|Established||1952, as the Common Assembly|
|President||Hans-Gert Pöttering (EPP)
Since January 16, 2007
|Last election||June 2004 (785 MEPs)|
|Meeting place||Strasbourg and Brussels|
|Secretariat||Luxembourg and Brussels|
The European Parliament (Europarl or EP) is the directly elected parliamentary body of the European Union (EU). Together with the Council of the European Union (the Council), it forms the bicameral legislative branch of the Union's institutions and has been described as one of the most powerful legislatures in the world. The Parliament and Council form the highest legislative body within the Union. However their powers as such are limited to the competencies conferred upon the European Community by member states. Hence the institution has little control over policy areas held by the states and within the other two of the three pillars of the European Union. The Parliament is composed of 785 MEPs (Member 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 (492 million).
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 have legislative initiative like most national parliaments. While it is the "first institution" of the European Union (mentioned first in the treaties, having ceremonial precedence over all authority at European level), the Council has greater powers over legislation than the Parliament where codecision procedure (equal rights of amendment and rejection) does not apply. It has, however, had control over the EU budget since the 1970s and has a veto over the appointment of the European Commission.
The European Parliament has two meeting places, namely the Immeuble Louise Weiss in Strasbourg, France, which serves for plenary sessions and is the official seat and the Espace Léopold/Leopoldwijk complex in Brussels, Belgium, the smaller of the two, which serves for preparatory meetings and complementary, non-plenary sessions. The cost of having all MEPs and their staff moving several times a year from one place to another has been of concern to some. The Secretariat of the European Parliament, the Parliament's administrative body, is based in Luxembourg.
The President of the European Parliament (its speaker) presides over a multi-party chamber, the two largest groups being the European People's Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) and the Party of European Socialists (PES).
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President José Manuel Barroso
President Hans-Gert Pöttering
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The Parliament, like the other institutions, was not designed in its current form when it first met on September 10, 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. This change since its foundation was highlighted by Professor David Farrell of the University of Manchester;
For much of its life, the European Parliament could have been justly labelled 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 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." Even the Parliament's two seats, which have switched several times, is a result of various agreements or lack of agreements.
The body was not mentioned in the original Schuman Declaration, it was instead proposed by Jean Monnet on the second day of negotiations as an institution which would counterbalance and monitor the executive while providing democratic legitimacy. 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 with extra members but after the failure of the proposed European Defence Community their project was dropped.
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." The three communities merged in 1967 and the body was renamed to the current "European Parliament" in 1962. In 1970 the Parliament was granted power over areas the Community's budget, which were expanded to the whole budget in 1975.
Under the Rome Treaties, the Parliament should have become elected. However the Council did not put in place the necessary agreements and only did so after the Parliament threatened to take the Council to the European Court of Justice. However, the Council did not agree on the envisaged uniform voting system.
In 1979, its members were directly elected for the first time. This set it apart from similar institutions such as those of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or Pan-African Parliament which are appointed. After that first election, the parliament held its first session on July 11, 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.
The Parliament quickly made use of its legitimacy. 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. Further more the Parliament began holding votes on proposed Commission Presidents from the 1980s, before it was given any formal right to veto. 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.
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 remain in Strasbourg but must also hold part sessions 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.
The Parliament had been gaining more powers from successive treaties, namely through the extension of codecision procedure, and in 1999, the Parliament forced the resignation of the Santer Commission. The Parliament had refused to approve the Community budget over allegations of fraud and miss-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 on mass, the first of any forced resignation, in the face of an impending censure from the Parliament.
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.
In addition to the extension of codecision, 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:
The European parliament has suddenly come into its own. 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 would gain in 2009 under the Lisbon Treaty.
Powers and functions
The Parliament and Council are essentially two chambers in the bicameral legislative branch of the European Union, with legislative power officially distributed equally between both chambers. However there are some differences from national legislatures; for example, neither the Parliament nor Council have the power of legislative initiative. In Community matters, this is a power uniquely reserved for the European Commission (the executive). While Parliament can amend and reject legislation, and make a proposal for legislation, it needs the Commission to draft a bill before anything can become law.
The Parliament also has 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.
With each new treaty, the powers of the Parliament have expanded. Its powers have been primarily defined through the Union's legislative procedures. The method which has slowly become the dominant procedure (about three-quarters of policy areas) is the Codecision procedure, where powers are essentially equal between Parliament and Council. Codecision provides an equal footing between the two bodies. Under the procedure, the Commission presents a proposal to Parliament and the Council. They then send amendments to the Council, which can either adopt the text with those amendments or send back a "common position." That proposal may either be approved or further amendments may be tabled by the Parliament. 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 common position. Once a position is agreed, it has to be approved by Parliament, again by an absolute majority. In addition to codecision, the Parliament's mandate as the only directly democratic institution has given it leeway to have greater control over legislation than other institutions, for example over its changes to the Bolkestein directive in 2006.
Other procedures include: Cooperation, meaning the Council can overrule the Parliament if it is unanimous; Consultation, which requires just consultation of the Parliament; and Assent procedure, where the Parliament has a veto. The Commission and Council, or just Commission, can also act completely independently of the Parliament, but the use of these procedures are very limited. The procedure also depends upon which type of institutional act is being used. The strongest act is a regulation, an act or law which is directly applicable in its entirety. Then there are directives which bind members to certain goals which they must achieve. They do this through their own laws and hence have room to manoeuver in deciding upon them. A decision is an instrument which is focused at a particular person/group and is directly applicable. Institutions may also issue recommendations and opinions which are merely non-binding, declarations. 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.
The legislative branch officially holds the Union's budgetary authority, powers gained through the Budgetary Treaties of the 1970s. The EU's budget is divided into compulsory and non-compulsory spending. Compulsory spending is that resulting from EU treaties (including agriculture) and international agreements; the rest is non-compulsory. While the Council has the last word on compulsory spending, the Parliament has the last word on non-compulsory spending.
The institutions draw up budget estimates and the Commission consolidates them into a draft budget. Both the Council and the Parliament can amend the budget with the Parliament adopting or rejecting the budget at its second reading. The signature of the Parliament's president is required before the budget becomes law.
The Parliament is also responsible for discharging the implementation of previous budgets, on the basis of 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.
Control of the executive
The President of the European Commission is proposed by the Council (in practice by the European Council) and that proposal has to be approved by the Parliament (by a simple majority), essentially giving the Parliament a veto but not propose the head of the executive. 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. 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. 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.
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 European Council to present their program at the start of their presidency, the right of MEPs to make proposals for legislation and policy to the Commission and Council, and the right to question members of those institutions (e.g. "Commission Question Time" every Tuesday).
The Parliament also has other powers of general supervision, mainly granted by the Maastricht Treaty. 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. Furthermore it has powers over the appointment of the members of the Court of Auditors 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.
The European Ombudsman is elected by the Parliament, who deals with public complaints against all institutions. 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 1,500 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.
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. Prior to 1979 they were appointed by their national parliaments.
As states are allocated seats according to population, the total number of MEPs should be 732; however, since January 1, 2007 there are 785 MEPs. This is due to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, as the allocation of seats does not take into account members that join mid-term. Under the existing rules the number of members would be reduced again to 732 following the 2009 election however the rules are due to be changed under the Lisbon Treaty. Instead, there would be 751 members, however the President would no longer be counted as a voting member once in office so in practice there would be 750 members. In addition, the maximum number of seats allocated to a state would be lowered to ninety-six, from the current ninety-nine, and the minimum number of seats would 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 in advance of elections, can avoid political horse trading when the numbers have to be revised.
At present, members receive the same salary as members of their national parliament. However as of 2009 a new members statue will come into force which gives all members an equal pay of 7,000 euro each, subject to a community tax and can also be taxed nationally. MEPs would retire at 63 and receive the whole of their pension from the Parliament. Traveling expenses would also be given based on actual cost rather than a flat rate as is now the case. In addition to 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 traveling 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 offense. The Parliament also has the right to strip a member of their immunity.
MEPs in Parliament are organized into seven different parliamentary groups, including fifteen non-attached members known as non-inscrits. The two largest groups are the European People's Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) and the Party of European Socialists (PES). 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.
Groups are often based around a single European political party such as the socialist group. However they can include more than one European party as well as national parties and independents, like the liberal group. For a group to be recognized, it needs 20 MEPs from six different countries. Once recognized 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 Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty (ITS) due to its ideology; the members of the group are far-right, so there were concerns about public funds going towards such a group. There were attempts to change the rules to block the formation of ITS, however that never came to fruition. They were, however, blocked from gaining leading positions on committees–a right that is meant to be afforded to all parties. When this group engaged in infighting, causing the withdrawal of some members, its size fell below the recognizable limit causing its collapse.
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. For much of its life it has been dominated by a grand coalition of the People's Party and Socialist Party. The two major parties tend to co-operate to find a compromise between their two groups leading to proposals endorsed by huge majorities. However, there have been some occasions where real party politics have emerged, like the resignation of the Santer Commission;
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. PES supported the Commission and saw the issue as an attempt by the EPP to discredit their party ahead of the 1999 elections. PES 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 PES supporting the executive and EPP renouncing its previous coalition support and voting it down. Politicization such as this has been increasing, in 2007 Simon Hix of the London School of Economics noted that;
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 in a center-right coalition between the Liberal and People's parties. 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 PES. In the following term the liberal group grew to hold 88 seats, the largest number of seats held by any third party in Parliament.
Elections have taken place, directly in every member-state, every five years since 1979. As of 2004 there have been six. Occasionally, when a member joins mid-term, a by-election will be held to elect their members. This has happened four times, the last time was when Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 (see below). Elections take place across several days according to local custom and, aside 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, in order to maintain proportionality.
The most recent Union-wide elections to the European Parliament were the European elections of 2004, held in June of that year. They were the largest simultaneous transnational elections ever held anywhere in the world, since nearly 400 million citizens were eligible to vote. The proportion of MEPs elected in 2004 who were female was 30.2 percent; in 1979 it was just 16.5 percent. The next Union-wide elections will be in 2009. There are a number of proposals to "dress up" the next 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. It is hoped such changes would add legitimacy and counter the falling turnout which has dropped consistently every year since the first election; from 1999 it has been below 50 percent. In 2007 both Bulgaria and Romania elected their MEPs in by-elections, having joined at the beginning of 2007. The Bulgarian election saw the lowest ever turnout for a European election, just 28.6 percent. The Romanian elections were delayed due to internal political issues but will be held on November 25, 2007.
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 three days in Strasbourg for part-sessions. In addition six two-day part-sessions are organized 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. 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).
During sessions, members may speak after being called on by the President, with a time limit of one minute. Members of the Council or Commission may also attend and speak in debates. Partly due to the need for translation, and the politics of consensus in the chamber, debates tend to be calmer and more polite than, for example, the Westminster system. Voting is conducted primarily by a show of hands, that may be checked on request by electronic voting. Votes of MEPs are not recorded in either case however, that only occurs when there is a roll-call ballot. Each MEP in turn is called by name, in alphabetical order, to state their support or opposition. This is a historical system used when the Parliament was much smaller in membership and is rarely used now. Votes can also be a completely secret ballot (for example when the President is elected). All recorded votes, along with minutes and legislation, are recorded in the Official Journal of the European Union and can be accessed online.
Members are arranged in a hemicycle according to their political groups 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 center 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. With access to the chamber limited, entrance is controlled by ushers who aid MEPs in the chamber (for example in delivering documents). The ushers also 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.
President and organization
The President, currently Hans-Gert Pöttering MEP of the EPP, is essentially the speaker of the Parliament. The President 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.
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 depends upon the President. President Josep Borrell MEP of Spain gave his counterparts a crystal cup created by an artist from Barcelona which had engraved upon it parts of the Charter of Fundamental Rights among other things.
A number of notable figures have been President of the Parliament and its predecessors. The first President was Paul-Henri Spaak MEP, 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.
During the election of a President, the plenary is presided over by the oldest member of the Parliament. In 2004 and 2007 this was Giovanni Berlinguer MEP. While the oldest member is in the chair, they hold all the powers of the President, but the only business that may be addressed is the election of the President.
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.
Committees and delegations
The Parliament has 20 Standing Committees consisting of 28 to 86 MEPs each (reflecting the political makeup of the whole Parliament) including a chair, 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. 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.
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 coordinate their work through the "Conference of Committee Chairmen". 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 more and more attention to its work.
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. 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.
Translation and interpreting
Speakers in the European Parliament are entitled to speak in any of the EU's 23 official languages, ranging from English and French to Maltese and Irish. Simultaneous interpreting is offered in all plenary sessions, and all final texts of legislation are translated. With 23 languages, the European Parliament is the most multilingual parliament in the world and the biggest employer of interpreters in the world (employing 350 full time and 400 free-lancers when there is higher demand). Citizens may also address the Parliament in Basque, Catalan/Valencian and Galician.
Usually a language is translated from a foreign tongue into a translator's native tongue. Due to the large number of languages, including minor ones, since 1995 translation is sometimes done the opposite way, out of a translator's native tongue (the "retour" system). In addition, a speech in a minor language may be translated via a third language for lack of interpreters ("relay" interpreting)–for example, when translating Estonian into Maltese. Interpreters need to be proficient in two other Union languages besides their native language. Due to the complexity of the issues, translation 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 colorful language, jokes and word play or speak too fast.
While some see speaking their native language as an important part of their identity, and can speak more fluently in debates, the translation and the cost of it has been criticized 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. Although many see the ideal single language as English due to its widespread usage, there is a campaign to make French the single tongue for all legal texts, due to its more precise legal language, overcoming ambiguity between translations of legislation. Although this would not directly affect translation in the plenary, it would shift the balance towards French when discussing draft legislation.
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.
The Strasbourg seat is seen as a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany (Strasbourg having been fought over by the two countries in the past), but questions over the cost have been raised. While Strasbourg is the official seat, and sits alongside the Council of Europe (with which the "mutual cooperation" is continuously "fostered"), Brussels is home to nearly all other major EU institutions. Since the majority of Parliament's work already being carried out there, Strasbourg's role as the main seat is the one most questioned, although some do believe Strasbourg should be the single capital.
Critics have described the two-seat arrangement as a "traveling circus," and there is a strong movement to establish Brussels as the sole seat. This is due to the fact that 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." 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 tons of additional carbon dioxide, undermining any environmental stance of the institution and the Union. The campaign is further backed by a million-strong online petition started by Cecilia Malmström MEP. 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. A poll of MEPs also found 89 percent of the respondents (39 percent) wanting a single seat, and 81 percent preferring Brussels. Another, more academic, survey found 68 percent support. However the Parliament, the only assembly in the world with more than one seat, does not have the right to choose its own meeting place. This is left up to the Council with the possibility of a change being vetoed by one state. Notably France, which has not been affected by any campaigning, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy stating that its seat is "non-negotiable".
Future of the Parliament
The Lisbon Treaty largely retains the reforms outlined in the rejected Constitutional Treaty. Overall, powers would be increased. For example, nearly all policy areas would fall under co-decision procedure (now called the "ordinary legislative procedure") meaning that the Parliament would have practically equal powers to those of the Council (now officially the Council of Ministers). In the remaining minority of areas in which the powers remain unequal, the Council must consult the Parliament and/or seek its approval on the legislation. The Parliament also gains greater powers over the entirety of the EU budget, not just non-compulsory expenditure, through the ordinary legislative procedure. Composition of the Parliament will change little, however the minimum number of seats are to be increased from five to six, and the maximum number reduced from 99 to 96. There will also be basic rules on the distribution of seats in the Parliament, rather than negotiated at each enlargement. Decisions about the composition of the Parliament will remain the work of Council but made based on a proposal from the Parliament itself.
The European Council will be bound to take into account the latest elections when proposing the Commission President, something that they willingly did after the 2004 election. As currently, the Parliament's consent is needed for the President to take office, however the Lisbon Treaty now uses the word "elect" rather than "approve" to refer to this procedure. This is an area however in which the Council of Ministers plays no part. It will remain to be seen whether calling it an election will spur political groups to use their power and mandate to force their own candidates upon the European Council in the same way as, for example, the British House of Commons does in its relation to their Queen. There have been suggestions that the parliament's political groups may propose their own candidates before the 2009 election. The closest a party has come to doing this is prior to the 2004 elections when the People's Party mentioned four or five people they'd like to be President. The fractious nature of the European-level parties has in part been why a coherent candidate has not been proposed. However there are plans to strengthen the political parties before the elections. In 2007, Franco Frattini indicated he would like to act as though the treaty was already in force, in respect to the Parliament's powers over justice and criminal matters, in order to inject more democracy and ensure the Parliament had over sight on forthcoming legislation Frattini did not wish to delay until 2009.
In addition to the institutional reforms brought by the Lisbon Treaty, in 2007 the President set up the Special working group on parliamentary reform to improve the efficiency and image of the Parliament. Some ideas include livening up the plenary sessions and a State of the Union debate. One of the group's key reform ideas, extra debates on topical issues, was rejected by MEPs causing liberal leader Graham Watson MEP to withdrew from reform group. However MEPs did back a proposals for greater use of the European symbols, following their rejection in the Lisbon Treaty. It was suggested the Parliament take the avant-garde in using the symbols as it had done in adopting the flag in 1983, which was three years before the Communities as a whole. An interim report was presented in September 2007 which proposed cutting down time allocated for guest speakers and non-legislative documents. In 2006, 92 "own initiative" reports (commenting rather than legislating) were tables and 22 percent of debating time was spent debating such reports, while only 18 percent was spent on legislative bills. The group is due to produce a final report in 2008, and put the recommendations into practice by the 2009 elections however Watson has stated that he doubts the left-right coalition in Parliament can pass the proposals due to opposition from more conservative members. Other members such as the co-chair of ID, Jens-Peter Bonde MEP, had wanted more radical proposals. Bonde did however vote for the report, stating that "it is psychologically important to show that we want to become a more political parliament."
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All links retrieved October 9, 2013.
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- Legislative Observatory
- Official Register of MEPs
- Rules of Procedure
- Offices in Member states
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- BBC Parliament guide
- Europedia Policies and legislation guide
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