The European parliament (EP) is the world’s largest multinational parliamentary body, representing over 456 million citizens. It was originally constituted as the assembly of the ECSC, adopting the title ‘European parliament’ in 1962. As well as exercising an increasingly important legislative and supervisory role, the EP functions as the primary source of democratic authority and legitimacy within the EU.
Prior to 1979, it was not an elected body, with member states nominating delegations to the EP. From 1979, elections have been held to the EP every five years, with the last held in June 2009.
Today, the EP has 736 members from all 27 countries, with all currents of political thought represented therein. Each member state has a specific number of seats allocated to it, on the basis of population.
Number of seats per country (2009 – 2014 parliamentary term):
Germany – 99
United Kingdom – 72
France – 72
Italy – 72
Spain – 50
Poland – 50
Romania – 33
Netherlands – 25
Greece – 22
Czech Republic – 22
Belgium – 22
Hungary – 22
Portugal – 22
Sweden – 18
Austria – 17
Bulgaria – 17
Slovakia – 13
Denmark – 13
Finland – 13
Ireland – 12
Lithuania – 12
Latvia – 8
Slovenia – 7
Estonia – 6
Cyprus – 6
Luxembourg – 6
Malta – 5
The electoral systems used for EP elections vary between member states. Most member states treat the whole country as a single constituency – only the UK, Ireland, Italy and Belgium have separate electoral regions with MEPs specifically elected to represent them.
The electoral system used in Great Britain is a closed list proportional representation system – that is, the parties select their candidates and the order in which they appear on the list. Voters vote only for a party – and the number of seats allocated to the region are divided proportionally among the parties securing the most votes. The top candidates from the regional list then become MEPs. This gives great power to the larger parties to decide who will become MEPs, and the ordering of candidates is therefore a highly political and contentious issue, in which the public has no role.
In Northern Ireland, a single transferable vote system is used, in which voters vote for a number of candidates in order of preference.
72 UK MEPs were elected in the European Parliament elections on 4 June 2009.
The regions of the UK and the number of seats allocated to each are as follows:
Eastern – 7, East Midlands – 5, London – 8, North East – 3, North West – 8, South East – 10, South West – 6, West Midlands – 6, Yorkshire and Humber – 6, Wales – 4, Scotland – 6, Northern Ireland – 3.
MEPs representing parties from different countries that share similar views sit together in the EP, as party groups. These groups are very broad churches, accommodating wide spectrums of views. For example, the EPP-ED group has a formally federalist position, and includes shades of opinion from Christian Democrats to the far-right.
The groups in the EP are as follows.
European People’s party – European Democrats Group (EPP-ED) – which includes centre-right to right wing parties.
Party of European Socialists Group (PES) – which includes centre-left, soft-left and social democrat parties. The Labour party and the SDLP sit with this group.
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – which includes liberal democrat and centre-left parties. The Liberal Democrats sit with this group.
Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group (EUL-NGL) – which includes hard-left and communist parties.
Greens/European Free Alliance Group (Greens/EFA) – which includes green parties and internationalist and pacifist progressive parties. The UK’s Green party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP sit with this group.
Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) – which includes more radical left-wing parties such as the Communists in Portugal and Greece, and Spain’s United Left.
Independence and Democracy Group (IND/DEM) – which includes those opposed to European integration in preference for a more ‘confederal’ Europe based on co-operation between nation states rather than supranational governance. The parties comprising the IND/DEM Group are generally rightist in character. The UK Independence Party sits with this group. The IND/DEM was formerly known as the Group of Europe of Democracies and Diversities
Union for a Europe of the Nations Group (UEN) – another group that includes those opposed to further EU integration and which is rightist in character.
Non Attached MEPs (Ind) – The Democratic Unionist party sits with this Group.
The EP meets in plenary sessions (ie full sessions open to all MEPs) in Strasbourg. There are 12 of these ‘part sessions’ per year – one per month, except in August, and two in October, when the budget receives its first reading. In addition to these sessions, between four and six two-day sessions are held each year in Brussels.
Work that is undertaken in plenary sessions includes:
Question times, when representatives of the commission and the Council of Ministers answer questions from MEPs.
Urgent and topical (non-legislative) debates.
Consideration of committee reports, as part of the legislative process.
A twice-yearly address by the head of government of the presidency, reporting on European Council proceedings.
Hearing statements from the commission and council and addresses from distinguished visitors.
The agenda of business is decided by the president of the European parliament and the conference of presidents (a body comprising the leaders of the party groups), in consultation with the conference of committee chairmen and the EP secretariat. The resulting order of business is an item of business requiring approval by the EP itself.
The European parliament does much of its work in a series of committees. There are 22 standing or permanent committees, two subcommittees and a number of ad hoc committees, set up to investigate specific issues (eg the BSE crisis). Most committees have around 50 to 60 members, and a similar number of substitute members.
The permanent committees on internal policies are:
BUDG – Budgets
CONT – Budgetary control
LIBE – Civil liberties, justice and home affairs
ECON – Economic and monetary affairs
JURI – Legal affairs
ITRE – Industry, research and energy
IMCO – Internal market and consumer protection
TRAN – Transport and tourism
EMPL – Employment and social affairs
ENVI – Environment, public health and food safety
AGRI – Agriculture
PECH – Fisheries
REGI -Regional development
CULT – Culture and education
AFCO – Constitutional affairs
FEMM – Women’s rights and gender equality
PETI – Petitions
The permanent committees on external policies are:
AFET – Foreign affairs
DROI – Subcommittee on human rights
SEDE – Subcommittee on security and defence
DEVE – Development
INTA – International trade
Other committees are:
CODE – Conciliation
CONV – Parliamentary delegation to the convention on the future of Europe
The European parliament has long been seen as an ineffectual body, with real power within the EU being exercised by the commission and the council and the EP serving as a democratic fig leaf. But treaties since the Single European Act have increased the powers of the EP, so that it now exercises a number of important functions.
1. The EP exercises joint decision-making power with the Council of Ministers in a wide range of policy areas.
2. The EP authorises the annual budget, prepared by the commission. The EP has the final word on ‘non compulsory’ expenditure, which it can alter within the terms set by the treaties. The EP also lays down general guidelines for the preparation of the budget.
3. The EP exercises democratic control over the commission and Council of Ministers, by subjecting representatives to questioning at question time, by confirming the appointment of the commission, and by the power to dismiss the whole commission by a vote of no confidence (with a two-thirds majority).
4. The EP exercises a powerful influence on the other institutions by virtue of its democratic legitimacy – and frequently makes suggestions for policy initiatives that it is unable to launch itself.