At the founding of the European Communities (1951 and 1957), the European Parliament was essentially a consultative institution. It was established to serve four functions: as a symbol of reconciliation between the member states; to establish a balance between the institutions (as the house of the peoples, it was designed as a counterweight to the Council, the body that represented the governments); to mirror the other international organizations created in that period (including the United Nations, the Western European Union [WEU], the Council of Europe, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]), all of which had parliamentary assemblies; and to legitimize the European Community by exercising some control over the activities of its executive.
Since the 1950s, many changes have been made to the treaties. The European Parliament has emerged as a powerful institution in the context of international pressure to parliamentarize the European Community's institutional system. The assembly has gradually taken on all the typical characteristics of a national parliament: financial independence, an internal physical and administrative organization, an election process, and immunities and privileges for its members. The European Parliament has thus become a powerful force in the EU's political system, exercising multiple functions.
First and foremost, the European Parliament can adopt declaratory resolutions on all the matters that fall under the EU's jurisdiction, which makes it the principal forum for political debate at the supranational level. Second, it controls the activities of the European Commission and, to a lesser degree, of the Council. Third, it plays a central role in the appointments procedure for the Commission and other Community institutions. Fourth, it exercises major budgetary powers, both in allocating funds and in controlling the implementation of the budget. Fifth and most conspicuously, it exercises legislative powers; although at the outset the Parliament had only a consultative role, which deprived it of any influence, in the early twenty-first century it participates with the Council in adopting most legislative texts, and its status is equal to the Council's.
Initially, the European Parliament was composed of delegates from the national parliaments. The Treaty of Rome (1957) nevertheless provided for the possibility of its members being elected by universal direct vote. This was done for the first time in 1979 and has been done ever since at five-year intervals. These elections, which take place within the member states, have not generated the excitement among citizens anticipated by federalists. This can be explained by the lack of scrutability of the European Parliament's functions, weak media coverage of its activities, and the tendency of national parties to downplay the event. In 2004, when the European Union membership rose to twenty-five states, the assembly was made up of 732 deputies divided among the states roughly according to population. At one extreme, Malta had five deputies; at the other, Germany had nine-nine.
The European Parliament has always sat in political groupings, although this is not required under the Treaty of Rome. After 2004 elections, it contained seven groups, which corresponded to the main party groupings within the member states. Until the end of the 1990s, the Parliament was dominated by a split between supporters and opponents of the quest for European integration, which led the two main groups—the Christian Democrats and the Socialists—to make common cause regularly. Because of the criticisms generated by this convergence, as well as because of European policies that have led to ideological conflicts, a traditional split between left and right has become increasingly apparent. However, the assembly's functioning remains highly complex. The determining factor in the dominant split varies according to the decision-making procedures and the subject of the texts. When the Parliament is taking decision at simple majority, mainly to adopt declarative resolutions, a split between left and right is very common. But when it is voting on legislative texts, it must reach the majority of its members, and not only voters; this is a strong incentive for the two main groups to find a compromise. National conflicts remain fairly muted, however, and the statistical cohesion of the political groupings remains strong. By contrast, relations between the European Parliament and the Commission are not governed by party affiliation, because the Commission does not resemble a government and the two institutions continue to operate independently.
In addition to the increase in its powers, the assembly's history is also characterized by a progressive rationalization of its functioning. As a supranational assembly, the European Parliament is confronted with manifold and growing pressures: a broad cultural and political heterogeneity; the use of many languages (twenty in 2004); a dispersal across three working sites (Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg); a large number of members; an overcrowded agenda; the frequent obligation to vote placed on the majority of its members rather than voters; delays in legislative and budgetary matters; a strict application of the "personal and individual" nature of the deputies' voting rights (i.e., only members who are in the room at the voting time can vote; they cannot delegate their voting right); and the constant need to protect the interests of the institution against those of the Council and the Commission. In confronting all these pressures, the deputies enjoy certain powers: the total independence of their institution, which cannot be dissolved; complete freedom as to how they organize their deliberations and define their agenda; substantial autonomy with regard to national parties; and a progressive institutional framework that is conducive to the extension of the assembly's powers.
In order to overcome the pressures on their deliberation, the deputies have regularly adapted the assembly's regulations in order to rationalize its functioning. Since the early 1990s, the assembly has been characterized by a meticulous organization of all the plenary assembly's activities and institutions and the precise timing of plenary sessions. This process has reinforced the assembly's hierarchical institutions through increasing delegation of legislative work and control to parliamentary committees. It has also conferred a leading role on the political groupings and their officials, to the detriment of individual initiative on the part of the deputies. The European Parliament's internal organization is therefore the object of frequent and contentious debate, both between those who subscribe to differing views of the parliamentary work (mainly a "Latin" tradition of political debate vs. a "Nordic" tradition of policy making) and between members of the small as opposed to the two large political groupings.
The European deputies have always played an important, albeit indirect, role in deepening European integration. Pro-European members, who want to promote a more federalized Europe, have always held a large majority. This objective has associated the objective of European integration with that of reducing the "democratic deficit" (a concept invoked in the argument that the European Union and its various bodies suffer from a lack of democracy and seem inaccessible to the ordinary citizen because their method of operating is too complex), which is generally understood to necessitate an increase in the European Parliament's powers.
Corbett, Richard, Francis Jacobs, and Michael Shackleton. The European Parliament. 5th ed. London, 2003.
Costa, Olivier. Le Parlement européen, assemblée délibérante. Brussels, 2001.
Kreppel, Amie. The European Parliament and the Supranational Party System: A Study in Institutional Development. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.
Magnette, Paul. "Appointing and Censuring the Commission: The Adaptation of Parliamentary Institutions to the Community Context." European Law Journal 7, no. 3 (2001): 289–307.
Parliaments are the central institutions in European systems of representative democracy. Traditionally, the idea that parliament is at the core of democracy has been intertwined with the existence of the independent nation-state . Although international organizations often also have assemblies of national representatives, these are not directly elected and they mainly function as consultative bodies without any legislative powers.
Reflecting the mix of intergovernmental and supranational modes of governance in the European Union (EU), the European Parliament (EP) is directly elected and has considerable influence over policy making, but is deprived of many of the powers that have traditionally been the prerogative of the parliaments at the national level. The EP lacks the right of legislative initiative, it largely holds no formal powers in those policy areas that within the EU are still based on intergovernmental bargaining (such as foreign policy), and it has no influence in policy areas that fall outside of the competence of the EU altogether (such as taxation or the core policies of the welfare state ).
However, the Parliament nonetheless possesses significant powers in the EU's political system. The Parliament has enjoyed the right to dismiss the entire commission since its inception in the 1950s, provided that an absolute majority of members and two-thirds of the votes cast support a no-confidence motion. The Maastricht Treaty (signed in 1992) also gave the Parliament the right to approve the entire commission with a simple majority of votes cast. Testing its new powers after the 1994 elections, the chamber first held a vote on Jacques Santer, the European Council's candidate for commission president, who only narrowly escaped defeat. The Parliament then subjected the prospective commissioners to detailed hearings in its committees. Finally, the Parliament gave its approval to the commission. In this way, the Parliament itself established the practice formally introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty (signed in 1997), according to which a commission president must receive the support of the EP before assembling his or her team of commissioners. The Parliament is also consulted on the appointment of members to the Court of Auditors, and the president and board of the European Central Bank.
The legislative influence of the Parliament varies considerably between policy areas. The consultation procedure is the oldest legislative process. Under this procedure, the role of the EP is advisory, that is, it must be heard but its opinions are not binding on the commission or the Council. The Single European Act (SEA, signed in 1986) introduced the cooperation procedure. From 1987 to 1999 it covered a broad set of policy areas, including much of the internal market legislation. The procedure provided the EP with a limited ability to amend or veto commission proposals. SEA also introduced the assent procedure that applies only to a small but important number of issues, such as the incorporation of new member states into the EU and certain international agreements. Under this procedure, the EP cannot change the proposal, but its support is required for the proposal to be adopted. The Maastricht Treaty introduced the codecision procedure. The procedure involves two readings, and if the Council and EP fail to reach an agreement, the matter is referred to a conciliation committee composed of an equal number of Council and EP representatives. The codecision procedure currently applies to most of the issues previously decided by the cooperation procedure. Hence, the extended application of the codecision procedure means that the EU is gradually moving toward a bicameral system, in which the Council represents the states and the EP the peoples of Europe.
In terms of its economic power, the Parliament can amend and veto the annual EU budget. However, its budgetary rights are restricted to the so-called noncompulsory expenditure, which covers approximately half of the EU's budget. Moreover, the Parliament must respect the multiannual financial frameworks (budget ceilings) decided by the national governments. Nevertheless, the Parliament has within these limits forced the Council to accept increases in several policy areas, including education, job training, culture, and social and employment policies.
internal organization and elections
In the last few decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twentieth-first century, committees have become increasingly powerful within European national legislatures, both in terms of legislative work and control of the executive. This development is primarily explained by the need to acquire policy expertise through sectoral specialization . The same applies to the Parliament. Committees process all legislative initiatives considered by the EP, and this consideration is based on the work of a rapporteur whose task is to produce a draft report on the proposal.
The EP party system is primarily based on the left–right dimension. The main groups are officially the parliamentary groups of their Euro-parties: social democrats (Party of European Socialists, PES), conservatives/Christian democrats (European People's Party, PP), liberals (European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party), and the greens (European Green Party). PES and EPP have been the two dominant groups, controlling more than half of the seats after each election. A notable discontinuity exists among the smaller groups, which have tended to be rather loose coalitions . The composition of the smaller groups often undergoes significant changes during a five-year electoral term.
The position of the Parliament can be undermined by its failure to connect with European peoples. Direct elections to the Parliament are almost exclusively heralded as a disappointment by both the media and political scientists. Before the first elections held in 1979, a wide range of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and federalists entertained high hopes for the forthcoming unique experiment in supranational democracy. However, their optimistic expectations have largely failed to materialize. Turnout in Euro-elections has steadily fallen since the first elections, and various public opinion surveys suggest that only a small minority of EU citizens possesses even an elementary understanding of the powers and work of the Parliament. In the fifth round of elections in June 1999 only 49.8 percent of 289 million eligible voters bothered to cast their votes. Turnout tends to be high only in those member states with compulsory voting or when elections are held concurrently with elections to the national parliament. Although the initial
expectations regarding turnout were probably unrealistic, the main concern for the EP is the fact that turnout has declined at the same time as the legislative powers of the Parliament have considerably increased.
Corbett, Richard, Francis Jacobs, and Michael Shackleton. The European Parliament, 5th ed. London: J. Harper, 2003.
Hix, Simon, and Roger Scully, eds. "The European Parliament at Fifty." Special Issue of the Journal of Common Market Studies 41 (2003):2.
Judge, David, and David Earnshaw. The European Parliament. London: Palgrave, 2003.
Kreppel, Amie. The European Parliament and the Supranational Party System: A Study of Institutional Development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.