About the European Parliament
MEPs sit in the European Parliament. The Parliament’s main task is to debate and vote on European legislation, just as the House of Commons votes on national legislation.
The Parliament’s role
The EU does not and cannot legislate in areas that are purely of national concern, such as housing, how we organise our schools and local authorities, our health service or our levels of income tax. However, in some areas, it is mainly European, rather than national, law that regulates us all. This is the case for commercial legislation, for consumer protection, environmental standards, subsidies for economic development, competition policy, safety standards and some aspects of employment law.
EU legislation is normally adopted jointly by the European Parliament and the Council, which is composed of ministers from national governments of each of the 28 Member States. Both Parliament and Council hold two readings of draft legislation and if, by then, they have not agreed on the same text, a conciliation committee negotiates a compromise, which must then be approved by Parliament and Council.
This detailed scrutiny ensures that European legislation is acceptable both to the representatives of national governments and to MEPs whom the electorate has directly chosen to represent them.
The European Parliament compared to national parliaments
The European Parliament is not a “sexy” parliament. Compared to many national parliaments, it lacks the cut and thrust of debate between government and opposition. Like the US Congress, its real work is done in committee. The plurality of languages used makes the debates far from spectacular. For these reasons among others, it gets far less media coverage.
But, when it comes to the detail of legislative or budgetary work, MEPs shape legislation in a way that MPs in many national Parliaments do not. In some national parliaments, when a government publishes a bill, it is usually clear what will come out of the procedure – it is headline news if the parliament amends it against the will of the government. Some even claim that certain national parliaments are little more than rubber-stamps for their government’s legislation.
This is certainly not the case in the European Parliament. There is no ‘governing majority’ dutifully nodding proposals through. A draft directive really is just a draft – MEPs go through it paragraph by paragraph, amending it and rewriting it. So do the ministers in the Council – and ultimately the positions of the two must be reconciled in what (since the Amsterdam Treaty) amounts to a bi-cameral legislature at EU level. But the net effect is that every year, thousands of amendments to draft legislation put forward by ordinary back-bench MEPs end up on the statute books and apply in 25 different countries. (read moreâ€¦)
In national parliaments, being a backbencher or an opposition party MP often offers very limited power and little job satisfaction other than the prospect of, perhaps, one day wielding ministerial power. MEPs, on the other hand, can play a significant role in shaping legislation — a classical parliamentary function almost forgotten by some national parliaments — while not having a career path to a ministry (though a surprising number do become ministers in their member states: ten former MEPs are currently prime ministers or presidents of their respective countries).
The nature of day-to-day work is also different. One measure of a good MP in a national context is someone who is a good debater, able to score points over his or her opponents. An effective MEP is someone who is good at explaining, persuading and negotiating with colleagues from 28 different countries. This is done at three levels. First, within political Groups as MEPs from different national parties work towards developing a common position as a Group. Second, with other Groups in the Parliament, as no Group has an overall majority and coalitions must be built. Indeed, the type of majority can vary from one issue to another as there is no predetermined coalition, but a general willingness to work by means of achieving substantial majorities on most issues. Third, once Parliament has a position, there is a need to negotiate with Council for the final outcome. Such a style of Parliament leaves ample scope for an active MEP, providing that he/she is good at building the necessary majorities.
The European Parliament is also responsible for adopting the EU’s budget every year, working within the ceilings agreed jointly by all member states every seven years.
The Parliament in the EU
The European Parliament is part of what makes the EU radically different from a traditional intergovernmental organisation. Indeed, it is only necessary to imagine what the EU would be like without the Parliament: it would be a system totally dominated by bureaucrats and diplomats, loosely supervised by ministers flying periodically into Brussels. The existence of a body of full-time representatives in the heart of decision-taking in Brussels, asking questions, knocking on doors, bringing the spotlight to shine in dark corners, in touch with their constituents back home, makes the EU system more open, transparent and democratic than would otherwise be the case. MEPs are drawn from governing parties and opposition parties and represent not just capital cities but the regions in their full diversity. In short, the Parliament brings pluralism into play and brings added value to the scrutiny of EU legislation.
It also takes the edge off national conflict. Council can all too often give the appearance of decision taking by gladiatorial combat between those representing “national interests”. Reality is more complex and the fact that the Parliament organises itself not in national delegations but in political groups shows that the dividing line on most concrete subjects is not between nations but between political viewpoints or between sectoral interests.
Despite the significant and growing role of the European Parliament, turnout in European elections declined to 43% of the electorate in the 2004 election. While this is about the same as turnout for electing the US House of Representatives, it would be good to do better. But declining turnout is not peculiar to the European Parliament: see my page on Electoral turnout for more details.
About the European Commission
Initial proposals for EU legislation are researched and put forward by the European Commission, which is also responsible for carrying out EU policies once they have been adopted.
This executive body is composed of 28 individuals, proposed by EU national governments and approved by the European Parliament. The Commission holds office for five years, subject to Parliament’s continuing approval. It can be dismissed by Parliament during its term of office.
Part of an MEP’s job is to keep tabs on the executive Commission and on the civil servants working under the authority of the Commission — the famous Brussels bureaucrats. In fact, the total number of civil servants working for the Commission is fewer than work for a medium-sized city council — contrary to tabloid mythology!
Nonetheless, they must be held accountable. Commissioners and their civil servants regularly appear before European Parliamentary committees to be questioned, to explain what they are up to and to be cross-examined.