European Parliament

European Parliament
European Parliament
7th European Parliament
Coat of arms or logo
Type Lower house
President Jerzy Buzek, EPP
since 14 July 2009
Vice Presidents
since 14 July 2009
Leader of largest
political group
Joseph Daul, EPP
since 9 January 2007
Leader of 2nd largest
political group
Martin Schulz, S&D
since 5 July 2004
Members 736 MEPs
2009 European Parliament Composition.svg
Political groups

     EPP (265)
     S&D (185)
     ALDE (84)
     ECR (56)
     Greens – EFA (55)
     EUL-NGL (35)
     EFD (27)

     Non-Inscrits (29)
Voting system Party list, STV and First Past the Post[1]
Last election 4–7 June 2009
Meeting place
Hemicycle of European Parliament, Strasbourg, with chamber orchestra performing-cropped.jpg
1st: Louise Weiss: Strasbourg, France (image)
2nd: Espace Léopold: Brussels, Belgium
Secretariat: Luxembourg & Brussels
European Union
Flag of the European Union

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The European Parliament (abbreviated as Europarl or the EP) is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union (EU). Together with the Council of the European Union (the Council) and the Commission, it exercises the legislative function of the EU and it has been described as one of the most powerful legislatures in the world.[2] The Parliament is composed of 736 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament), who serve the second largest democratic electorate in the world (after India) and the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world (375 million eligible voters in 2009).[3][4]

It has been directly elected every five years by universal suffrage since 1979. Although the European Parliament has legislative power that such bodies as those above do not possess, it does not formally possess legislative initiative, as most state parliaments within the Union do.[5][6][7] Parliament is the "first institution" of the EU (mentioned first in the treaties, having ceremonial precedence over all authority at European level),[8] and shares equal legislative and budgetary powers with the Council (except a few areas where the special legislative procedures apply). It likewise has equal control over the EU budget. Finally, the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is accountable to Parliament: in particular Parliament elects the President of the Commission, and approves (or not) the appointment of the Commission as a whole. It can subsequently force the Commission as a body to resign by adopting a motion of censure.[5]

The President of the European Parliament (Parliament's speaker) is currently Jerzy Buzek (EPP), elected in July 2009. He presides over a multi-party chamber, the two largest groups being the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). The last Union-wide elections were the 2009 Parliamentary Elections. Parliament has two meeting places, namely the Louise Weiss building in Strasbourg, France, which serves for twelve four-day plenary sessions per year and is the official seat, and the Espace Léopold (Dutch: Leopoldruimte) complex in Brussels, Belgium, the larger of the two, which serves for committee meetings, political groups and complementary plenary sessions. The Secretariat of the European Parliament, the Parliament's administrative body, is based in Luxembourg.[9]



The Parliament, like the other institutions, was not designed in its current form when it first met on 10 September 1952. One of the oldest common institutions, it began as the "Common Assembly" of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). It was a consultative assembly of 78 parliamentarians drawn from the national parliaments of member states (see dual mandate), having no legislative powers.[10][11] This change since its foundation was highlighted by Professor David Farrell of the University of Manchester;[2]

For much of its life, the European Parliament could have been justly labeled a 'multi-lingual talking shop'. But this is no longer the case: the EP is now one of the most powerful legislatures in the world both in terms of its legislative and executive oversight powers.

Its development since its foundation is a testament to the evolution of the Union's structures without one clear "master plan". Some such as Tom Reid of the Washington Post said of the Union, "nobody would have deliberately designed a government as complex and as redundant as the EU".[12] Even the Parliament's two seats, which have switched several times, are a result of various agreements or lack of agreements.[10]

Consultative assembly

The body was not mentioned in the original Schuman Declaration. It was assumed or hoped that difficulties with the British would be resolved to allow the Council of Europe's Assembly to perform the task. A separate Assembly was introduced during negotiations on the Treaty as an institution which would counterbalance and monitor the executive while providing democratic legitimacy.[10] The wording of the ECSC Treaty demonstrated the leaders desire for more than a normal consultative assembly by using the term "representatives of the people" and allowed for direct election. Its early importance was highlighted when the Assembly was given the task of drawing up the draft treaty to establish a European Political Community. In this, the Ad Hoc Assembly was established on 13 September 1952[13] with extra members but after the failure of the proposed European Defence Community the project was dropped.[14]

Session of the Council of Europe's Assembly in the former House of Europe in Strasbourg in January 1967

Despite this the European Economic Community and Euratom were established in 1958 by the Treaties of Rome. The Common Assembly was shared by all three communities (which had separate executives) and it renamed itself the "European Parliamentary Assembly."[10] The first meeting was held on 19 March 1958 having been set up in Luxembourg, it elected Schuman as its president and on 13 May it rearranged itself to sit according to political ideology rather than nationality.[15] This is seen as the birth of the modern European Parliament, with Parliament's 50 years celebrations being held in March 2008 rather than 2002.[16]

The three communities merged their remaining organs as the European Communities in 1967 and the body was renamed to the current "European Parliament" in 1962.[10] In 1970 the Parliament was granted power over areas of the Community's budget, which were expanded to the whole budget in 1975.[17] Under the Rome Treaties, the Parliament should have become elected. However the Council was required to agree a uniform voting system before hand, which it failed to do. The Parliament threatened to take the Council to the European Court of Justice leading to a compromise whereby the Council would agree to elections, but the issue of voting systems would be put off till a later date.[18]

Elected Parliament

The emblem of Parliament until 1983

In 1979, its members were directly elected for the first time. This sets it apart from similar institutions such as those of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or Pan-African Parliament which are appointed.[10][19][20] After that first election, the parliament held its first session on 11 July 1979, electing Simone Veil MEP as its President. Veil was also the first female President of the Parliament since it was formed as the Common Assembly.[21]

As an elected body, the Parliament began to draft proposals addressing the functioning of the EU. For example in 1984, inspired by its previous work on the Political Community, it drafted the "draft Treaty establishing the European Union" (also known as the 'Spinelli Plan' after its rapporteur Altiero Spinelli MEP). Although it was not adopted, many ideas were later implemented by other treaties.[22] Furthermore the Parliament began holding votes on proposed Commission Presidents from the 1980s, before it was given any formal right to veto.[23]

Since the election the membership of the European Parliament has simply expanded whenever new nations have joined (the membership was also adjusted upwards in 1994 after German reunification). Following this the Treaty of Nice imposed a cap on the number of members to be elected, 732.[10]

Palace of Europe, Parliament's Strasbourg hemicycle until 1999

Like the other institutions, the Parliament's seat was not yet fixed. The provisional arrangements placed Parliament in Strasbourg, while the Commission and Council had their seats in Brussels. In 1985 the Parliament, wishing to be closer to these institutions, built a second chamber in Brussels and moved some of its work there despite protests from some states. A final agreement was eventually reached by the European Council in 1992. It stated the Parliament would retain its formal seat in Strasbourg, where twelve sessions a year would be held, but with all other parliamentary activity in Brussels. This two seat arrangement was contested by Parliament but was later enshrined in the Treaty of Amsterdam. To this day the institution's locations are a source of contention.[24]

The Parliament gained more powers from successive treaties, namely through the extension of the ordinary legislative procedure (then called the codecision procedure),[25] and in 1999, the Parliament forced the resignation of the Santer Commission.[26] The Parliament had refused to approve the Community budget over allegations of fraud and mis-management in the Commission. The two main parties took on a government-opposition dynamic for the first time during the crisis which ended in the Commission resigning en masse, the first of any forced resignation, in the face of an impending censure from the Parliament.[27]

Barroso I

In 2004, Parliament forced President Barroso to change his proposed Commission team.

In 2004, following the largest trans-national election in history, despite the European Council choosing a President from the largest political group (the EPP), the Parliament again exerted pressure on the Commission. During the Parliament's hearings of the proposed Commissioners MEPs raised doubts about some nominees with the Civil liberties committee rejecting Rocco Buttiglione from the post of Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security over his views on homosexuality. That was the first time the Parliament had ever voted against an incoming Commissioner and despite Barroso's insistence upon Buttiglione the Parliament forced Buttiglione to be withdrawn. A number of other Commissioners also had to be withdrawn or reassigned before Parliament allowed the Barroso Commission to take office.[28][29]

Rocco Buttiglione was the first Commission designate to be voted down by Parliament

Along with the extension of the ordinary legislative procedure, the Parliament's democratic mandate has given it greater control over legislation against the other institutions. In voting on the Bolkestein directive in 2006, the Parliament voted by a large majority for over 400 amendments that changed the fundamental principle of the law. The Financial Times described it in the following terms:[30]

The European parliament has suddenly flourished. It marks another shift in power between the three central EU institutions. Last week's vote suggests that the directly elected MEPs, in spite of their multitude of ideological, national and historical allegiances, have started to coalesce as a serious and effective EU institution, just as enlargement has greatly complicated negotiations inside both the Council and Commission.

In 2007, for the first time, Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini included Parliament in talks on the second Schengen Information System even though MEPs only needed to be consulted on parts of the package. After that experiment, Frattini indicated he would like to include Parliament in all justice and criminal matters, informally pre-empting the new powers they could gain as part of the Treaty of Lisbon.[31] Between 2007 and 2009, a special working group on parliamentary reform implemented a series of changes to modernise the institution such as more speaking time for rapporteurs, increase committee co-operation and other efficiency reforms.[32][33]

Recent history

Parliament's overhaul of the Bolkestein directive signalled a major growth in status for Parliament

The Lisbon Treaty finally came into force on 1 December 2009, granting Parliament powers over the entire of the EU budget, making Parliament's legislative powers equal to the Council's in nearly all areas and linking the appointment of the Commission President to Parliament's own elections.[34] Despite some calls for the parties to put forward candidates before hand, only the EPP (which had re-secured their position as largest party) had one in re-endorsing Barroso.[35]

Barroso gained the support of the European Council for a second term and secured majority support from the Parliament in September 2009. Parliament voted 382 votes in favour and 219 votes against (117 abstentions ) with support of the European People's Party, European Conservatives and Reformists and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.[36] The liberals gave support after Barroso gave them a number of concessions; the liberals previously joined the socialists' call for a delayed vote (the EPP had wanted to approve Barroso in July of that year).[37]

Once Barroso put forward the candidates for his next Commission, another opportunity to gain concessions arose. Bulgarian nominee Rumiana Jeleva was forced to step down by Parliament due to concerns over her experience and financial interests. She only had the support of the EPP which began to retaliate on left wing candidates before Jeleva gave in and was replaced (setting back the final vote further).[38]

Before the final vote, Parliament demanded a number of concessions as part of a future working agreement under the new Lisbon Treaty. The deal includes that Parliament's President will attend high level Commission meetings. Parliament will have a seat in the EU's Commission-lead international negotiations and have a right to information on agreements. However Parliament secured only an observer seat. Parliament also did not secure a say over the appointment of delegation heads and special representatives for foreign policy. Although they will appear before parliament after they have been appointed by the High Representative. One major internal power was that Parliament wanted a pledge from the Commission that it would put forward legislation when parliament requests. Barroso considered this an infringement on the Commission's powers but did agree to respond within three months. Most requests are already responded to positively.[39]

During the setting up of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Parliament used its control over the EU budget to influence the shape of the EEAS. MEPs had aimed at getting greater oversight over the EEAS by linking it to the Commission and having political deputies to the High Representative. MEPs didn't manage to get everything they demanded, however they got broader financial control over the new body.[40][41]

Powers and functions

The Parliament's hemicycle (debating chamber) in Strasbourg

The Parliament and Council can be regarded as two chambers in a bicameral legislative branch of the European Union, with law-making power being officially distributed equally between both parliamentary chambers. However there are some differences from national legislatures; for example, neither the Parliament nor the Council have the power of legislative initiative (except for the fact that the Council has the power in some intergovernmental matters). In Community matters, this is a power uniquely reserved for the European Commission (the executive). Therefore, while Parliament can amend and reject legislation, to make a proposal for legislation, it needs the Commission to draft a bill before anything can become law.[42] However, the value of such a power is questioned, noting that only 15% of such initiatives in national parliaments become law due to the lack of executive support.[43] Yet it has been argued by former Parliament president Hans-Gert Pöttering that as the Parliament does have the right to ask the Commission to draft such legislation, and as the Commission is following Parliament's proposals more and more Parliament does have a de facto right of legislative initiative.[7]

The Parliament also has a great deal of indirect influence, through non-binding resolutions and committee hearings, as a "pan-European soapbox" with the ear of thousands of Brussels-based journalists. There is also an indirect effect on foreign policy; the Parliament must approve all development grants, including those overseas. For example, the support for post-war Iraq reconstruction, or incentives for the cessation of Iranian nuclear development, must be supported by the Parliament. Parliamentary support was also required for the transatlantic passenger data-sharing deal with the United States.[44] Finally, Parliament holds a non-binding vote on new EU treaties but cannot veto it. However when Parliament threatened to vote down the Nice Treaty, the Belgian and Italian Parliaments said they would veto the treaty on the European Parliament's behalf.[45]

Legislative procedure

With each new treaty, the powers of the Parliament, in terms of its role in the Union's legislative procedures, have expanded. The procedure which has slowly become dominant is the "ordinary legislative procedure" (previously named "codecision procedure"), which provides an equal footing between Parliament and Council. In particular, under the procedure, the Commission presents a proposal to Parliament and the Council which can only become law if both agree on a text, which they do (or not) through successive readings up to a maximum of three. In its first reading, Parliament may send amendments to the Council which can either adopt the text with those amendments or send back a "common position". That position may either be approved by Parliament, or it may reject the text by an absolute majority, causing it to fail, or it may adopt further amendments, also by an absolute majority. If the Council does not approve these, then a "Conciliation Committee" is formed. The Committee is composed of the Council members plus an equal number of MEPs who seek to agree a compromise. Once a position is agreed, it has to be approved by Parliament, by a simple majority.[5][46] This is also aided by Parliament's mandate as the only directly democratic institution, which has given it leeway to have greater control over legislation than other institutions, for example over its changes to the Bolkestein directive in 2006.[30]

The few other areas that operate the special legislative procedures are justice & home affairs, budget and taxation and certain aspects of other policy areas: such as the fiscal aspects of environmental policy. In these areas, the Council or Parliament decide law alone.[47] The procedure also depends upon which type of institutional act is being used.[5] The strongest act is a regulation, an act or law which is directly applicable in its entirety. Then there are directives which bind member states to certain goals which they must achieve. They do this through their own laws and hence have room to manoeuvre in deciding upon them. A decision is an instrument which is focused at a particular person or group and is directly applicable. Institutions may also issue recommendations and opinions which are merely non-binding, declarations.[48] There is a further document which does not follow normal procedures, this is a "written declaration" which is similar to an early day motion used in the Westminster system. It is a document proposed by up to five MEPs on a matter within the EU's activities used to launch a debate on that subject. Having been posted outside the entrance to the hemicycle, members can sign the declaration and if a majority do so it is forwarded to the President and announced to the plenary before being forwarded to the other institutions and formally noted in the minutes.[49]


The legislative branch officially holds the Union's budgetary authority with powers gained through the Budgetary Treaties of the 1970s and the Lisbon Treaty. The EU budget is subject to a form of the ordinary legislative procedure with a single reading giving Parliament power over the entire budget (before 2009, its influence was limited to certain areas) on an equal footing to the Council. If there is a disagreement between them, it is taken to a conciliation committee as it is for legislative proposals. If the joint conciliation text is not approved, the Parliament may adopt it budget definitively.[47]

The Parliament is also responsible for discharging the implementation of previous budgets based on the annual report of the European Court of Auditors. It has refused to approve the budget only twice, in 1984 and in 1998. On the latter occasion it led to the resignation of the Santer Commission; highlighting how the budgetary power gives Parliament a great deal of power over the Commission.[18][27][50] Parliament also makes extensive use of its budgetary, and other powers, elsewhere; for example in the setting up of the European External Action Service, Parliament has a defacto veto over its design as it has to approve the budgetary and staff changes.[40]

Control of the executive

Unlike most EU states, which usually operate parliamentary systems, there is a separation of powers between the executive and legislative which makes the European Parliament more akin to the United States Congress than an EU state legislature.[43] The President of the European Commission is proposed by the European Council on the basis of the European elections to Parliament.[34] That proposal has to be approved by the Parliament (by a simple majority) who "elect" the President according to the treaties. Following the approval of the Commission President, the members of the Commission are proposed by the President in accord with the member-states. Each Commissioner comes before a relevant parliamentary committee hearing covering the proposed portfolio. They are then, as a body, approved or rejected by the Parliament.[51][52] In practice, the Parliament has never voted against a President or his Commission, but it did seem likely when the Barroso Commission was put forward. The resulting pressure forced the proposal to be withdrawn and changed to be more acceptable to parliament.[28] That pressure was seen as an important sign by some of the evolving nature of the Parliament and its ability to make the Commission accountable, rather than being a rubber stamp for candidates. Furthermore, in voting on the Commission, MEPs also voted along party lines, rather than national lines, despite frequent pressure from national governments on their MEPs. This cohesion and willingness to use the Parliament's power ensured greater attention from national leaders, other institutions and the public—who previously gave the lowest ever turnout for the Parliament's elections.[53]

The Parliament also has the power to censure the Commission if they have a two-thirds majority which will force the resignation of the entire Commission from office. As with approval, this power has never been used but it was threatened to the Santer Commission, who subsequently resigned of their own accord. There are a few other controls, such as: the requirement of Commission to submit reports to the Parliament and answer questions from MEPs; the requirement of the President-in-office of the Council to present its programme at the start of their presidency; the obligation on the President of the European Council to report to Parliament after each of its meetings; the right of MEPs to make requests for legislation and policy to the Commission; and the right to question members of those institutions (e.g. "Commission Question Time" every Tuesday).[23][52] At present, MEPs may ask a question on any topic whatsoever, but in July 2008 MEPs voted to limit questions to those within the EU's mandate and ban offensive or personal questions.[54]

Supervisory powers

The Parliament also has other powers of general supervision, mainly granted by the Maastricht Treaty.[55] The Parliament has the power to set up a Committee of Inquiry, for example over mad cow disease or CIA detention flights—the former led to the creation of the European veterinary agency. The Parliament can call other institutions to answer questions and if necessary to take them to court if they break EU law or treaties.[56] Furthermore it has powers over the appointment of the members of the Court of Auditors[57] and the president and executive board of the European Central Bank. The ECB president is also obliged to present an annual report to the parliament.[56]

The European Ombudsman is elected by the Parliament, who deals with public complaints against all institutions.[56] Petitions can also be brought forward by any EU citizen on a matter within the EU's sphere of activities. The Committee on Petitions hears cases, some 1500 each year, sometimes presented by the citizen themselves at the Parliament. While the Parliament attempts to resolve the issue as a mediator they do resort to legal proceedings if it is necessary to resolve the citizens dispute.[58]

National apportionment of MEP seats (total 736)
99 (13.5%)
72 (9.8%)
72 (9.8%)
 United Kingdom
72 (9.8%)
50 (6.8%)
50 (6.8%)
33 (4.5%)
25 (3.4%)
22 (3.0%)
 Czech Republic
22 (3.0%)
22 (3.0%)
22 (3.0%)
22 (3.0%)
18 (2.4%)
17 (2.3%)
17 (2.3%)
13 (1.8%)
13 (1.8%)
13 (1.8%)
12 (1.6%)
12 (1.6%)
8 (1.1%)
7 (1.0%)
6 (0.8%)
6 (0.8%)
6 (0.8%)
5 (0.7%)


The parliamentarians are known in English as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). They are elected every five years by universal adult suffrage and sit according to political allegiance; about a third are women. Before 1979 they were appointed by their national parliaments.[14][59]

As states are allocated seats according to population, the maximum number of MEPs is 736. However, enlargements may lead to this number being exceeded until the following election, for example between 2007 and 2009 due to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria[14][60] however these rules have been changed under the Treaty of Lisbon. Under Lisbon, there will be 751 members (however, as the President cannot vote while in the chair there will only be 750 voting members at any one time).[61] In addition, the maximum number of seats allocated to a state will be lowered to ninety-six, from the current ninety-nine, and the minimum number of seats will be raised to six, from the current five. These seats are distributed according to "degressive proportionality", meaning that the larger the state, the more citizens that are represented per MEP. It is intended that the new system, including revising the seating well before elections, can avoid political horse trading when the numbers have to be revised.[62]

Due to the delay in ratifying the Lisbon Treaty the seventh parliament was elected under the lower Nice Treaty cap. A small scale treaty amendment is, as of October 2011, nearing the end of ratification. This amendment would bring in transitional provisions to allow the extra MEPs to be elected or appointed before the 2014 election.[63] Germany would be the only state to lose members, these extra seats would not be removed until the 2014 election.[64]

Before 2009, members received the same salary as members of their national parliament. However as of 2009 a new members statute came into force, after years of attempts, which gives all members an equal monthly pay of 7,000 euro each, subject to a European Union tax and which can also be taxed nationally. MEPs would retire at 63 and receive the whole of their pension from the Parliament. Travelling expenses would also be given based on actual cost rather than a flat rate as happens now.[65] Besides their pay, members are granted a number of privileges and immunities. To ensure their free movement to and from the Parliament, they are accorded by their own states the facilities accorded to senior officials travelling abroad and by other state governments the facilities of visiting foreign representatives. When in their own state they have all the immunities accorded to national parliamentarians, and in other states they have immunity from detention and legal proceedings. However immunity cannot be claimed when a member is found committing a criminal offence and the Parliament also has the right to strip a member of their immunity.[66]

Political groups

Group Leader(s) MEPs
  EPP Joseph Daul 264 2009 European Parliament Composition.svg
S&D Martin Schulz 185
ALDE Guy Verhofstadt 85
ECR Jan Zahradil 56
G-EFA Daniel Cohn-Bendit
Rebecca Harms
GUE-NGL Lothar Bisky 34
EFD Nigel Farage
Francesco Speroni
Non-Inscrits MEPs without group 29 Source: European Parliament

MEPs in Parliament are organised into seven different parliamentary groups, including over thirty non-attached members known as non-inscrits. The two largest groups are the European People's Party (EPP) and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D). These two groups have dominated the Parliament for much of its life, continuously holding between 50 and 70 percent of the seats together. No single group has ever held a majority in Parliament.[67] As a result of being broad alliances of national parties, European groups parties are very decentralised and hence have more in common with parties in federal states like Germany or the United States than unitary states like the majority of the EU states.[43] Although, the European groups, between 2004 and 2009, were actually more cohesive than their US counterparts.[68][69]

Groups are often based on a single European political party such as the socialist group (before 2009). However they can, like the liberal group, include more than one European party as well as national parties and independents.[70] For a group to be recognised, it needs 25 MEPs from seven different countries.[71] Once recognised, groups receive financial subsidies from the parliament and guaranteed seats on Committees, creating an incentive for the formation of groups. However some controversy occurred with the establishment of the short-lived Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty (ITS) due to its ideology; the members of the group were far-right, so there were concerns about public funds going towards such a group.[72] There were attempts to change the rules to block the formation of ITS, but that never came to fruition. They were, however, blocked from gaining leading positions on committees — traditionally (by agreement, not a rule) shared among all parties.[73] When this group engaged in infighting, causing the withdrawal of some members, its size fell below the recognisable limit causing its collapse.[74]

Grand coalition

Given that the Parliament does not form the government in the traditional sense of a Parliamentary system, its politics have developed along more consensual lines rather than majority rule of competing parties and coalitions, again being more similar to the German Bundestag or Austrian Nationalrat than to a Westminster or French style Parliamentary system.[citation needed] Indeed for much of its life it has been dominated by a grand coalition of the European People's Party and the Party of European Socialists. The two major parties tend to co-operate to find a compromise between their two groups leading to proposals endorsed by huge majorities.[75] However, this does not always produce agreement, and each may instead try to build other alliances, the EPP normally with other centre-right or right wing Groups and the PES with centre-left or left wing Groups. Sometimes, the Liberal Group is then in the pivotal position.There are also occasions where very sharp party political divisions have emerged, for example over the resignation of the Santer Commission;[27]

When the initial allegations against the Commission emerged, they were directed primarily against Édith Cresson and Manuel Marín, both socialist members. When the parliament was considering refusing to discharge the Community budget, President Jacques Santer stated that a no vote would be tantamount to a vote of no confidence. The Socialist group supported the Commission and saw the issue as an attempt by the EPP to discredit their party ahead of the 1999 elections. Socialist leader, Pauline Green MEP, attempted a vote of confidence and the EPP put forward counter motions. During this period the two parties took on similar roles to a government-opposition dynamic, with the Socialists supporting the executive and EPP renouncing its previous coalition support and voting it down.[27] Politicisation such as this has been increasing, in 2007 Simon Hix of the London School of Economics noted that:[2]

Our work also shows that politics in the European Parliament is becoming increasingly based around party and ideology. Voting is increasingly split along left-right lines, and the cohesion of the party groups has risen dramatically, particularly in the fourth and fifth parliaments. So there are likely to be policy implications here too.

During the fifth term, 1999 to 2004, there was a break in the grand coalition resulting in a centre-right coalition between the Liberal and People's parties.[76] This was reflected in the Presidency of the Parliament with the terms being shared between the EPP and the ELDR, rather than the EPP and Socialists.[77] In the following term the liberal group grew to hold 88 seats, the largest number of seats held by any third party in Parliament.[78]


Election results by political group, 1979 to 2009. Left to right;
  Socialist Group
  CDI or TGI
  Radical Alliance (Liberals)

Elections have taken place, directly in every member-state, every five years since 1979. As of 2009 there have been seven elections. Occasionally, when a nation joins mid-term, a by-election will be held to elect their representatives. This has happened four times, most recently when Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 (see below). Elections take place across four days according to local custom and, apart from having to be proportional, the electoral system is chosen by the member-state. This includes allocation of sub-national constituencies; while most members have a national list, some, like the UK and France, divide their allocation between regions. Seats are allocated to member-states according to their population, with no state having more than 99, but no fewer than 5, to maintain proportionality.[79]

The most recent Union-wide elections to the European Parliament were the European elections of 2009, held in June of that year. They were the largest simultaneous transnational elections ever held anywhere in the world, since nearly 380 million citizens were eligible to vote. The proportion of MEPs elected in 2009 who were female was 35%; in 1979 it was just 16.5%. There are a number of proposals to "dress up" the elections to attract greater public attention to them. These include most notably the idea of linking them more closely to the Commission presidency. This would be by having political parties running with candidates for the job, so the largest party would essentially be forming the government, as in the parliamentary system of government.[80][81][82] This was attempted in 2004, however only the European Green Party, which was the first true pan-European party to be established with a common campaign,[83] proposed a candidate for the post of President: Daniel Cohn-Bendit.[35] Meanwhile, the closest any other party had come in that election was when the People's Party mentioned four or five people they'd like to be President.[84] In 2009, the incumbent President Barroso was formally nominated by the EPP, yet the Socialists were unable to agree on a candidate, in part due to some of their national leaders backing Barroso, leading to there only being one declared candidate (whose party formed the largest group regardless).[85]

It is hoped such changes would add legitimacy and counter the falling turnout[82] which has dropped consistently every year since the first election, and from 1999 it has been below 50%, though of the same order of magnitude as turnout in US Congress elections.[86] In 2007 both Bulgaria and Romania elected their MEPs in by-elections, having joined at the beginning of 2007. The Bulgarian and Romanian elections saw two of the lowest turnouts for European elections, just 28.6%[87] and 28.3% respectively.[88]


The hemicycle in Brussels

Each year the activities of the Parliament cycle between committee weeks where reports are discussed in committees and interparliamentary delegations meet, political group weeks for members to discuss work within their political groups and session weeks where members spend 3½ days in Strasbourg for part-sessions. In addition six 2-day part-sessions are organised in Brussels throughout the year. Four weeks are allocated as constituency week to allow members to do exclusively constituency work. Finally there are no meetings planned during the summer weeks.[89] The Parliament has the power to meet without being convened by another authority. Its meetings are partly controlled by the treaties but are otherwise up to Parliament according to its own "Rules of Procedure" (the regulations governing the parliament).[90]

During sessions, members may speak after being called on by the President. Members of the Council or Commission may also attend and speak in debates.[91][92] Partly due to the need for translation, and the politics of consensus in the chamber, debates tend to be calmer and more polite than, say, the Westminster system.[93] Voting is conducted primarily by a show of hands, that may be checked on request by electronic voting.[94] Votes of MEPs are not recorded in either case however, that only occurs when there is a roll-call ballot. This is required for the final votes on legislation and also whenever a political group or 30 MEPs request it. The number of roll-call votes has increased with time. Votes can also be a completely secret ballot (for example when the President is elected).[95][96] All recorded votes, along with minutes and legislation, are recorded in the Official Journal of the European Union and can be accessed online.[97] Votes usually do not follow a debate, but rather they are grouped with other due votes on specific occasions, usually at noon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays. This is because the length of the vote is unpredictable and if it continues for longer than allocated it can disrupt other debates and meetings later in the day.[98]

Members are arranged in a hemicycle according to their political groups (in the Common Assembly, prior to 1958, members sat alphabetically[99]) who are ordered mainly by left to right, but some smaller groups are placed towards the outer ring of the Parliament. All desks are equipped with microphones, headphones for translation and electronic voting equipment. The leaders of the groups sit on the front benches at the centre, and in the very centre is a podium for guest speakers. The remaining half of the circular chamber is primarily composed of the raised area where the President and staff sit. Further benches are provided between the sides of this area and the MEPs, these are taken up by the Council on the far left and the Commission on the far right. Both the Brussels and Strasbourg hemicycle roughly follow this layout with only minor differences.[100] The hemicycle design is a compromise between the different Parliamentary systems. The British-based system has the different groups directly facing each other while the French-based system is a semicircle (and the traditional German system had all members in rows facing a rostrum for speeches). Although the design is mainly based on a semicircle, the opposite ends of the spectrum do still face each other.[99] With access to the chamber limited, entrance is controlled by ushers who aid MEPs in the chamber (for example in delivering documents). The ushers can also occasionally act as a form of police in enforcing the President, for example in ejecting an MEP who is disrupting the session (although this is rare). The first head of protocol in the Parliament was French, so many of the duties in the Parliament are based on the French model first developed following the French Revolution. The 180 ushers are highly visible in the Parliament, dressed in black tails and wearing a silver chain, and are recruited in the same manner as the European civil service. The President is allocated a personal usher.[101]

President and organisation

President Jerzy Buzek, the first President of an EU institution to come from a post-communist state.

The President, currently Jerzy Buzek MEP of the EPP, is essentially the speaker of the Parliament. He or she presides over the plenary when it is in session and the President's signature is required for all acts adopted by co-decision, including the EU budget. The President is also responsible for representing the Parliament externally, including in legal matters, and for the application of the rules of procedure. He or she is elected for two-and-a-half-year terms, meaning two elections per parliamentary term.[102][103]

In most countries, the protocol of the head of state comes before all others, however in the EU the Parliament is listed as the first institution, and hence the protocol of its President comes before any other European, or national, protocol. The gifts given to numerous visiting dignitaries depend upon the President. President Josep Borrell MEP of Spain gave his counterparts a crystal cup created by an artist from Barcelona who had engraved upon it parts of the Charter of Fundamental Rights among other things.[8]

A number of notable figures have been President of the Parliament and its predecessors. The first President was Paul-Henri Spaak MEP,[104] one of the founding fathers of the Union. Other founding fathers include Alcide de Gasperi MEP and Robert Schuman MEP. The two female Presidents were Simone Veil MEP in 1979 (first President of the elected Parliament) and Nicole Fontaine MEP in 1999, both Frenchwomen.[105] The current president, Jerzy Buzek is the first East-Central European to lead an EU institution, a former Prime Minister of Poland who rose out of the Solidarity movement in Poland that helped overthrow communism in the Eastern Bloc.[106]

During the election of a President, the previous President (or, if unable to, one of the previous Vice-Presidents) presides over the chamber.[107] Prior to 2009, the oldest member fulfilled this role[108] but the rule was changed to prevent far-right French MEP Jean-Marie Le Pen taking the chair.[107]

Below the President, there are 14 Vice-Presidents who chair debates when the President is not in the chamber. There are a number of other bodies and posts responsible for the running of parliament besides these speakers. The two main bodies are the Bureau, which is responsible for budgetary and administration issues, and the Conference of Presidents which is a governing body composed of the presidents of each of the parliament's political groups. Looking after the financial and administrative interests of members are six Quaestors.

As of 2011, the European Parliament budget was EUR 1,686 billion.[109] A 2008 report on the Parliament's finances highlighted certain overspending and miss-payments. Despite some MEPs calling for the report to be published, Parliamentary authorities had refused until an MEP broke confidentiality and leaked it.[110]

Committees and delegations

Parliament building in Brussels, where the committees meet

The Parliament has 20 Standing Committees consisting of 28 to 86 MEPs each (reflecting the political makeup of the whole Parliament) including a Chairman, a bureau and secretariat. They meet twice a month in public to draw up, amend to adopt legislative proposals and reports to be presented to the plenary.[111] The rapporteurs for a committee are supposed to present the view of the committee, although notably this has not always been the case. In the events leading to the resignation of the Santer Commission, the rapporteur went against the Budgetary Control Committee's narrow vote to discharge the budget, and urged the Parliament to reject it.[27]

Committees can also set up sub-committees (e.g. the Subcommittee on Human Rights) and temporary committees to deal with a specific topic (e.g. on extraordinary rendition). The chairs of the Committees co-ordinate their work through the "Conference of Committee Chairmen".[111] When co-decision was introduced it increased the Parliaments powers in a number of areas, but most notably those covered by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Previously this committee was considered by MEPs as a "Cinderella committee", however as it gained a new importance, it became more professional and rigorous attracting increasing attention to its work.[18]

A Committee room in the Parliament

The nature of the committees differ from their national counterparts as, although smaller in comparison to those of the United States Congress, the European Parliament's committees are unusually large by European standards with between eight and twelve dedicated members of staff and three to four support staff. Considerable administration, archives and research resources are also at the disposal of the whole Parliament when needed.[43]

Delegations of the Parliament are formed in a similar manner and are responsible for relations with Parliaments outside the EU. There are 34 delegations made up of around 15 MEPs, chairpersons of the delegations also cooperate in a conference like the committee chairs do. They include "Interparliamentary delegations" (maintain relations with Parliament outside the EU), "joint parliamentary committees" (maintaining relations with parliaments of states which are candidates or associates of the EU), the delegation to the ACP EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly and the delegation to the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly.[111] MEPs also participate in other international activities such as the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly, the Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue and through election observation in third countries.[112]

Translation and interpreting

Interpreting booths in the hemicycle simultaneously translate debates between 23 languages

Speakers in the European Parliament are entitled to speak in any of the EU's 23 official languages, ranging from English and German to Maltese and Irish. Simultaneous interpreting is offered in all plenary sessions, and all final texts of legislation are translated. With twenty-three languages, the European Parliament is the most multilingual parliament in the world[113] and the biggest employer of interpreters in the world (employing 350 full time and 400 free-lancers when there is higher demand).[114] Citizens may also address the Parliament in Basque, Catalan/Valencian and Galician.[115]

Usually a language is translated from a foreign tongue into a translator's native tongue. Due to the large number of languages, some being minor ones, since 1995 interpreting is sometimes done the opposite way, out of an interpreter's native tongue (the "retour" system). In addition, a speech in a minor language may be interpreted through a third language for lack of interpreters ("relay" interpreting) —for example, when interpreting out of Estonian into Maltese.[114] Interpreters need to be proficient in two other Union languages besides their native language. Due to the complexity of the issues, interpretation is not word for word. Instead, interpreters have to convey the political meaning of a speech, regardless of their own views. This requires detailed understanding of the politics and terms of the Parliament, involving a great deal of preparation beforehand (e.g. reading the documents in question). Difficulty can often arise when MEPs use colourful language, jokes and word play or speak too fast.[114]

While some see speaking their native language as an important part of their identity, and can speak more fluently in debates, interpretation and its cost has been criticised by some. A 2006 report by Alexander Stubb MEP highlighted that by only using English, French and German costs could be reduced from 118,000 per day (for 21 languages then—Romanian and Bulgarian having not yet been included) to €8,900 per day.[116] Although many see the ideal single language as being English due to its widespread usage, there is a campaign to make French the single tongue for all legal texts, due to the view that it is more clear and precise for legal purposes. Although this would not directly affect interpretation in the plenary, it would shift the balance towards French when discussing draft legislation.[117]

Because the proceedings are translated into all of the official EU languages, they have been used to make a multilingual corpus known as Europarl. It is widely used to train statistical machine translation systems.[118]


Meeting places of Parliament

The Parliament is based in three different cities with numerous buildings. A protocol attached to the Treaty of Amsterdam requires that 12 plenary sessions be held in Strasbourg (none in August but two in September), which is the Parliament's official seat, while extra part sessions as well as committee meetings are held in Brussels. Luxembourg hosts the Secretariat of the European Parliament.[9] The European Parliament is the only assembly in the world with more than one meeting place and one of the few that cannot decide its own location.[119]

The Strasbourg seat is seen as a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany, the Strasbourg region having been fought over by the two countries in the past. However it is questioned over the cost and inconvenience of having two seats for the parliament. While Strasbourg is the official seat, and sits alongside the Council of Europe (with which the "mutual cooperation" is being continuously "fostered"),[120] Brussels is home to nearly all other major EU institutions, with the majority of Parliament's work already being carried out there. Therefore despite Strasbourg being the main seat, it is the one most questioned, although some do believe Strasbourg should be the single capital.[121]

Critics have described the two-seat arrangement as a "travelling circus",[122] and there is a strong movement to establish Brussels as the sole seat. This is because the other political institutions (the Commission, Council and European Council) are located there, and hence Brussels is treated as the 'capital' of the EU. This movement has received strong backing through numerous figures, including the Commission First-Vice President who stated that "something that was once a very positive symbol of the EU reuniting France and Germany has now become a negative symbol—of wasting money, bureaucracy and the insanity of the Brussels institutions".[123] The Green party has also noted the environmental cost in a study led by Jean Lambert MEP and Caroline Lucas MEP; in addition to the extra 200 million euro spent on the extra seat, there are over 20,268 tonnes of additional carbon dioxide, undermining any environmental stance of the institution and the Union.[122] The campaign is further backed by a million-strong online petition started by Cecilia Malmström MEP.[124]

In 2006 there were allegations of irregularity in the charges made by the city of Strasbourg on buildings the Parliament rented which harmed the city's image further.[125] A poll of MEPs also found 89% of the respondents (39%) wanting a single seat, and 81% preferring Brussels.[126] Another, more academic, survey found 68% support.[2] However, as Parliament's seat is fixed by the treaties, it can only be changed by the Council unanimously, meaning it could be vetoed by a single country:[119] notably, France. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stated that its seat is "non-negotiable", having no intention of surrendering the French based seat.[127] In early 2011, the Parliament voted to scrap one of the Strasbourg sessions by holding two within a single week.[128] The mayor of Strasbourg officially reacted by stating "we will counter-attack by upturning the adversary's strength to our own profit, as a judoka would do."[129] As of July 2011, an absolute majority of MEPs are in favour of a single seat. [130]

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Further reading

External links

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