The European Parliament
The European Parliament (EP) is the only supranational institution whose members are democratically elected by direct universal suffrage. It represents the people of the Member States. Parliament also has joint power with the Council over the annual budget of the European Union.
The European Parliament is made up of 736 Members elected in the 27 Member States of the enlarged European Union. Since 1979 Members of the EP have been elected by direct universal suffrage for a five-year period. Each Member State decides on the form its election will take, but follows identical democratic ground rules: equality of the sexes and a secret ballot. In all Member States, the voting age is 18, with the exception of Austria, where it is 16. European elections are already governed by a number of common principles: direct universal suffrage, proportional representation and a five-year renewable term.
The seats are, as a general rule, shared out proportionately to the population of each Member State. Each Member State has a set number of seats, the maximum being 99 and the minimum five.
The President is elected for a renewable term of two and a half years, i.e. half the lifetime of a Parliament. The President represents the European Parliament vis-a-vis the outside world and in its relations with the other Community institutions. Assisted by 14 Vice-Presidents, the President oversees all the work of the Parliament and its constituent bodies (Bureau and Conference of Presidents), as well as the debates in plenary.
The Members exercise their mandate in an independent fashion. They are grouped by political affinity and not by nationality; there are currently 7 political groups in the European Parliament. 25 Members are needed to form a political group, and at least one-quarter of the Member States must be represented within the group. Some Members do not belong to any political group and are known as non-attached Members. The Members divide their time between Brussels, Strasbourg and their constituencies. In Brussels they attend meetings of the parliamentary committees and political groups, and additional plenary sittings. In Strasbourg they attend 12 plenary sittings. In parallel with these activities they must also, of course, devote time to their constituencies.
In order to do the preparatory work for Parliament's plenary sittings, the Members are divided up among a number of specialised standing committees; there are currently 20 of them. The committees draw up, amend and adopt legislative proposals and own-initiative reports. They consider Commission and Council proposals and, where necessary, draw up reports to be presented to the plenary assembly. Parliament can also set up sub-committees and special temporary committees to deal with specific issues, and is empowered to create formal committees of inquiry under its supervisory remit to investigate allegations of maladministration of EU law.
The European Parliament's delegations interact with the parliaments of countries that are not members of the European Union. They play an important role in helping to develop Europe's influence abroad.
The European Parliament shares legislative power equally with the Council of the European Union. This means it is empowered to adopt European laws (directives, regulations etc,). It can accept, amend or reject the content of European legislation. This power has an impact on the daily lives of its citizens: For example, on environmental protection, consumer rights, equal opportunities, transport, and the free movement of workers, capital, services and goods.
A Member of the European Parliament, working in one of the parliamentary committees, draws up a report on a proposal for a 'legislative text' presented by the European Commission, the only institution empowered to initiate legislation. The parliamentary committee votes on this report and, possibly, amends it. When the text has been revised and adopted in plenary, Parliament has adopted its position. This process is repeated one or more times, depending on the type of procedure and whether or not agreement is reached with the Council.
In the adoption of legislative acts, a distinction is made between the ordinary legislative procedure (co-decision), which puts Parliament on an equal footing with the Council, and the special legislative procedures, which apply only in specific cases where Parliament has only a consultative role.
The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union together constitute the Union's budgetary authority, which decides each year on its expenditure and revenue. The procedure of examining, then adopting, the budget takes place between June and late December.
The European Parliament has major supervisory powers over the activities of the European Union.
Every European citizen has the right to petition Parliament to ask for problems to be remedied in areas within the sphere of activity of the European Union. Parliament has also appointed an Ombudsman who deals with complaints by individuals against Community institutions or bodies with a view to reaching an amicable solution. The European Parliament also has the power to set up a committee of inquiry to look into violations or wrong application of Community law by Member States. Parliament has the right of recourse before the Court of Justice of the European Communities, and it also has powers of control in the economic and monetary domain.
The European Parliament exercises democratic control over the Commission. The President of the Commission is appointed by a majority vote in the Council, but the Parliament approves or rejects the proposed appointment. Then, in accord with the President appointed, the Member States appoint the Commissioners. The College of Commissioners must then be endorsed as a whole by Parliament. Parliament has the power to censure the Commission; this is a fundamental instrument that can be exercised by the Members of the European Parliament to ensure democratic control within the Union. Parliament can force the College of Commissioners as a whole to resign. The Commission regularly submits reports to Parliament, through its scrutiny of these reports Parliament is able to exercise oversight.
There is also a certain parliamentary oversight over the activities of the Council, for example Tabling written and oral questions by Members of the EP to the Council and the Commission. Parliament also has a power of political initiative in that it can call on the Commission to submit a proposal to the Council.