What is a plenary session?
Plenary sessions, bringing together all the MEPs, are the busiest time in the life of the European Parliament. It is where committees and political groups present the results of their work. Most importantly, it is during the plenary that MEPs, the only EU representatives directly elected by citizens of the 27 Member States, participate in decision making.
The plenary is composed of the 736 MEPs elected by universal suffrage – the majority of whom are members of a political group and the remainder are non-attached. These groups are formed according to their political beliefs. They decide the issues to be dealt with and can propose amendments to the reports voted. Belonging to a political group does not prevent each MEP from being able to vote individually as he or she wishes.
The plenary sessions are chaired by the President of the European Parliament (currently Jerzy Buzek (EPP) from Poland), aided by fourteen vice-presidents. The President opens the session, sometimes with a speech or a tribute depending on the current affairs of the day.
The European Commission and the Council of the European Union also participate in the plenary sessions in order to facilitate cooperation between institutions in the decision-making process
The plenary takes place in Strasbourg once per month (except in August) and each session lasts four days. In addition, six times per year, the MEPs meet in Brussels for two days for ‘mini sessions’.
During the sessions, the MEPs debate and vote on the texts submitted. There are several types of procedures for examining legislative reports but only the codecision procedure puts the Parliament’s legislative role on equal footing with the Council of the European Union.
To challenge the other institutions, the European Parliament is able to adopt non-legislative reports that are drafted in the committees. What’s more, if they consider it necessary, MEPs can raise any subject they deem important at plenary. They can also ask the European Commission to submit a proposal on any issue that they think requires community legislation.
MEPs also have a role in budgetary matters. In fact, along with the Council of the European Union, it is the Parliament that has EU budgetary authority and which co-determines the income and expenditure every year.
The legislative process
When submitted, a parliamentary report is always subjected to debate before it is adopted. This debate can last up to several hours especially if a large number of MEPs want to express their opinions. It is at this point that they can propose amendments in order to remove, reformulate, replace or develop the content of the text. The MEPs vote on each amendment taken individually and then on the entire text as amended.
The President announces the outcome of the votes which are made, most of the time, by raising hands and often by an absolute majority of the votes cast. Nonetheless, a quorum of MEPs must be present to validate the vote. The quorum is reached when a third of MEPs are present in the room.
MEPs are entitled to several types of allowances: a general expenditure allowance for costs in their Member State is €4299 per month but this amount is divided in half if the MEPs attend less than half the plenary sessions. Their travel expenses are also reimbursed and can be supplemented with an annual allowance of €4243.
There is also a daily allowance of €304 for any official meetings that MEPs attend on condition that they sign an official attendance register. During the plenary sessions, they have to participate in at least half the roll-call votes; otherwise the allowance is cut in half.
These allowances are added to MEPs’ base salary which is €6200 per month.
The agenda is established at the Conference of Presidents before each plenary session by referring to the calendars of the committees and the European Commission. Once the agenda is decided, it must be distributed to MEPs at least three hours before the session starts.
When the plenary session starts, MEPs can propose changes to the agenda. For example, in order to adapt to current events and call on the Union to act as quickly as possible.
Speaking time in plenary
During the debate, a portion of the speaking time is divided up equally between the different groups and another portion according to the number of MEPs in each group. The rest of the speaking time is given to MEPs who want to speak. The President of the Parliament grants this speaking time and tries to alternate between the political groups and the Member States. In the majority of cases, these speeches last one minute.
The committee presidents and their rapporteurs as well as the presidents of the parliamentary groups have priority when it comes to speaking.