The European Parliament represents, in the words of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, 'the peoples of the States brought together in the European Community'. Some 375 million European citizens in 15 countries are now involved in the process of European integration through their 626 representatives in the European Parliament.
The first direct elections to the European Parliament were held in June 1979 when, only 34 years after the end of Second World War, the peoples of the nations of Europe, once torn apart by war, went to the polls to elect the members of a single parliament. Europeans could have devised no more powerful symbol of reconciliation.
The European Parliament, which derives its legitimacy from direct universal suffrage and is elected every five years, has steadily acquired greater influence and power through a series of treaties. These treaties, particularly the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, have transformed the European Parliament from a purely consultative assembly into a legislative parliament, exercising powers similar to those of the national parliaments.
How the European Parliament works
The European Parliament is the only Community institution that meets and deliberates in public. Its debates, opinions and resolutions are published in the Official Journal of the European Union.
The Presidency, the Bureau and the Conference of Presidents
The President represents Parliament on official occasions and in international relations, presides over its plenary sittings and chairs meetings of the Bureau and the Conference of Presidents.
The Bureau is the regulatory body that is responsible for Parliament's budget and for administrative, organisational and staff matters. In addition to the President and fourteen vice-presidents, it includes five quaestors who deal in a consultative capacity with administrative and financial matters relating to Members and their statute. The members of the Bureau are elected for a term of two-and-a-half years.
The Conference of Presidents comprises the President of Parliament and the political group chairs and is the political governing body of Parliament. It draws up the agenda for plenary sessions, fixes the timetable for the work of parliamentary bodies and establishes the terms of reference and size of parliamentary committees and delegations.
In order to prepare the work of Parliament's plenary sessions, Members participate in 17 standing committees.
In addition to these standing committees, Parliament can also set up subcommittees, temporary committees, which deal with specific problems, or committees of inquiry.
Joint parliamentary committees maintain relations with the parliaments of States linked to the European Union by association agreements.
Interparliamentary delegations do the same with the parliaments of many other countries and with international organisations.
Parliament's work is organised by a secretariat, headed by a Secretary-General with a permanent staff of about 3500, in addition to which there are political group staff and Members' assistants. Parliament's 11 working languages mean that one third of the staff work in the language service (translation and interpretation). However, despite the constraints of multilingualism and three places of work, Parliament's operating budget is only 1% of the EU budget, or one and a half euro a year for each person living in the Union.
Powers of the European Parliament
Like all parliaments, the European Parliament has three fundamental powers:
The normal legislative procedure is codecision (see Glossary). It puts the European Parliament and the Council on an equal footing and leads to the adoption of joint Council and European Parliament acts. Through the codecision procedure, many more Parliament amendments find their way into Community laws and no text can now be adopted without the formal agreement of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
Codecision is now one of Parliament's most important powers. The codecision procedure applies to the free movement of workers, creation of the internal market, research and technological development, the environment, consumer protection, education, culture and health. It was used, for example, when the European Parliament adopted the 'television without frontiers' directive prohibiting sporting events from being broadcast only in encrypted form. This procedure also allowed Parliament to secure much stricter rules on fuel quality and motor oil from the year 2000, as a means of making drastic cuts in atmospheric pollution.
Although codecision is the standard procedure, there are important areas, such as tax matters or the annual farm price review, in which Parliament simply gives an opinion.
The power of the purse
This is a significant power which allows the European Parliament to assert its political priorities. The European Parliament adopts the Union's budget for the following year each December. The budget does not come into force until it has been signed by the President of the European Parliament, giving the Union the financial resources it needs for the following year.
How is the budget adopted?
Since the 1970 and 1975 Luxembourg Treaties which created the Community's own resources, the European Parliament and the Council have become the two arms of the budgetary authority - in other words, they share the power of the purse.
Parliament has the last word on spending on the regions (European Regional Development Fund), the fight against unemployment, particularly among young people and women (European Social Fund), cultural and educational programmes, such as Erasmus and Socrates, and it can increases expenditure within a ceiling agreed with the Council and Commission. It uses its powers to increase the funds for humanitarian aid and refugee programmes. When it comes to spending on agriculture, Parliament can propose modifications but it is the Council which has the final say.
Where Parliament and the Council fail to agree on the amount of expenditure after two readings of the draft budget, between May and December, Parliament has the right to reject the budget as a whole and the procedure has to begin again. It is the President of Parliament's signature that makes the budget enforceable.
Who controls spending?
Having adopted the budget, Parliament also monitors the proper use of public funds through its Committee on Budgetary Control. In specific terms, this means that it scrutinises the management of funds, acts continually to improve the prevention, detection and punishment of fraud, and sees whether the best possible results have been obtained from Community spending. Parliament gives an annual assessment of the Commission's use of the funds before granting it a 'discharge' on the implementation of the budget. In 1999, Parliament refused to grant the Commission a discharge for 1996 on the grounds of mismanagement and a lack of transparency.
Power of democratic supervision
Parliament exercises democratic supervision over all Community activities. This power, which was originally applied to the activities of the Commission only, has been extended to the Council of Ministers, the European Council and the political cooperation bodies which are accountable to Parliament. The European Parliament can also set up committees of inquiry. It has done so on several occasions, particularly on 'mad cow disease', which led to the establishment of a European Veterinary Agency in Dublin. It was also Parliament which secured the creation of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in budgetary matters.
Parliament and the Commission
The European Parliament plays a crucial role in the process of appointing the Commission. After approving the nomination for Commission President, Parliament holds hearings with the nominee Commissioners and then appoints the Commission by a vote of confidence.
This power is in addition to Parliament's right to censure the Commission a powerful political weapon since the adoption of a motion of censure would force the Commission to resign.
To date, no motion of censure has been adopted by the European Parliament. This would require the support of an absolute majority of Members and two-thirds of the votes cast. However, in March 1999, following a report on the Commission's management by a committee of independent experts mandated by Parliament, the Commission opted to resign rather than face formal censure by Parliament.
On a daily basis, Parliament exercises its supervisory powers by examining a large number of monthly or annual reports which the Commission is obliged to submit to it (for example, its annual General Report and the monthly reports on the implementation of the budget).
In addition, Members of the European Parliament can put written or oral questions to the Commission. During plenary sessions, 'Question Time' provides a forum for a series of questions and answers on topical matters between Members of Parliament and members of the Commission. More than 5000 questions are put by individual Members and the political groups every year.
Parliament and the Council
Parliament's expanded budgetary and legislative powers have increased its influence over the Council. The co-decision procedure in particular has helped to create a balance of legislative power between the Council and the European Parliament.
Parliament and the common foreign and security policy (CFSP)
The aim of European political cooperation, which started in the early 1970s, was to go beyond the economic and social framework set up by the Community Treaties to achieve a genuinely common strategy of the Member States in the field of foreign policy. The Treaty on European Union recognises the need to incorporate into foreign policy a jointly operated common security dimension. Such cooperation extends in principle to all areas of international policy involving the interests of the European Union, and represents a natural extension of Community activity.
The great importance which Parliament attaches to the CFSP is reflected in its debates, particularly those which take place in the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Security and Defence Policy.
The Council Presidency consults the European Parliament on the main aspects of the common foreign and security policy and ensures that Parliament's views are taken into consideration. Parliament is regularly informed by the Presidency and the Commission of developments in the Union's foreign and security policy. The Amsterdam Treaty created the office of High Representative for the common foreign and security policy. The first holderof this position is Xavier Solana, who was appointed by the Cologne European Council in June 1999.
The European Parliament can put questions to the Council or make recommendations to it. It holds an annual debate on progress in implementing the CFSP.
Parliament and cooperation in the fields of justice and home affairs
Parliament is particularly concerned with the implementation of policies on matters of common interest such as asylum and immigration, the fight against drug addiction, fraud and international crime.
Parliament is regularly consulted and informed on the cooperation between the justice and home affairs authorities of the Member States of the Union. It can ask questions of the Council or make recommendations to it. Parliament also holds a debate each year on the progress made in these fields.
Parliament and democratic supervision of economic and monetary union
Parliament has been given an important role in relation to the European Central Bank (ECB) as part of EMU.
The Bank enjoys total independence in its monetary policy decisions. It has sole authority to set short-term interest rates and use other monetary instruments necessary to maintain the stability of the euro.
However, the ECB's operational independence is counterbalanced by its accountability to the European Parliament. Parliament's rules of procedure clearly define its role in the appointment of the ECB's President, Vice-President and the other members of the executive board. After committee hearings, the nominees have to be approved by Parliament before they can be appointed by the Council.
The ECB President is required to present an annual report to the plenary sitting of Parliament. In addition, the ECB President and other members of the executive board appear before Parliament's monetary affairs committee at regular intervals. This can be at the request of either side and at least four such meetings must be held every year.
Members of the European Parliament
How do you become a Member of the European Parliament ?
Members of the European Parliament are elected by direct universal suffrage under a system of proportional representation, either on a regional basis, as for example in Italy, the United Kingdom and Belgium, or on a national basis, as in France, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and others, or under a mixed system (Germany).
Common democratic rules apply everywhere, especially the right to vote at the age of 18, equality between men and women and a secret ballot. In some Member States, such as Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece, voting is compulsory.
Since the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993, any citizen of a Member State of the European Union who lives in another State of the Union may vote or stand for election in his or her country of residence.
Composition of the European Parliament
The number of Members per state is laid down by the Treaties.
In the Chamber, Members sit in political groups, not in national delegations. Parliament currently has eight political groups, plus some 'non-attached' Members. These political groups include members from over one hundred national political parties.
Composition of the European Parliament.
The work of Members of the European Parliament
Members of the European Parliament meet in plenary sitting for one week a month in Strasbourg where the European Parliament has its seat.
The parliamentary committees generally meet for two weeks a month in Brussels, for ease of contact with the Commission and Council. The third week is set aside for meetings of the political groups and the fourth for the plenary sitting in Strasbourg. Parliament also holds additional plenary sittings in Brussels. The secretariat is located in Luxembourg.
Simultaneous interpretation of all parliamentary and committee debates is provided in the Union's eleven official languages: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. Similarly, all parliamentary documents are translated into and published in these eleven languages.
Parliament's work is generally organised on the following lines:
This is the procedure for the adoption of legislation, which may require two readings, as in the case of the codecision procedure (see glossary).
As well as adopting legislative proposals and the budget, Members of the European Parliament also scrutinise the work of the Commission and the Council by putting oral questions or questions on topical issues to Members of the Commission and Council in the plenary sittings.
Relations with developing countries
The European Parliament is able to guide and promote the EU's development and cooperation programmes with virtually all the world's developing countries through its Committee on Development and Cooperation and also through the work of the AC/EU Joint Assembly. By means of the budgetary procedure, Parliament also directly influences spending on major development priorities such as food aid and rural development, environmental issues, assistance for refugees and displaced persons and support for the work of non-governmental organisations. Parliament also attaches great importance to providing humanitarian aid.
Particularly through the joint assembly, the democratic institution of the ACP/EU convention which unites the EU with 71 countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) regions, the European Parliament has worked to establish a partnership based on trade and economic development, the fight against poverty and respect for human rights and democratic principles.
It is thanks to Parliament that the ACP/EU Convention now includes a 'democracy clause' - the option of suspending aid to ACP countries guilty of serious human rights violations.
Protection of human rights
Parliament's assent is now needed for decisions on the accession of new Member States, association agreements with non-member countries and the conclusion of international agreements.
This means that Parliament now has the right to ratify and the power to reject international agreements. Out of its concern to protect human rights, Parliament uses this power to require non-member countries to improve their human rights records. It has not hesitated to reject a whole series of financial protocols with certain non-member countries on human rights grounds, forcing those countries to release political prisoners or to accept international commitments to protect human rights.
In 1988, Parliament decide to create the Sakharov Prize, which is awarded annually to a person who has distinguished himself or herself in the struggle for human rights. It is not unusual for holders of the Sakharov Prize subsequently to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
An international forum
Parliament's substantial powers in the area of external relations make it a real international forum. During plenary sessions, Heads of State of non-member countries are frequently invited to address Parliament at formal sittings.
Similarly, the President of the European Parliament is often asked to make official visits to various parts of the world, reflecting Parliament's international standing.
The European Parliament: your voice in Europe
How to exercise your right of petition
Election by direct universal suffrage gives the European Parliament its legitimacy. Your vote plays a part. Any member of the public can turn to a Member of the European Parliament with his or her hopes and concerns. European citizens can, individually or in a group, exercise their right of petition and submit to the European Parliament their requests or grievances on matters within the European Union's jurisdiction.
You can find further information on the correct procedure for submitting an online petition to the European Parliament on our Server.
Parliament's information offices in the Member States will be glad to give you any further information you require about your Parliament in Europe.
The European Ombudsman
Legislative procedure introduced by the Maastricht Treaty and extended to new areas by the Treaty of Amsterdam, which puts the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers on an equal footing in the adoption of Community legislation.
|COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS||
This consultative committee is made up of 222 representatives, appointed by the Member States, of the local and regional authorities of the Union. Established by the Maastricht Treaty, it meets in Brussels.
|COUNCIL OF EUROPE||
Which has met in Strasbourg since 1949, should not be confused with the European Parliament or the European Council (see above). The Council of Europe has 41 member countries (including Russia and Turkey) and is an intergovernmental organisation which drafts for adoption by member countries Europe-wide conventions in areas such as the protection of human rights, culture and education. The work of the Council of Europe is complementary to the activities of the European Union and the two organisations have always cooperated and maintained close links.
|COUNCIL OF MINISTERS||
The institution which shares legislative and budgetary power with Parliament. The Foreign Ministers form the "General Affairs" Council, while other ministers attend meetings of the Council dealing with their specific areas of responsibility (agriculture, the environment, health, the budget, and so on). Meetings are held in Brussels or Luxembourg. The presidency of the Council of Ministers changes on a fixed rotational basis every six months.
European Coal and Steel Community. First European community set up in Luxembourg in 1952.
European Economic Community. Established by the Treaty of Rome of 25 March 1957.
European Regional Development Fund, established in 1975 to reduce economic disparities between the regions of Europe.
European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC). Established by the Treaty of Rome of 25 March 1957.
|EUROPEAN CENTRAL BANK||
Based in Frankfurt, the European Central Bank is responsible for the monetary policy of the euro zone, i.e. the 11 Member States that have opted for the single currency. Its Executive Board consists of 6 members. The Governing Council comprises the 11 governors of the central banks of the euro zone and the members of the Executive Board.
The Commission consists of 20 Commissioners appointed, subject to approval by the European Parliament, for 5 years. It runs European common policies, implements the budget and ensures compliance with the Treaties. It is based in Brussels.
The European Council brings together, at least twice a year, the Heads of State or Government of the Member States of the Union, together with the President of the European Commission. It sets out the broad policy guidelines of the Union and, as part of European political cooperation, discusses topical international issues. Its meetings take place in the country which holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers.
|EUROPEAN COURT OF AUDITORS||
The European Court of Auditors monitors the sound management of Community finances. It has 15 members. It is based in Luxembourg.
|EUROPEAN COURT OF JUSTICE||
The Court of Justice ensures compliance with the law in the application and interpretation of the Treaties. It is the Union's supreme court and consists of 15 judges, appointed by the Member States by common accord, and 9 advocates-general. Its seat is in Luxembourg.It should not be confused with the International Court of Justice in The Hague which is a United Nations body or with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which comes under the Council of Europe.
|EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE||
A consultative committee consisting of 222 representatives of various economic and social groups in the Union. It meets in Brussels.