Role of Parliament
How Parliament makes decisions
What happens to a Parliament decision?
Role of European Parliament
The European Parliament is one of the three main institutions involved in the creation of European law, along with the European Commission and the European Council of Ministers. It is the only directly elected EU body. Following the 2009 elections, there are 736 MEPs (this is set to rise to 751 under the Lisbon Treaty) who represent the EU's 501 million citizen across the 27 member states. The UK has 72 MEPs.
The European Parliament's powers have steadily increased with each change of the EU treaties, the most recent being the Lisbon Treaty, which provided for new law-making powers. The main role of Parliament is to scrutinise, amend and adopt EU legislation passed down from the European Commission. They also sign off the EU budget. Although distinct from member state legislation, EU laws become law in each member state by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972. EU law also takes precedence over existing member state law, which must be amended if it is found to conflict EU law.
The European Parliament typically meets for three weeks of every four in Brussels for committee and political group meetings. One week every four, Parliament moves to Strasbourg where MEPs vote on the legislative work carried out in Brussels - this is known as a plenary session. During a Parliamentary year, four weeks are dedicated to allowing MEPs to concentrate on their constituency work.
Parliament's decision process
Proposed EU legislation is formally scrutinised within the Parliament's 17 permanent committees. Each committee is responsible for a specific policy area and is made up of a number of full member MEPs and substitute member MEPs.
The committee process works as follows:
Stage 1: When a piece of draft legislation is sent to Parliament from the Commission, it is given to the relevant committee to deal with who elect a ‘rapporteur'. The rapporteur is responsible for writing a report on the Commission document on behalf of the committee. A typical report would consist of a number of amendments or changes to the text where the rapporteur thinks that improvements need to be made.
Stage 2: Normally, one or more additional committees produce an opinion on the original proposal, which they will ask the main committee to consider in its report.
Stage 3: Once the rapporteur has produced the report, other committee members may also submit amendments to the text.
Stage 4: The report then goes to vote in the committee. The committee votes on whether to accept each submitted amendment into the text, and finally whether to accept the report as a whole.
Stage 5: When the report is accepted, which the majority are, it is voted on by the whole Parliament in the plenary session, which takes place in Strasbourg. At plenary, Parliament discuss and amend the report before adopting its position on it at the vote.
Although this formal process exists, much of the work which influences the final decisions taken by Parliament on pieces of proposed legislation takes place at an informal level, outside of committee meetings and plenary sessions.
Lobbying by the public, charities, NGOs businesses and other organisations, as well as meetings with representatives from the Commission, Council or European Presidency all have an influence. The rapporteur will also discuss their report with colleagues from their political group and advisors. There is also a considerable amount of negotiation with MEPs from other political groups in order to try and get as much support for the report as possible.
What happens to a Parliament decision?
Once a report is adopted by Parliament it is sent to Council for their consideration. What happens next depends on the procedure the proposal falls under, which, broadly speaking, is determined by the subject area. The process from initial proposal to its final adaptation as a piece of EU legislation can take years, depending on the procedure, with the document going back and forth between players.
There are four different decision procedures:
Co-decision procedure: Parliament's opinion must be taken into account, meaning that legislation cannot be passed without Parliament's agreement
Consultation procedure: Parliament gives its opinion but this does not have to be taken into account by the Council, which has the final say.
Cooperation procedure: This give the Parliament more say in the consultation but less in co-decision. It is rarely used.
Assent procedure: Reserved solely for special measures
It is in Parliament's interests that as much as possible is based on co-decision procedure, where its powers are strongest, and as little as possible is based on consultation procedure, where its powers are weakest. Since the Lisbon Treaty was enforced in December 2009, more EU legislation is subject to co-decision procedure, including agriculture and immigration.
There are currently seven political groups in the Parliament, drawing on more than one hundred national parties. You need more than 25 MEPs to form a group and each appoints a chair (or in the case of the Green/EFA group, two co-presidents, on woman one man). Some MEPs do not belong to any group.
Before votes in plenary, the groups consider reports from the parliamentary committees in the light of their political view and often table amendments. During the vote, representatives from the group will often instruct their other members of the group how to vote, but no member can be forced to vote in a particular way.
Being part of a political group is important for MEPs, as it means that work can be shared out between MEPs, as well as financial resources. By pooling resources, MEPs have access to a number of specialist advisers, hired by the groups to cover each subject area.
The groups in order of size are:
Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats)
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
European Conservatives and Reformists Group
Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left
Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group
During the time when a proposed piece of legislation is with the Parliament, from receiving the proposal to the Parliament's adopted report, there are many ways in which citizens try and influence the outcome - this is called lobbying.
The amount of lobbying and who does the lobbying varies from one issue to the next. Sometimes all MEPs are lobbied to try and influence the outcome of a full Parliament vote, sometimes it is more targeted and intended to influence the final wording of a report at Committee stage. Lobbying also takes a number of forms. Groups might ask their members to write to/email the Rapporteur or an organisation might ask for a formal meeting.
MEPs are lobbied by:
- individuals, especially constituents
- businesses and firms with an interest in the outcome
- non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with an interest in the outcome
- professional lobbying organisations hired to lobby on behalf of organisations, firms or industries
EU citizens will soon be able to ask the EU to introduce new legislation, provided they can muster one million signatures. This new tool for giving citizens a more direct say over the EU was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. The so-called ‘citizens' initiative' should be in use by the beginning of 2012, provided the Council still formally adopts the rules governing this right of initiative in the beginning of 2011. Parliament adopted the legislation on 15 December 2010.
Representatives of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission have agreed on the rules, but they still need to be adopted by the Council. It is expected that this will take place in February 2011.
As the Member States have 12 months to put the new rules into effect in their national laws, the first citizens' initiatives could be launched by the beginning of 2012. The answers below all refer to what will happen once the rules are in place.
(For more information, the European Parliament has put together a Q&A on citizen initiatives: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/en/pressroom/content/20101209BKG08308/html/Q-A-on-the-citizens'-initiative)