Describe the role of the european parliament.

The European Parliament is the only body of the European Union which is directly-elected. There are 751 Members of the European Parliament and they represent the citizens of the EU.

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The European Parliament  consists of directly elected members who collectively represent the 500 million citizens of the European Union. Citizens of the 28 member states elect the representatives (MEPs). The elections are held every 5 years. There are currently some 73 MEPs from the UK. The number of MEPs is proportionate to the size of the country they represent.


Once elected, Members form political groups so that they are able to defend their positions. The political make up of the Parliament is considerable and different from our own version of adversarial politics where the government is usually made up of members of the political party having the most seats. MEPs can be independent or a member of one of the political parties or alliances – they are able to do this because they do not form a government in the same way as most democratic governments do. Elected MEPs may even consist of groups who are opposed to what the EU stands for – for example members of the UKIP party from the UK belong to the 'Europe of freedom and direct democracy Group' in the European Parliament.


So what does the Parliament do and how does it work?


Perhaps the main thing to note is that the Parliament is considered to be one of the main law-making institutions and carries out this function in conjunction with the Council of the European Union. We will see in due course that its' role is different from our own domestic Parliament in this regard and there are some important distinctions to be noted. The EU Parliament has, however, tried to strengthen the democratic processes involved in its work – which is something that we in the UK have come to value in our own political processes.


The European Parliament has three identifiable roles:

We will look at these three roles in more detail.


As regards the Parliament's law-making role we need to note that it has no direct authority or mandate to instigate and promote any legislative programme such as is the case with many democratic and sovereign parliaments including our own. The European Commission is the only institution empowered to initiate legislation. This is vitally important when trying to ascertain where the real power lies in the European Union. In reality democratic power is shared and delegated more widely and differently than in the UK.


Democracy is at work in the sense that the EU Parliament debates proposals and is able to raise questions and make amendments for the Council and the Commission to consider, it is not the final arbiter but a 'democratic voice.'


Parliament's law making function has been extended in recent years, it had in the past been heavily criticised for being an expensive entity without any real power or 'teeth'. In view of events around the world where citizens have been denied a means of expressing themselves politically and democratically, this could arguably be a good thing. This new invigorated political 'voice' or process (codecision) is now known as the ordinary legislative procedure. As a result Parliament is able to participate, along with the European Council, in such matters as consumer protection.


The controversial Lisbon Treaty was to extend these ordinary legislative powers to include such policy areas as immigration, agriculture and energy, including energy conservation and climate change. The European Parliament can ask the Commission to present legislative proposals for laws to the Council and examines the Commission's annual programme of work and agrees on the laws it thinks should be introduced.


Certain matters such as taxation only give the European Parliament an advisory opinion known as the 'Consultation procedure'.


In recent years there have been concerns expressed about the size of the EU and how power is exercised over the selection and acceptance of new member states. The EU Parliament is now a political voice in this process.

Parliament exercises influence over other European institutions in several ways. This allows it to monitor the proper use of the EU budget and to ensure the correct implementation of EU law.

The European Council:

The President of the European Parliament has the right to speak at the start of each European Council, and is able to set out Parliament's position on the subjects to be addressed by the Council.

The Council of the European Union:

Every six months the President of the Council of the European Union discusses their programme with MEPs in plenary. MEPs can question the Council and can ask it to initiate new policies.

The European Commission:

The EU Parliament approves the make up of of the membership of the Commission before a new Commission is appointed. In theory Parliament can also call on the Commission to resign through a 'motion of censure' during its period in office. In 1999 the entire European Commission - the executive body of the European Union - resigned rather than face the indignity of a 'motion of censure'. This was a consequence of a damning report exposing fraud, corruption and mismanagement at senior levels. Such a motion would cause considerable disgrace to the Commission so it was not surprising that the entire commission chose to resign. The European Parliament made it very clear that the French commissioner and former prime minister, Edith Cresson, who was condemned by the report, would be unable to return to office. This power is provided by Article 201 of the Treaty of Rome.

Regular reports from the Commission along with an annual report on EU activities and on the implementation of the budget ensure that the EU Parliament is able to maintain a democratic control over it. The Commission must respond to questions MEPs may wish to ask and Parliament can invite the Commission to initiate new policies.

The Court of Justice:

If Parliament thinks the Commission or Council has not acted in a way that reflects the spirit of EU law it has the power to ask the Court of Justice to take action against them. Parliament, along with the Council, can also ask the Court of Justice for specialist courts to be set up to deal with certain disputes.

The European Central Bank:

Before the European Council appoints the President, Vice-President and Executive Board of the ECB they must consult Parliament.

The Court of Auditors:

Before members of the Court of Auditors are appointed by the Council, Parliament must be consulted. Parliament also decides whether to grant the budget discharge based on the annual report presented by the Court of Auditors.

The European Ombudsman:

The European Ombudsman is elected by Parliament and he reports back to MEPs.

The European Parliament is there to represent citizens of the EU and any EU citizen, resident, company or organisation can submit a petition to the European Parliament about EU law and Parliament can set up a committee of inquiry to look into infringements of EU law by member states. The European citizens' initiative allows EU citizens to participate in shaping EU policy.

With regard to Parliament's powers in relation to the annual budget, this is debated with the Council so there is a sharing of responsibility and power.

Parliament adopts the EU’s annual budget with the Council but Parliament does not have power over the budget, as we might expect, but does have some power over non essential matters. Parliament also keeps a check on spending through a committee that monitors the budget and which is able to report on the Commission's handling of the previous year's budget.

In addition to these official powers Parliament also works closely with national parliaments of EU countries. Regular joint parliamentary assemblies allow for a better inclusion of national perspectives into the Parliament's deliberations.

Human rights are among the main priorities of the European Parliament. Parliament is a key actor in the fight for democracy, freedom of speech, fair elections and the rights of the oppressed.

The matter of the EU's policy on immigration has been raised on the agenda due to to the Arab uprisings in recent times and the effect that such events are having upon the EU's peace keeping process in the Middle East. In July 2011 a number of MEPs formed a delegation to visit Tunisia to see for themselves the problems flowing from the uprising there and the widespread concerns over immigration to Europe. More recently there have been very real concerns for the safety of refugees fleeing from the conflict in Libya and in March 2014 a European Parliament delegation travelled to Israel to assess the conditions of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.


The economic troubles of some countries such as Greece and Ireland are also well documented and the EU Parliament has, like other EU institutions, been drawn into the wider debate on how best to address the economic problems within Europe and those within the single currency zone.


(Word count 1525)

As always the links provided will enable you to do further research and enhance your understanding of European law.

Interactive EU crossword      

European Parliament United Kingdom Office

What has the European Parliament ever done for us?

Click for everything you always wanted to know about the ordinary legislative procedure.





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