The Parliament is today the only European institution whose members are, every five years, elected by direct universal suffrage. In the early days of the community however, the institution took a while to become established. The first incarnation of a European community, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) founded in 1951 did not have an assembly. The Benelux governments later insisted on an assembly being introduced, yet they had no intention to make the new entity a democratic institution.
After the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) and EURATOM, it became known as the “European Parliamentary Assembly” in 1958, then the “European Parliament” in 1962. The change in the Institution’s name reflected the evolving debates on how it would work and what it would be called. Since 1951, its members had been nominated by national parliaments but the Treaty of Rome (1957) already had provisions for elections by “direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States” (Article 138). Yet it was not until June 1979 that the first elections by direct universal suffrage took place. The Parliament, with its headquarters in Strasbourg, initially played a primarily consultative role. Now, it is also competent in legislating alongside the Council of Ministers and has control over the Commission.
The role of the European Parliament has gradually strengthened with the adoption of various treaties. Today, it has competency in three fields:
The European Parliament is actively involved in the adoption of community legislation. The Lisbon Treaty recently designated the codecision procedure as the principal decision-making method and extended its area of competence to 45 new legislative areas (including the Common Agricultural Policy and policies related to justice and security).
Within the codecision procedure framework, the Parliament gives its opinion at first reading on a European Commission proposal, and then submits its position to the Council. If the Council approves all the (potential) amendments made by MEPs, the act can be adopted. However, if the Council adopts another position, the Parliament has a three-month period (which can be extended by one month on request) to react. It then gives its opinion on the second reading and decides to either accept this position or to amend it again (in which case it is returned to the Council), or to reject it ensuring the proposal is not adopted. Notwithstanding the exceptions laid out in the treaties, a text cannot be adopted where there is disagreement between the Council and the European Parliament. In the event of persistent disagreement, the act is examined by a conciliation committee.
How is European legislation adopted? See our graphic to understand the codecision procedure using a concrete example.
Along with this ordinary legislative procedure (as it is also known), the assent and consultation procedures have not disappeared. Assent procedure gives Parliament veto rights and consultation allows Parliament to give its opinion.
The Parliament also has political initiative power which means that it can ask the Commission to present legislative proposals to the Council.
The Parliament, in collaboration with the Council, draws up the annual budget of the European Union. As a result of changes made by the Lisbon Treaty, the Commission prepares a budget plan that it presents to Council and Parliament. The Council then adopts a position that it conveys to the European Parliament. If the Parliament approves the Council’s position or abstains from making a judgment, the budget is adopted; but if Parliament adopts amendments, the budget plan is sent back to Council and Commission. A Conciliation Committee is called and given the responsibility of reaching a common plan within 21 days. Finally and as a last resort, it is up to Parliament to reject or approve this common plan (with a majority of members and 3/5 of the votes cast).
Parliament plays a decisive role in the investiture of the European Commission. Its president is nominated with the approval of the European Parliament (by absolute majority) at the proposal of Council. It can also call a motion of censure on the Commission (with a majority of 2/3 of the votes cast and a majority of Parliament members) which must then collectively resign or discharge a commissioner.
Also regarding control, the European Parliament can also ask questions (written or oral) of the Council and Commission, receive petitions from European citizens and create temporary committees of inquiry in the case of breaches or poor application of community law. Lastly, it has right of recourse at the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Currently the European Parliament has 753 MEPs elected for a five-year period that can be renewed. The Lisbon Treaty has made a provision for this number to increase to 751 but this change will only take effect in 2014.
Discover the European Parliament, how it works and how it is divided into political groups with our fun and informative graph.
The division of seats by Member State follows the rule known as “degressive proportionality” which takes the population of each Member State into account but this advantage decreases the larger the population. As a result, small countries are over-represented e.g. Luxembourg has one MEP for 76,000 people while Germany has one MEP for 860,000 people. France has 74 MEPs.
The Parliament has four main bodies:
- The Presidency: The President manages the overall work of the European Parliament and its bodies, assisted by 14 vice-presidents. Elected for two and a half years with possible renewal, he manages Parliament activities and chairs the plenary sessions, the Bureau meetings and the Conference of Presidents. He also represents the Parliament in external relations. From 2007 to 2009, the president was Hans-Gert Pöttering (EPP). Jerzy Buzek (EPP), a Polish MEP, succeeded him.
- The Conference of Presidents: This is a political body of the European Parliament. It brings together the Presidents of each of the political groups represented in Parliament in order to plan the work and legislative programme (calendar and agenda of the plenary sessions, composition of the committees and delegations as well as the division of competency among these). It also plays an intermediary role in Parliament’s relations with the other community institutions, third countries and extra-Community organisations.
- The Bureau : this is made up of the President of the European Parliament, the 14 vice-presidents and the five quaestors in a monitoring capacity. It resolves administrative, personnel and organisational issues and establishes the Parliament’s budget estimates.
- The Secretariat général : under the authority of the Secretary General, this refers to the 5,000 civil servants recruited through competitions in all the countries of the Union who work for the European Parliament (parliamentary assistants, interpreters, translators etc.).
To prepare the European Parliament’s work for the plenary session, the MEPs divide up into permanent committees that are each specialised in a particular field. They have meetings once or twice a month that are open to the public to develop legislative proposals.
There are twenty permanent committees and two special committees made up of between 24 and 76 MEPs:
Foreign Affairs ( Human Rights and Security and Defence) – Development – International Trade – Budgets – Budgetary Control – Economic and Monetary Affairs – Employment and Social Affairs – Environment, Public Health and Food Security – Industry, Research and Energy – Internal Markets and Consumer Protection – Transport and Tourism – Regional Development – Agriculture and Rural Development – Fisheries – Culture and Education – Legal Affairs – Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs – Constitutional Affairs – Women’s Rights and Gender Equality – Petitions
Special committees: Financial, Economic and Social Crisis – Policy Challenges
MEPs do not sit according to their national delegation but rather they are grouped according to their political allegiances. Today there are seven groups:
The majority group is the European People’s Party, followed by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. In order to create a group, a minimum of 25 MEPs coming from at least one quarter of Member States is necessary. The MEPs who do not belong to any political party are known as non-attached members.
Before each vote, the groups study reports from parliamentary committees and propose amendments. The official position of the group is decided through discussions although no member is required to vote in a particular way.
The European Parliament sits in Strasbourg but has several places of work: Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg. The twelve plenary session of the year – one per month except in August (none) and September (two) – take place in Strasbourg. The parliamentary committee meetings, to be close to the Council, take place in Brussels as do the six additional plenary sessions that take place every year. In addition, Luxembourg hosts the Secretariat General (administration and translation/interpreting services).
The Parliament also has a permanent representation in each Member State.
Last update : August 2011