted on by the whole Parliament in the plenary session, which takes place in Strasbourg. At plenary, Parliament discuss and amend the report before adopting its position on it at the vote.
Although this formal process exists, much of the work which influences the final decisions taken by Parliament on pieces of proposed legislation takes place at an informal level, outside of committee meetings and plenary sessions.
Lobbying by the public, charities, NGOs businesses and other organisations, as well as meetings with representatives from the Commission, Council or European Presidency all have an influence. (more on Lobbying below) The rapporteur will also discuss their report with colleagues from their political group and advisors. There is also a considerable amount of negotiation with MEPs from other political groups in order to try and get as much support for the report as possible.
4. What happens to a Parliament decision?
Once a report is adopted by Parliament it is sent to Council for their consideration. What happens next depends on the procedure the proposal falls under, which, broadly speaking, is determined by the subject area. The process from initial proposal to its final adoption as a piece of EU legislation can take years, depending on the procedure, with the document going back and forth between players.
There are four different decision procedures:
Parliament’s opinion must be taken into account, meaning that legislation cannot be passed without Parliament’s agreement
Parliament gives its opinion but this does not have to be taken into account by the Council, which has the final say.
This give the Parliament more say in the consultation but less in co-decision. It is rarely used.
Reserved solely for special measures
It is in Parliament’s interests that as much as possible is based on co-decision procedure, where its powers are strongest, and as little as possible is based on consultation procedure, where its powers are weakest. Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force in December 2009, more EU legislation is subject to co-decision procedure, including agriculture and immigration.
5. What other powers does the European Parliament have?
The European Parliament monitors the management of EU policies, can conduct investigations and public hearings, and may submit oral and written questions to the Commission and the Council.
The European Parliament plays a role in the approval process of each new Commission President every five years. The Member States of the EU agree together on who to designate as the Commission President, and their selection must take into account the results of the most recent EP elections. The nominee for Commission President then must be “elected” by a majority vote in the European Parliament. Both the European Parliament and the European Commission have recommended that each EP political group should nominate a candidate for Commission President ahead of EP elections.
The European Parliament may dismiss the entire Commission (although not individual Commissioners) through a vote of censure. To date, the EP has never adopted a motion of censure. However, in 1999, the entire Commission opted to resign rather than face a formal censure by the EP over alleged corruption charges.
Twice per parliamentary term, MEPs vote to elect a President of the European Parliament. The President oversees the work of the Parliament and is responsible for ensuring that its rules of procedure are followed. The signature of the EP President is the final step in approval of the EU budget (more on the budget below), and the EP President co-signs legislation adopted under the co-decision procedure.
6. Does the European Parliament conduct any work outside of the EU?
The European Parliament has a total of 41 Delegations that maintain international parliament-to-parliament contacts and relations with representatives of many countries and regions around the world. The European Parliament has become a forum for debate on international issues, and uses its power of consent on cooperation accords (these could be trade agreements for instance) with third parties and Parliamentary resolutions to promote its views and highlight issues such as human rights.
Since 2009, Jean has been Chair of Delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia and as such has travelled to those countries a number of times representing the EU and its values regarding human rights and democracy while building greater political relationships with these countries. More information on her role can be found here – Delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia.
7. What are Political Groups – why are the Green Party in a Group called the Greens/EFA Group?
Once elected, Members of the European Parliament join transnational Groups based on political ideology, rather than by nationality. A political group must consist of at least 25 MEPs from a minimum of seven EU member states. No single group has ever held an absolute majority in the European Parliament, making compromise and coalition-building important elements of the legislative process. Some MEPs do not belong to any group.
Before votes in plenary, the groups consider reports from the parliamentary committees in the light of their political view and often table amendments. During the vote, representatives from the group will often instruct their other members of the group how to vote, but no member can be forced to vote in a particular way.
Being part of a political group is important for MEPs, as it means that work can be shared out between MEPs, as well as financial resources. By pooling resources, MEPs have access to a number of specialist advisers, hired by the groups to cover each subject area.
The groups in order of size are:
Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
European Conservatives and Reformists Group
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group
Europe of Nations and Freedom Group
8. Why is there a European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg?
The European Parliament typically meets for three weeks of every four in Brussels for committee and political group meetings. One week every four, Parliament moves to Strasbourg where MEPs vote on the legislative work carried out in Brussels – this is known as a plenary session. During a Parliamentary year, four weeks are dedicated to allowing MEPs to concentrate on their constituency work.
Strasbourg was originally chosen as the seat of the EP to serve as a symbol of peace and reconciliation between France and Germany (it is right on the border of the 2 countries), and both argue it should continue to do so. Jean and most MEPs backed a single seat for the European Parliament with a significant majority in November 2013. The report calls for the European Parliament to use its power under the EU treaties to launch a procedure to change the treaty, with a view to allowing the parliament to decide on the location of its own seat. However, even with a majority of MEPs voting to scrap the Strasbourg plenary sessions the support of all EU leaders would be required, effectively giving France a veto.
9. What is lobbying?
During the time when a proposed piece of legislation is with the Parliament, from receiving the proposal to the Parliament’s adopted report, there are many ways in which citizens try and influence the outcome – this is called lobbying.
The amount of lobbying and who does the lobbying varies from one issue to the next. Sometimes all MEPs are lobbied to try and influence the outcome of a full Parliament vote, sometimes it is more targeted and intended to influence the final wording of a report at Committee stage. Lobbying also takes a number of forms. Groups might ask their members to write to/email the Rapporteur or an organisation might ask for a formal meeting.
MEPs are lobbied by:
- individuals, especially constituents
- businesses and firms with an interest in the outcome
- non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with an interest in the outcome
- professional lobbying organisations hired to lobby on behalf of organisations, firms or industries
10. What is the ‘Citizen’s Initiative? As an EU citizen can I be involved?
Absolutely! EU citizens can now ask the EU to introduce new legislation, provided they can muster one million signatures. This new tool for giving citizens a more direct say over the EU was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty and was up and running by 2012.
The very first Citizen’s Initiative to receive over 1 million signatures was on the right to Water as a human right (right2water.eu) and has now been taken on by European Commission as an issue for which it must propose legislation.
More information from the European Parliament on Citizen’s Initiatives can be found here – europarl.europa.eu/en/pressroom/content/20101209BKG08308/html/Q-A-on-the-citizens’-initiative
More information from the European Commission here – ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/basic-facts
11. We often hear that the accounts for the EU have not been signed off on? What does this mean?
Actually the EU’s accounts have been signed off on for the last 5 years. The most recent accounts checked by the European Court of Auditors were for 2012 and a press release issued by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on 5th November stated, “As independent auditor, the ECA has signed off the 2012 accounts of the European Union, as it has done each year since the 2007 financial year”.
Here is the press release from them
However while the auditors made it clear that there are errors in EU spending, this affects a figure less than 5 per cent of what it pays out, and it states that this is not a measurement of fraud or waste, but rather where rules were not followed properly, e.g. when goods or services were bought without the proper application of public purchasing rules.
Given that 80% of the EU budget is controlled by national governments and officials, a lot of the responsibility for this rests however with national governments and not with those working in Brussels. Furthermore figures from the 20102 accounts show that there was an error rate of 10 to 15 per cent in British regional spending of Brussels budgets and so we most not be too quick to judge where the problems lie.
More FAQs can be found the on the European Parliament’s website here http://www.europarl.europa.eu/resources/library/media/20140206RES35141/20140206RES35141.pdf