European Parliament

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European Parliament

EU Insigna.svg

The European Parliament (Europarl or EP) is the only directly elected parliamentary institution 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 (342 million eligible voters in 2004).

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, as most national EU parliaments do, but it does in a de facto capacity (see Powers and functions below). 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 (sans agriculture) since the 1970s and has a veto over the appointment of the European Commission.

The European Parliament has two meeting places, namely the Louise Weiss building in Strasbourg, France, which serves for twelve four-day plenary sessions per year and is the official seat, and the Espace Léopold complex in Brussels, Belgium, the larger of the two, which serves for committee meetings, political groups and complementary plenary sessions. The cost of having all MEPs and their staff moving several times a year from one place to another is 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) is currently Hans-Gert Pöttering (EPP), elected in January 2007. He 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). The last Union-wide elections were the 2004 Parliamentary Elections, however Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 and elected their members in that year (see European Parliament election, 2007); the next union-wide parliamentary elections are in 2009 (see European Parliament election, 2009).

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 assumed or hoped that difficulties with the British would be resolved to allow the Council of Europe's Assembly to perform the task. A separate Assembly was introduced during negotiations on the Treaty 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 on 13 September 1952 with extra members but after the failure of the proposed European Defence Community the 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 was required to agree a uniform voting system before hand, which it failed to do. The Parliament threatened to take the Council to the European Court of Justice leading to a compromise whereby the Council would agree to elections, but the issue of voting systems would be put off till a later date.

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 11 July 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.

As an elected body, the Parliament began to draft proposals addressing the functioning of the Union. 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 retain its formal seat in Strasbourg, where twelve sessions a year would be held, but with all other parliamentary activity 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 mis-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 en masse, 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 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 could gain as part of the Treaty of Lisbon.

The Parliament and Council are essentially two chambers in the bicameral legislative branch of the European Union, with legislative power being officially distributed equally between both chambers. However there are some differences from national legislatures; for example, neither the Parliament nor the Council have the power of legislative initiative (except for the fact that the Council has the power in some intergovernmental matters). In Community matters, this is a power uniquely reserved for the European Commission (the executive). Meaning that while Parliament can amend and reject legislation, to make a proposal for legislation, it needs the Commission to draft a bill before anything can become law. However, the value of such a power is questioned, noting that only 15% of such initiatives in national parliaments become law due to the lack of executive support. Yet it has been argued by President Hans-Gert Pöttering that as the Parliament does have the right to ask the Commission to draft such legislation, and as the Commission is following Parliament's proposals more and more Parliament does have a de facto right of legislative initiative.

The Parliament also has a great deal of 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. This is also aided by Parliament's mandate as the only directly democratic institution, which 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 require 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 manoeuvre 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.

Unlike most EU states, which usually operate parliamentary systems, there is a separation of powers between the executive and legislative which makes the European Parliament more akin to the United States Congress than an EU state legislature. 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 a right to 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 programme 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). At present, MEPs may ask a question on any topic whatsoever, but in July 2008 MEPs voted to limit questions to those within the EU's mandate and ban offensive or personal questions.

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. Further more 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 1500 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 5 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 1 January 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 to 736 following the 2009 election however the rules are due to be changed under the Treaty of Lisbon. Instead, there would be 751 members (however, as the President cannot vote while in the chair there would only be 750 voting members at any one time). 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 statute will come into force which gives all members an equal monthly pay of 7000 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. Travelling expenses would also be given based on actual cost rather than a flat rate as is the case now. 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 travelling 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 offence and the Parliament also has the right to strip a member of their immunity.

MEPs in Parliament are organised into seven different parliamentary groups, including over thirty 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. As a result of being broad alliances of national parties, European groups parties are very decentralised and hence have more in common with parties in the United States than EU states.

Groups are often based around a single European political party such as the socialist group. However they can, like the liberal group, include more than one European party as well as national parties and independents. For a group to be recognised, it needs 20 MEPs from six different countries (this will rise to 25 MEPs from seven different countries from June 2009). Once recognised 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 recognisable limit causing its collapse.

During the fifth term, 1999 to 2004, there was a break in the grand coalition resulting in a centre-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%; in 1979 it was just 16.5%. 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. This was attempted in 2004, however only the European Green Party, which was the first true pan-European party to be established with a common campaign, proposed a candidate for the post of President: Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Meanwhile, the closest any other party had come was when the People's Party mentioned four or five people they'd like to be President. It is hoped such changes would add legitimacy and counter the falling turnout which has dropped consistently every year since the first election, and from 1999 it has been below 50%. In 2007 both Bulgaria and Romania are electing their MEPs in by-elections, having joined at the beginning of 2007. The Bulgarian and Romanian elections saw one of the lowest turnout for a European election, just 28.6% and 28.3%. respectively.

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 3½ days in Strasbourg for part-sessions. In addition six 2-day part-sessions are organised 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, say, 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. That is when each MEP in turn is called by name, in alphabetical order, to state their support or opposition: it is only used for certain important votes or when a political group of approximately one fifth of all MEPs requests it, but the number of roll-call votes has increased with time. 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 centre 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.

The President, currently Hans-Gert Pöttering MEP of the EPP, is essentially the speaker of the Parliament. He or she 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.

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 co-ordinate 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.

The nature of the committees differ from their national counterparts as, although smaller in comparison to those of the United States Congress, the European Parliament's committees are unusually large by European standards with between eight and twelve dedicated members of staff and three to four support staff. Considerable administration, archives and research resources are also at the disposal of the whole Parliament when needed.

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.

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 Swedish. Simultaneous interpreting is offered in all plenary sessions, and all final texts of legislation are translated. With twenty-three 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, some being 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 colourful 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 criticised 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 being English due to its widespread usage, there is a campaign to make French the single tongue for all legal texts, due to the view that it is more clear and precise for legal purposes. 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 European Parliament is the only assembly in the world with more than one meeting place and also the one of the few that cannot decide its own location.

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). However it is questioned over the cost of having two seats for the parliament. While Strasbourg is the official seat, and sits alongside the Council of Europe (with which the "mutual cooperation" is being continuously "fostered"), Brussels is home to nearly all other major EU institutions, with the majority of Parliament's work already being carried out there. Therefore despite Strasbourg being the main seat, it is the one most questioned, although some do believe Strasbourg should be the single capital.

Critics have described the two-seat arrangement as a "travelling 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 tonnes 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% of the respondents (39%) wanting a single seat, and 81% preferring Brussels. Another, more academic, survey found 68% support. However, as Parliament's seat is fixed by the treaties, it can only be changed by the Council unanimously, meaning it could be vetoed by a single country: notably, France. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stated that its seat is "non-negotiable", having no intention of surrendering the French based seat.

The Treaty of Lisbon, currently in stalled ratification, 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. In terms of the composition of the Parliament there would be little change, however the minimum number of seats would be increased from 5 to 6 and the maximum number would be reduced from 99 to 96. There would also be basic rules on the distribution of seats in the Parliament, rather than them being negotiated at each enlargement. Decisions about the composition of the Parliament are currently made by the Council, this would remain so but the decision would be made based on a proposal from the Parliament itself.

The European Council would 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 Treaty of Lisbon 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 propose their own candidate rather than accept that of the European Council, similar to the situation in constitutional monarchies where the head of state has the power to choose the head of government but is de facto limited into accepting the candidate of the victorious party in parliament. There have been suggestions that the parliament's political groups may propose their own candidates before the 2009 election. No major party proposed a candidate in 2004 with the fractious nature of the European-level parties being, in part, why a single candidate has not been proposed. However there are plans to strengthen the political parties before the elections and the European Green Party, the first to have a common campaign, did manage to put forward a candidate. In 2007, Franco Frattini indicated he would like to act as though the treaty was already in force, in respects 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.

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President of the European Parliament

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The President of the European Parliament presides over the debates and activities of the European Parliament. He or she also represents the Parliament within the EU and internationally. The President's signature is required for enacting most EU laws and the EU budget.

Presidents serve two-and-a-half-year terms, normally divided between the two major political parties. There have been twenty-seven Presidents, since the Parliament was created in 1952 to 2007, twelve of whom have served since the first Parliamentary election in 1979. Two Presidents have been women and most have come from the older member states. The current President is Hans-Gert Pöttering.

The President chairs debates and oversees all the activities of the Parliament and its constituent bodies (ensuring the Parliament's rules of procedure are applied), in this the role is similar to that of a speaker in a national parliament. Below the President, there are 14 Vice-Presidents who chair debates when the President is not in the chamber. The President also chairs the meetings of 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.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the President would no longer be counted as one of the 750 MEPs (post 2009, 785 in 2008) while in office. This is to keep the number of MEPs officially under the 750 cap.

He or she represents Parliament in all legal matters and external relations, particularly international relations. When the European Council meets, the President addresses it to give the Parliament's position on subjects on the Council's agenda. The President also takes part in Intergovernmental Conferences on new treaties. The President's signature is also required for the budget of the European Union and Union acts adopted under codecision procedure to be adopted. The President also chairs conciliation committees with the Council under these areas.

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.

He or she is elected for two-and-a-half-year terms, meaning two elections per parliamentary term, hence two Presidents may serve for during any one Parliamentary term. Since the European People's Party and Party of European Socialists began co-operating in the 1980s, they have had a tradition of splitting the two posts between them. In practice this means, in 2004-2009 for example, that the People's Party supported the Socialist candidate for President and, when his term expired in 2007, the Socialists supported the People's Party candidate for President. This results in large majorities for Presidents, although there are some exceptions: for example under the People's Party–Liberal coalition, the President for the second half of the term was a Liberal, rather than a Socialist.

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 and during the first elections in 1979, it was Louise Weiss 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. Nominations are handed to oldest member before the ballot who announces them to Parliament. If no member holds an absolute majority after three ballots, a fourth is held with only the two members holding the highest number of votes on the previous ballot. If there is still a tie following this, the eldest candidate is declared elected.

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.

There are rumours that the two largest groups in Parliament, the EPP-ED and PES, have already agreed to share the post of President as they have done for all but two terms of Parliament. The first half of the term will be taken by Jerzy Buzek MEP of the EPP (who would be the first person from Eastern Europe to hold the post), who will then pass it over to Martin Schulz MEP, the current leader of PES. The previous term has seen a great amount of co-operation between the two groups following on from the 1999-2004 term which saw an EPP-ELDR alliance. Meanwhile, Graham Watson, the leader of ALDE, has stated he wishes to challenge this system of carving up the post, and has present himself as a candidate. He has made a point of running a public campaign, to contrast against the closed-doors agreement of EPP-ED and PES, which he claims is the first such campaign to be run. Through this, he also states he hopes to open up a debate on the role of the President and make the figure more dynamic, to counter balance the growing power of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

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European Parliament election, 2009

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Elections to the European Parliament will be held in the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) between 4 and 7 June 2009,. 736 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will be elected by proportional representation to represent some 500,000,000 Europeans, making these the biggest trans-national elections in history.

Approximately three quarters of the MEPs will be elected on Sunday 7 June, but because of traditional polling days varying from country to country according to local custom, the other quarter will be elected in the three preceding days: in the United Kingdom, for instance, voting will take place on 4 June, a Thursday..

In seven EU member-states, other votes will occur alongside the elections to the European Parliament: a general election in Luxembourg; a run-off in the presidential elections in Lithuania, if necessary; local government elections in England, Ireland (as well as two by-elections in Dublin South and Dublin Central) and Malta; regional elections in Belgium; and a referendum on reforming the succession law in the Kingdom of Denmark that would give women the same rights through equal primogeniture.

It had initially been foreseen that the Treaty of Lisbon would have entered into force by the time of these elections, making them the first to be held under its provisions. However, primarily because of the failure of the referendum in Ireland, the framework established by the Treaty of Nice will be used again. Amongst other differences, the number of MEPs to be returned depends upon which rules are in effect: while 736 MEPs will be elected under the Nice rules, this number would have increased to 751 if the Lisbon Treaty were in force.

A further change that Lisbon would have brought was an increase to the powers of Parliament, including powers over the appointment of the President of the European Commission. It had been suggested by some that political parties could run with candidates for the Commission President; with leaders now linking the post to elections and that convention having being enshrined in the Constitution, further encouraging the possibility..

In 2007, it emerged that current Commission President José Manuel Barroso would likely seek a second term. French President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly supported Barroso's second term in early July 2008., and on 19 July 2008, Barroso himself stated for the first time that he'd like to serve a second term..

At the previous election member states were granted a fixed allocation of seats for election as determined under the provisions of the Treaty of Nice (current allocation is in the 2007 column below). The admission of Bulgaria and Romania midway through the previous Parliament's term had increased the overall size of the assembly to 785, and under the terms of the Treaty of Nice it was mandated that the seat allocations be modified for this election, dropping 49 seats to keep the overall size of the Parliament down.

It had been the stated desire of the member-state governments to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon before the election so that its articles governing the European Parliament could enter force as of this election. However, this was blocked by the Irish rejection of the treaty in a referendum. Under Lisbon, there would be a somewhat different allocation of seats, with fewer seats eliminated, leading to a slightly different distribution totaling 751 MEPs. If the Lisbon Treaty is subsequently ratified, it appears its revised apportionment procedures will not be utilised until 2013 at the earliest.

The European Parliament, National broadcasters, the EBU, with the cooperation of the Communication Commissioner, Margot Wallström, are jointly working to make the 2009 election more interesting to the public in order to increase the turnout. Previously, diverse news media in the European Union, and the fact that the election takes place over several days, have made it hard to attract viewers. The media consortium is hoping to focus the 2009 election more towards the EU level and the European Parliament itself, hoping to make the election more interesting and cosmetically appealing for television viewers. Members of the European Parliament (MEP) also started initiatives in late 2007 to make the election more interesting to voters in a bid to increase turnout.

Many of the national parties running in the election are affiliated to transnational pan-European political parties known as political parties at European level. Those pan-European parties are EPP, PES, ELDR, EFA, European Greens, AEN, PEL, ED and EUD. The question of which was the first to campaign transnationally is the subject of some debate, with the European Greens stating that they were the first in 2004. New parties that aspire to pan-European status during the 2009 elections include Newropeans, Europe United, Europe – Democracy – Esperanto and Libertas Party Limited.

The role for pan-European political parties has been expanded by changes enacted by the European Commission in 2007 under the direction of Margot Wallström.

This will be the first European Parliament election that Bulgaria and Romania will participate in at the same time as the other member states. They had joined in 2007, holding elections for MEPs outside the normal electoral calendar.

Traditionally, realignment between the different political groups and European political parties occurs in the runup to the election and in the time between the election and the first sitting of the European Parliament, when the political groups are constituted; the first sitting of the EP elected in 2009 is set for 14 July 2009.

The Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN) political group, today a rump body that can trace its ancestry back to its origins as a Gaullist ideological alignment, seems increasingly unlikely to be reconstituted following this election. The associated Alliance for Europe of the Nations (AEN) party would potentially suffer a similar fate. The desertion of key players for other alliances would likely lower both the UEN's membership to levels where it cannot exist for a lack of MEPs, and AEN's membership to levels where it cannot be funded for a lack of parties that reach the EU's electoral threshold.

The largest single contributor of MEPs to the UEN group, the Italian National Alliance, will completely merge with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia into The People of Freedom by the end of 2008. PdL will inherit FI's membership in the EPP; a single list of PdL candidates will be run in 2009 which would then take their seats in the EPP-ED (or a purely EPP) group, substantially reducing the potential MEPs that a UEN group could draw upon.. This move will come after a series of attempts by National Alliance to abandon more staunchly nationalist and Eurosceptic parties and move towards the moderate European centre-right, including a previous application for EPP membership.

National Alliance shares the group presidency with Ireland's Fianna Fáil, a centrist party that has been a proponent of European integration. FF has been even more openly uncomfortable about its European affiliation, with former leader Bertie Ahern often distancing his party from the right-wing positions of his groupmates and describing UEN as purely a "technical arrangement." Current leader Brian Cowen stated on 27 February 2009 that FF would join the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR) after the election, which is currently associated with the European Parliament's Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group.. This announcement was widely expected: Fianna Fáil very nearly joined ALDE during the group reshuffle after the 2004 European elections, and had also previously explored seeking membership in ELDR. FF's leader in the European Parliament, Brian Crowley, criticised this decision and stated that FF might lose its position and influence due to the change, as Crowley currently enjoys a number of privileges as UEN leader which he can use to further FF's policies, but which he would lose if FF were to move to ALDE instead. The switch of FF to ELDR/ALDE will become official after an ELDR meeting in mid-April 2009; reports indicate that the ELDR is highly likely to approve the application.

AEN/UEN is also under threat from a potential new group led by members of the European Democrats (see below), who are attempting to woo at least two of its Eurosceptic members away. Law and Justice of Poland has been reported to be ready to do just this. The disappearance of UEN might also have repercussions for Independence/Democracy, as those parties of UEN which do not join another group immediately might then decide to form a new group with the I/D members.

The Freedom Party of Austria and other far-right parties may, after another failed attempt to establish their own faction in the European Parliament in 2007, join the UEN after the 2009 election.

The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists of the United Kingdom, together with the Czech Civic Democrats might leave the European Democrats (effectively dissolving it through lack of members, as only one Italian will be left), which is currently allied to the European People's Party (EPP); instead, these parties will form a new parliamentary grouping based on the Movement for European Reform (MER).

Although the Conservatives alone have the minimum required number of MEPs at 19, they would still need to join with parties or independents from six other countries to formally create a group. There has been speculation that Polish Law and Justice would join the proposed grouping, although it expressed its support for the continuance of the UEN., it is reportedly keen to join MER.

Another possible party is the Latvian TB/LNNK, also currently aligned with AEN. There are also numerous independents that might join the group. The most optimistic estimates suggest MER could become the third largest group in the Parliament.

The Conservative Party reiterated its intention to leave the EPP in March 2009. The new group may be called "European Conservatives".

The newly born Democratic Party is still discussing about the group its members will join in the European Parliament. The party was officially created in 2007 from the merge of the two biggest center-left Italian parties, Democrats of the Left and The Daisy (La Margherita), whose members in the EP joined PES and ALDE respectively after the 2004 elections. Although pushing hard for a unification of all European progressive reformists, and therefore for a merger between PES and ALDE, it is likely that the two parliamentary groups will continue living as separate bodies, forcing the Italian Democratic Party to stay alone in the Parliament. In last general elections, it gained 33.7% of votes.

The PES and EPP–ED have proposed to raise the limit for groups in the EP from 20 MEPs and one fifth of member states to 30 MEPs and a quarter of member states, which would effectively close down UEN and I/D. All five smaller groups (UEN and I/D plus ALDE, Greens–EFA and UEN–NGL) have protested these proposed changes. The change was voted down 15 to 14 in committee, but a plenary vote was nonetheless expected to be held on it in July 2008. The plenary vote on 9 July 2008 approved (as a compromise) new rules which require 25 MEPs from at least a fourth of the member states (i.e. seven member states), a change which would affect I/D (only 22 MEPs) and UEN (only MEPs from six countries). The new rules will come into effect after the 2009 election. However, the new proposal also included a provision allowing the continued existence of a group which had fallen below the threshold, but only if it still had members from at least a fifth of the member states and only if it had been founded at least a year before failing the threshold; if there is "sufficient evidence" of the abuse of this provision, it need not be applied.

Five incumbent European Commissioners will run as candidates in the election: Viviane Reding (Luxembourg, information society & media, Christian Social People's Party/European People's Party), Louis Michel (Belgium, development & humanitarian aid, Reformist Movement/European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party), Janez Potočnik (Slovenia, science & research, party unknown), Danuta Hübner (Poland, regional policy, Civic Platform/EPP) and Ján Figeľ (Slovakia, education, training & culture, Christian Democratic Movement/EPP).

There are rumours that the two largest groups in Parliament, the EPP-ED and PES, have already agreed to share the post of President of the European Parliament as they have done for all but two terms of Parliament. The first half of the term will be taken by Jerzy Buzek MEP of the EPP (who would be the first person from Eastern Europe to hold the post), who will then pass it over to Martin Schulz MEP, the current leader of PES. However, on 26 March 2009, it was reported Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi wanted the EPP's candidate to instead be Mario Mauro MEP of his party rather than Buzek; bad blood between Berlusconi and Schulz might prevent the PES from consenting to such an arrangement.

The previous term has seen a great amount of co-operation between the two groups following on from the 1999-2004 term which saw an EPP-ELDR alliance. Meanwhile, Graham Watson, the leader of ALDE, has stated he wishes to challenge this system of carving up the post, and has presented himself as a candidate. He has made a point of running a public campaign, to contrast against the closed-doors agreement of EPP-ED and PES, which he claims is the first such campaign to be run. Through this, he also states he hopes to open up a debate on the role of the President and make the figure more dynamic, to counter balance the growing power of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

A poll sampling nineteen national polls predicted the following results: EPP 265 MEPs, PES 195 MEPs, ALDE 95 MEPs, GUE–NGL 40 MEPs, Greens-EFA 35 MEPs, UEN 35 MEPs. The remaining 70 MEPs were not predicted, but about 20 were expected to be gained by far-right or Libertas candidates. IND/DEM was predicted to fade away due to Libertas' expected success.

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Source : Wikipedia