The EU-institutions: the European Parliament (Part I)

Today we will resume the analysis of the EU-institutions. After the Council of the EU and the EU-Commission, the third VIP of the EU-institutions is the European Parliament. Unlike these two other babies, the Parliament’s seat is located in Strasburg, making it a bit more “aloof” from the usual European madness – although some of its organs are in Brussels and Luxemburg and most of the work is done in Brussels. It represents the interests of the peoples of the Member States. The President is elected for two years and a half, renewable once: currently, the German Martin Schulze (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats S&D) is the President. However, let’s be clear: the Parliament does not hold the same powers as a national Parliament as it does not strictly own the legislative power.

The European Parliament is a big piece in the EU panorama, and since it represents the citizens we reckon it deserves a significant space in our series – at least more than it has in the reality. We will hence divide its situation into two articles: this one will focus on its structure, organization and functioning, while the next one will deal with its attributions.

Originally, the European Parliament was the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) when the ECSC was created. It was a very different organ than it is now of course, and this Assembly was composed of delegates that the national Parliaments designated within them or that were directly elected. A legal act from 1976, the “act concerning the election of the representatives of the Assembly by direct universal suffrage”, established that the principle of the single vote would be the election system in place in every country, and that votes would be organized everywhere during the same period of time. In addition, it was decided that every EU-citizen residing in a State of which he is not a citizen could legally vote and be eligible in the State in which he resides. So, if you are a German living in Finland, you can vote there and even be eligible. How cool is that, Germany now finally has a chance to rule the world! However, finding an agreement regarding the number of representatives from each State was slightly more problematic – and still is. Nowadays, there are 751 Members, as set out by the Lisbon Treaty (Germany having 96 and Malta 6), but following the effective Brexit the number and distribution of MEPs per country will change – the UK currently has 73 MEPs that will need to be divided into 27 Member States following precise proportionality rules: headache in sight! Since 2003, there are two systems in place to elect the Eurodeputies: either within the framework of regional constituencies (this is the case in France for instance), or within the framework of national constituencies (Spain, Denmark, etc.). In a regional constituency system, the allocation depends on the total population of each constituency. In any case, the proportional representation is the voting system in place in every Member State.

The MEPs status is determined by the same legal document from 1976, but the measures that it contains either refer to the treaties or to application measures of treaties that have never been adopted, or else to national legislations. In other words: it is not of much help. It does, however, clarify the length of the term of a MEP, which is of five years, along with a bunch of other stuffs like the possibility to cumulate European and national jobs, the incompatibility of a MEP job with a national government or EU-institution job, the privilege of the non-accountability (no judicial proceedings nor detention measures during the term), the fixing of financial allowances (until 2009 those allowances were set out by the States, but there were so many disparities and abuses that it has been decided to grant all of them around €8.000/month). If you multiply this amount by 751 MEPs, that is a great deal of money – too much money actually when you know the implication and the usefulness of some of them within the EU-processes. And here is the problem: MEPs receive this allowance as long as they sit in half of the sessions – if they do not, they still get an allowance but officially with lesser amounts. However, MEPs showing up at less than half of the sessions is something that has already happened in the past, and they have never been sanctioned. Also, they are each entitled to a full-time assistant of course, along with some other benefits like €4.300/month for “general fees”, €304/day when there is a session in Strasburg (around four days a month) and €22.000/month (yes, you did read correctly) to pay for their assistants, personal staff, trainees and other Minions that will happily do all the work: that is around €8.000+€4.300+€304*4+€22.000=€35.516/month . To sum up, they can do half of the job they are paid for and still receive at least €34.300/month (you just need to take away the Strasburg sessions days). Personally, I am not happy with that, and I reckon that a reform is needed and that the costs need to be reduced and proportional to the efforts they put in. You do not show up at work? Then you do not get paid and get fired, just like anybody else in the real world. Occasionally, they even have the guts to complain, saying that people in Strasburg are not nice, or that going to Strasburg four days a month when you live in Brussels is not convenient, which is why they skip the sessions. Poor them…

Regarding its functioning, the European Parliament adopts its very own regulations and rules following every EU-enlargement. The President has a significant role: he chairs the plenary sessions and represents the Parliament to other EU-institutions and to international organizations. Martin Schulze, the current President, is a nice person. He speaks a bunch of languages, is a keen Europhile, smiling, and bonus: he is not reluctant to shaking hands with you even though you are not a “big fish”, so for that particular reason I like him – now that shows how little they have to do to be different from these Brussels high officials.

The Bureau of the Parliament holds powers related to the finances of the Parliament: it deals with the financing of the political groups and elaborates the preliminary draft estimates of the Parliament’s expenditure. The Bureau is made up of the President of the Parliament, the Vice-President, and Quaestors (experts owning a consultative role).

The Conference of Presidents brings together the President of the Parliament and the presidents of the political groups. It was given functions regarding the organization of the European Parliament (timetable, sitting agendas).

The Committees are divided into two groups: the permanent Committees and the temporal Committees. There are 20 permanent ones (Foreign Affairs, budget, etc.), which have a double role: preparing the role of the European Parliament for the plenary sessions and maintaining relations with the European Commission and the EU-Council in-between the plenary sessions. They are, in other words, the equivalent of the COREPER of the EU-Council (for more information see note “The EU-institutions: the Council of the European Union”) and the working groups of the European Commission (for more information please refer to article “The EU-institutions: the European Commission” from June, 14th 2016). As regards to the temporary Committees, they result from the Maastricht Treaty, and they investigate the misimplementations and the violations allegations to the laws of the EU. They are hence created occasionally upon request of at least one quarter of the Member States (seven currently). They cannot, however, be created for just any matter, and they meet their end when they deliver the reports to the European Parliament – thanks to which the Parliament can then take legal actions.

Now let’s jump to the political groups within the Parliament. MEPs do not have to necessarily belong to a political group, but most do because let’s face it: it provides MEPs with some very convenient benefits. Indeed, each group is granted premises, staff, a number of seats in the permanent Committees, a speaking time, the possibility to ask verbal questions to the Parliament, the possibility to deposit a motion of censure, substantial financial benefits, etc. Now to make up a political group requires little: the minimum number of MEPs is 25 coming from at least a quarter of the number of Member States. There are now eight political groups: two main ones (the Group of the European People’s Party is the main right-wing party, and there is also the main left-wing Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), and six smaller ones, amongst which the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (created in June 2015). The MEPs that do not belong to any political group do not enjoy these benefits, and they are known as non-attached Members. Finally, it is worth adding that a political group meets two or three days ahead of each plenary session to agree on a strategy.

The frequency of the sessions is not fixed. Strictly, there is only one annual session, which usually takes place the second Tuesday of March. This session has the particularity to never close (hence the “annual session”), meaning that the Parliament sits in various sessions within the framework of this session (four days a month in Strasburg, and two days in Brussels, except in August). It also sits after the election of the MEPs – that is every five years. It can also sit in an extraordinary session upon request of a majority of the Member States, the EU-Council or the European Commission. The sessions are public unless stipulated otherwise. The plenary sessions are held in Strasburg, the parliamentary Committees are in Brussels and the General Secretariat is in Luxemburg – confuzzling, isn’t it? Three locations obviously bring unnecessary costs, as well as unnecessary complications. The voting systems used are the freehand vote, the roll-call vote, the electronic vote or the ballot paper. For a vote to be effective, the absolute majority is needed. About 3600 permanent staff work for the Parliament and are divided into 12 Directorates-General, which together make up for the Secretariat.

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