European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 12: The European Parliament

Return to full list of chapter notes.

The European Parliament (EP) is the only directly elected European institution, and has won new powers for itself that have made it a more important actor in European affairs. Logically, then, the EP should be the one EU institution that has developed the closest political and psychological ties to ordinary Europeans, particularly those who complain about the EU’s democratic deficit. And yet most European voters remain disengaged, turning out in declining numbers at EP elections, and taking less interest in its work than in the work of national legislatures.

Dividing its time between Brussels and Strasbourg in France (with an administrative secretariat in Luxembourg), Parliament is the legislative arm of the EU, sharing responsibility with the Council of Ministers for debating, amending and taking the final vote on proposals for new European laws and the EU budget, and having the power to confirm or reject senior institutional appointments (such as the president of the Commission). However, it lacks two of the typical powers of national legislatures: it can neither introduce new laws nor raise revenues. It consists of 736 members elected from the 27 EU member states for fixed and renewable five-year terms, who sit together not in national blocs but in cross-national party groups.

The EP’s structural problems are manifold: it is not part of a European ‘government’, there is no change of ‘government’ at stake in EP elections, there are few prominent personalities in the EP who can fire public imaginations, and the links between national political parties and party groups in the EP are still not clear (see Chapter 15). Until European voters can see how the EP impacts their lives, and until they make choices at European elections on European rather than national issues, it is unlikely that the EP’s situation will improve.
  • The European Parliament is the legislative arm of the EU, sharing powers with the Council of Ministers over the discussion and approval of legislative proposals developed by the European Commission, and over approving the EU budget.
  • Plenary meetings of Parliament are held in Strasbourg, its committees meet in Brussels, and its secretariat is based in Luxembourg. Pressure to move Parliament to Brussels has been resisted by France.
  • The EP has 736 members elected to renewable five-year terms, the number of seats being divided up among the member states on the basis of population.
  • Parliament is headed by a president elected by its members. Since no one party group has yet won a majority in the EP, the presidency is decided by a bargain between the two largest party groups.
  • Detailed parliamentary work is undertaken in a network of 20 standing committees.
  • Most decisions are made under the codecision procedure, by which the EP and the Council can discuss and amend a proposal up to three times.
  • Parliament has the right to confirm nominees to the presidency of the European Commission, to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and to the College of Commissioners, and also has powers of scrutiny over the Commission.
  • The powers of Parliament have grown, thanks in part to changes in the treaties and in part to Parliament’s own initiatives, and yet most EU citizens know little about what it does, and turnout at EP elections has been declining.