The European Parliament

The European Parliament


What is the role of the European Parliament?

The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty gave the European Parliament an increased role in policy-making, although its influence is still relatively small compared to the Council and Commission. The links below give a good introduction to what the Parliament and the other two main institutions do.

For a general introduction to the different European Institutions and their roles, click here:
For information about the European Parliament , click here:
For information about the European Commission, click here:
For information about the European Council, click here:

How are decisions made in the Parliament?

The processes by which decisions are reached in the Parliament often vary depending on the type of legislation or other decisions being made. It is important to note, also, that much of the work which influences the final decision taken by the Parliament on a piece of proposed legislation takes place at an informal level, outside the formal Committee meetings and plenary sessions. This includes, for example, lobbying by the public, businesses and other organisations, and meetings with representatives from the Commission, Council or Presidency and bodies such as the Economic and Social Committee. Within the Parliament, Rapporteurs will discuss their report with their colleagues and advisers within political groupings, and there is a considerable amount of negotiating which goes on with MEPs of other political groups in order to try and get as much support as possible for the report.

The Committees

Within the European Parliament there are 17 permanent Committees dealing with different subject areas. Each Committee has a number of MEPs who are full members, and others who are 'substitute' members. There are also a number of temporary Committees which are formed as important matters arise - for example, on Echelon or genetic technology.

When a piece of draft legislation is sent to Parliament from the Commission, it is given to the relevant Committee to deal with. The Committee, by co-ordinating the political groups, allocates one of its members as '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.

Normally, one or more other Committees produce an Opinion on the original proposal. For example, the Civil Liberties Committee is responsible for producing the Report on the proposal for a Community Immigration Policy. The Employment and Social Affairs Committee has been asked to write an Opinion on the proposal, in which they will ask the former Committee to include certain points in its report which cover the subject from the employment and social angle.

Once the Rapporteur has produced the report, other Committee members may also submit amendments to the text. 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. The majority of reports are accepted, and go on to be voted on by the whole Parliament in the plenary session. This is when the whole Parliament meets together to discuss reports, amend them and put them to the vote, thus adopting its position on the matter. Amendments may therefore also be submitted prior to the plenary vote.

What happens to Parliament's decision?

The report adopted by the Parliament then passes to the Council for their consideration. What happens at this stage depends on the procedure the proposal falls under. The number of times a piece of legislation in preparation goes back and forth between players, from the time of the initial proposal to its final adoption as a piece of EU legislation, varies according to the procedure. The legal base of each proposal, as set out in the Treaties, determines which procedure it falls under. The process can take years. Parliament often has to deal with the same proposal twice, as there is frequently a 'Second Reading' (if it is co-decision procedure - see below), after the Parliament's decision the first time round has been considered by the Council and Commission. There are four different procedures.

How much influence the Parliament's own decision on a particular proposal has on the final piece of legislation varies - it is just one of a number of institutions involved in forming legislation. A lot of bargaining and give and take goes on between the different institutions involved. On some matters the Parliament's opinion must be taken into account, and the legislation cannot be passed without Parliament's agreement (this is called the co-decision procedure (for more info click here and then on 'co-decision guide'). On others, however, the Parliament gives its opinion but this does not have to be taken into account by the Council, which has the final say. This is called the consultation procedure. There is also a cooperation procedure, which gives the Parliament more say than in consultation but less than in co-decision, but this is now rarely used, and an assent procedure, which is reserved solely for special measures.

It is in the 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 the consultation procedure, where its powers are weakest. The procedure a legislative proposal falls under depends, broadly speaking, on its subject area. Since 1997, more EU legislation is subject to co-decision procedure, but agricultural, justice and home affairs, trade, fiscal harmonisation and EMU issues are still not.


The Political Groups

The vast majority of MEPs belong to one or other of the political groups. Members who do not belong to any of the groups are known as 'non-attached Members'. A political group must include MEPs from more than one member state and have a minimum number of members. There are currently 7 political groups in the Parliament, drawing on more than a hundred national parties. Several of the political groups have links to parties at European level, recognised by the Treaty as 'a factor for integration within the European Union which contributes to forming a European awareness and to expressing the political will of the citizens.' Each political group has a president (or in the case of the Green/EFA Group, two co-presidents, one woman and one man), a bureau and a secretariat.

Before votes in plenary sessions, the groups consider reports from Parliament's committees in the light of their political view and often table amendments to them. They also play an important part in deciding on the agendas for plenary sessions and choosing the topical issues to be placed on these agendas.

Being part of a political group is important for MEPs, as it means that work can be shared out between MEPs (no one MEP could ever follow the 100s of legislative proposals that pass through Parliament each year!), as well as financial resources. By pooling resources, MEPs have access to a number of specialist advisers hired by the group to cover each subject area.

Can citizens influence what goes on in Parliament?
The role of lobbying

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 different influences acting on the path the Parliament takes with regard to the issue. Besides all the many people working on it inside the Parliament and in other EU institutions, MEPs are lobbied from all sides including:

  • - 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 or firms

The amount of lobbying, and who does the lobbying, varies from one issue to the next. This depends on factors such as who the interest groups are and how controversial the issue is.

Sometimes all MEPs are lobbied on an issue. For example, before a vote on a proposal regarding copyright laws, Jean and most other MEPs received an inordinate number of emails and letters, mainly from authors, artists, and librarians. Sometimes the lobbying is more targeted, not extending beyond the Rapporteur and other MEPs who work particularly on that issue. This is likely for more specialised topics.

Most lobbying is in the form of letters and emails, but sometimes organisations arrange meetings with an MEP to explain their view-point and what they would like to see in the Report (particularly with the Rapporteur).

There is no way of measuring the real influence of lobbying, but there is no doubt it does have an effect. It does this by:

  • - informing MEPs about the opinions of their constituents and European citizens in general
  • - pointing out new angles and arguments on a subject
  • - bringing a particular report or proposal to someone's attention

Sometimes it is the sheer volume of lobbying on a particular issue that has an effect, while on other occasions just one letter can make a difference.

See the European Parliament's own website and Click on 'Overview' for more information on how the Parliament works.