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A Dummy Guide to the European Parliament

Credits: European-Parliament – Strasbourg

Do you recognize this building?

Don’t worry if you don’t: when asked about the European Parliament, around 66% of EU citizens reply that they do not consider themselves informed about the institution and its activities. With the upcoming parliamentary elections in May, this number seems high. Therefore, in case you are still a part of this majority: we promise you won’t be after having read this article.

On its website, the European Parliament calls itself “the heart of democracy in the European Union.” Whilst this may sound a little overenthusiastic, it is true that it is the only EU institution which is directly elected. The current 751 Members of Parliament- including its president Antonio Tajani – have a duty to represent the interests of over 512 million EU citizens.

Generally, every Member State has a number of seats in the parliament that is roughly proportionate to the size of its population, however, never less than 6 and no more than 96 seats. Members of Parliament are seated according to their political affiliation, not their nationality. Currently, there are eight political groups in the Parliament. The European People’s Party, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats form a group which are the basis of the grand coalition. This is how the seats are distributed:

If this does not really make sense to you yet: we will inform you about the individual political groups on the Maastricht Diplomat, stay tuned.

The European Parliament has multiple functions: primarily, it is involved in the law-making process. It votes on legislative proposals from the Commission and proposes amendments. It has co-legislative powers on most policy areas together with the Council. Additionally, the EP has supervisory powers. For instance, it has the competence to oversee the work of the Commission. It is, furthermore, involved in the process of establishing the EU budget. The body also debates and votes about international agreements and potential EU enlargements.

At its first meeting, in March 1958, the institution started out as a parliamentary assembly with appointed members. However, throughout the past decades, both the European Parliament’s powers and its democratic legitimacy have consistently increased. In 1979 – exactly 40 years ago – its first direct elections took place. The Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 was significant in providing the legal basis for the Parliament to be an equal co-legislator with the Council.

Due to the EU’s enlargements, the EP has consistently grown in size. Yet, this year, this trend might change. Should Britain leave the EU on the 29thof March, it would be the first time that it decreases in size. Out of the 73 seats that the UK would give up, 27 would be shared amongst some of the currently under-represented countries and 46 would stay free. This means that the EP would shrink to 705 seats.

Most of the work of the Parliament does not, however, take place in plenary. The body is subdivided into different committees and delegations. The committees are organized according to subject, such as “Human Rights”, “International Trade” or “Culture and Education.” Additionally, there are 45 permanent delegations, which develop relations with parliaments, regions and organizations of non-EU countries. The committees usually have their meetings in Brussels. Its official location is, however, in Strasbourg.

In a recent survey conducted by the EP, EU citizens were asked about which issues the parliament should put more focus on. The results showed that most people want the EP to do more when it comes to tackling poverty and social exclusion. Combating terrorism also seemed to be a high priority. Additionally, a desire was expressed for it to involve itself more with fighting youth unemployment and – however more debated – identifying a common European response to the issue of migration. These expectations show that, whilst the European Parliament already has a big influence on our daily lives, it could have an even bigger one in the future.

Professor D. Farrel, from the University of Manchester recently put it this way:

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.

Others believe that the EP’s powers should not be overestimated, considering the still dominant influence of e.g. the Council or the national parliaments.

In any case, 2019 will be a special year for the EP: elections only take place every five years and this year’s may bring fundamental change. Recently, new political parties such as the pan-European movement Volt have emerged and – for the first time –the grand coalition might not have a majority anymore. The results remain to be seen, but we can all be influential. You have now made the first step towards getting to know the EP, expand your knowledge and then: GO VOTE.

Check out our guide on How To Vote for the European Elections from Abroad!

Amelie Ohler is following a Bachelor in European Law at UM and writes for the Maastricht Diplomat


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