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Home / European Parliament

European Parliament

European Parliament


The European Parliament, as the first case of a supranational parliament elected by direct universal suffrage at a regional level, is still a unique case study.

Born as the driving force of the European integration process, the democratically elected European Parliament (at its seventh legislature - 1979, 1984, 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009)  increasingly reflects the contradictions and oscillations of very different national public spheres (currently 27), including strong Euroskeptical tendencies. The spread of various different Euroskeptical tendencies, along with the general problems of national democratic systems, explains the following changes: a decline in turnout in the EP elections (since 1979 the EP elections have somewhat resembled US “mid term elections” implying a 20% lower turnout than in the national elections, but the turnout  for the European elections declined from 61.99% in 1979 to 58.98% in 1984, 58.41% in 1989, 56.67% in 1994, 49.51% in 1999, 45.47% in 2004, and 43% in 2009; national, turnout varied from 90% in Belgium to 19% in Slovakia); the representation of several Euroskeptical parties in the EP (in the UK, Poland, Italy, Belgium, France and other countries), both right-wing and left-wing; the creation in 2009 of a new relevant Euroskeptical group in the EP, the ECR Group, European Conservatives and Reformists Group (resulting from a division of the European People’s party) based on the British Conservative Party and several MPs from Poland, France and the Czech Republic. However, the EP still includes a pro-European majority, which largely explains its strong support to both the Constitutional Treaty of 2004 and the Lisbon Treaty of 2007. What is  generally defined as a pro-European majority includes in the 2009-2014 EP, in decreasing order of political relevance: the European People’s Party (EPP, 265 seats as the EPP Group), the Party of European Socialists (PES, 184 seats as the parliamentary group ”S&D”, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, also including the Italian Democratic Party), the European Liberal and Democrat Reform Party (ELDR, 85 seats as the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe - ALDE), the European Green Party (EGP, 55 seats as the Group of Greens/European Free Alliance, including pro-integration regionalists,  also part of the European political Party European Free Alliance). The other political families are: the Party of the European Left (35 seats as the Confederal Group of the  European United Left/Nordic Green Left – GUE Gauche Unitaire Européenne/NGL), the European Conservatives and Reformists Group - ECR (54), the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group (31). 

The history of the European Parliament (EP) can be summarised as an ongoing struggle to become a true parliament, with powers and functions similar to national parliaments. In this respect, thirty years after its first elections by universal suffrage, its record is controversial and discussed by observers and scholars (R. Corbett, F. Jacobs, M. Shackelton (2007), The European Parliament, London Harper; B. Rittberger (2005), Building Europe’s Parliament, Oxford, Oxford University Press; S. Hix, A. Noury, G. Roland (2007),  Democratic politics in the European Parliament, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; P. Magnette, P. Delwit, ,J.-.M. De Waele (1999) A quoi sert le Parlement européen?, Bruxelles, Complexe.; O. Costa, (2001) Le Parlement européen. Assemblée déliberante, Bruxelles, Université de Bruxelles; D. Pasquinucci, L. Verzichelli (2004), Elezioni europee e classe politica sovranazionale 1979-2004, Bologna, Il Mulino). The gradual increase in the Parliament’s competences and powers is evident. It started as a quasi cultural association in 1979, first obtaining budgetary power and eventually, with the Lisbon Treaty, co-decision power with the Council (though with some relevant exceptions such as the CFSP and EDSP). Furthermore, co-decision by lawmaking is accompanied by increasing control of scrutiny of the accountability and legitimacy of the EU Commission (veto power on the appointment under the Treaty of Nice and election of the President of the Commission according to the Lisbon Treaty). Milestone steps were: in 1999 the EP Resolution demanding the resignation of the Santer Commission and in 2004 when President Barroso was forced to change his Commission team. Internal differences and diversities within the enlarged EU make the direct election of the European Commission by the Parliament (as in national parliament-government relations) necessary and difficult at the same time: necessary, in order to overcome fragmentation and strengthen the political authority and stability of the European Commission (explaining the step taken forward by the Lisbon Treaty); difficult, because democratic legitimacy of supranational entities needs broader majorities, inclusive consensus, deliberative democracy procedures.

How does the Parliament really function? Regarding its composition, in 2009 the EP  numbered 736 members elected for a five-year term in the 27 Member States. With respect to the gender dimension, about one third of the 2009-2014 MEPs are women. The fact that they are elected according to very different national electoral systems does not correspond to the usual rules of national parliaments (including federal states). However, all member states have to respect the essential principles of secret ballot and gender equality. The voting age is 18, with the sole exception of Austria (16). Furthermore, seats are allocated according to the principle of “degressive proportionality”, a compromise between the democratic criterion of proportionality (taking into account the population of each state) and the diplomatic criterion of equal rights of states: Germany holds the maximum number of seats (99) and Luxembourg the minimum(5). According to several scholars, decreasing proportionality provokes a deeper democratic deficit within the member states with greater population because of their too very large constituency. As far as the balance between national and supranational belonging is concerned, the parliament members sit according to their political and ideological affinity and not according to their nationality. Moreover, this distinctive feature has been strengthened by the evolution of the European parties, which receive funding and can create their own structures and cultural foundations as well as form larger parliamentary groups. However, national delegations within the supranational parties play a very relevant role, orienting the vote of individual parliamentary members on the relevant issues at stake. How does  Parliament really work? It carries out its activities during twelve plenary sittings in both Strasbourg, its official headquarters according to the Treaty, and Brussels, seat of the important “Parliamentary Committees” - the 20 specialized standing committees including between 24 and 76 MEPs reflecting the political weight of each political family, that have a chair, a bureau and a secretariat meet once or twice a month in Brussels and, through public meetings, debate and adopt legislative proposals and own-initiative reports, consider the Commission and Council proposals and, where necessary, draw up reports to be presented to the plenary assembly –  the sub-committees and special temporary committees set up by the Parliament to address specific issues, as in Defence policy, the meeting of political groups as well as the extraordinary plenary sessions. Such an onerous and heavy double location as well as the separation of the EU institutions in many European cities are also symbolic of the no-state character of the EU political system: the main institutions and agencies are not concentrated in a single city so as like state institutions (the European Commission in Brussels, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the EP in Strasbourg, the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, the European University in Florence, and so on). Interparliamentary delegations have been created in order to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with parliaments elsewhere (“Eurolat” with Latin America is particularly relevant, but also Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue, ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly should be mentioned as well as the Euro-Indian and so on). This open and structured dialogue with several extra-European parliaments on a regular basis is spreading the idea of regional supranational parliaments abroad. For its daily activities, the EP benefits from a relatively large administration, organized according to traditional job sharing (communication, external relations, relations with political groups, budget etc.) plus a relevant translation-service in the 23 official languages (every MEP and every citizen has the right to follow discussions and every MEP can take the floor in his/her national language). A significant part of its permanent, temporary and freelance staff translates or interprets the EP proceedings. The Parliament’s budget is part of the General EU Budget (1% of the total EU annual GDP), of which it makes up about 1% or one fifth of the total administrative costs of all EU institutions (in 2006 €1.32 billion, of which 44% was for staff expenses, mainly salaries for the 6,000 employees working in the administration and, to a lesser extent, in the political groups, 9% for the Parliament’s buildings, 5% for activities and products, 5% for the IT and telecom sector, 4% for political group activities). As far as the political dynamic of EP deliberation is concerned, the consensual model of the “grand coalition” between the two largest parties and parliamentary groups is still the prevailing rule both for lawmaking and the appointment of main charges (starting with the President of the European Parliament, alternatively socialist or from the EPP). However, this parliamentary praxis, which has created a huge consensus, contrary to the classical Westminster blueprint of majority/opposition dialectic (majority rule of competing parties and coalitions), is gradually evolving. EP politics is becoming increasingly “normal”: towards a new balance between the deliberative and consensual democratic model and the “normal” right/left opposition. The cohesion of the party groups has increased, particularly in the fourth and fifth parliaments. 


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