European union

The European Parliament: An Introduction


The European Parliament now has 732 Members. According to the European Constitution the number of Members may under no circumstances exceed 750.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been elected by direct universal suffrage at five-year intervals since 1979. They are elected under a system of proportional representation. Elections are held either on a regional basis, as for example in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Poland and Belgium, on a national basis, as in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxembourg, Spain, etc., or under a mixed system as in Germany. A common core of democratic rules applies everywhere: these include the right to vote at 18, equality of men and women, and the principle of the secret ballot. In Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg voting is compulsory.

Since the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993 every citizen of an EU Member State who lives in another country of the Union may vote or stand for election in their country of residence.

In 1979 16.5% of MEPs were women, and the figure is now 30.2% after the elections.


The European Parliament meets and debates in public. Its decisions, positions and proceedings are published in the Official Journal of the European Union.

Members sit in political groups in the Chamber, not in national delegations. Parliament currently has seven political groups, as well as 'non-attached' members. Members also sit on parliamentary committees and delegations, as either full or substitute members.

Members spend one week each month at a plenary session in Strasbourg, when Parliament meets in full session. Additional two-day sittings are held in Brussels. Parliament's secretariat is located in Luxembourg.

Two weeks in every month are set aside for meetings of Parliament's committees in Brussels. The remaining week is devoted to meetings of the political groups.

With the assistance of its translators and interpreters, Parliament works in all the official languages of the Union: Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.


Legislative Power

Like all parliaments, the European Parliament has three fundamental powers: legislative power, budgetary power and supervisory power. The European Constitution confirms and reinforces this triple role.

The EP adopts European legislation with the Council

In the ordinary legislative procedure the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers together adopt legislation proposed by the Commission. Parliament therefore has to give its final agreement.

This legislative power is an essential power of the European Parliament. In the future the European Constitution will extend it to most of the sectors which Parliament does not yet deal with on a equal footing with the Council, such as agricultural policy, research policy, regional development policy and social policy ('structural funds').

This power has enabled the European Parliament to be instrumental in the adoption of legislation whereby, to quote only a few examples:

- the Member States can rule that certain major sporting events must be broadcast in unencrypted form within their territory,

- much stricter anti-pollution rules apply to fuel and motor oils,

- the Commission can apply emergency safeguard measures to animal feed,

- health warnings on cigarette packets are stricter and more visible,

- the use of heavy metals - lead, mercury and cadmium - in the manufacture of vehicles was barred from 2003,

- the budget of the Socrates programme, which enables thousands of students to complete part of their studies in another Member State, has been raised from € 1,400 to 1,850 million for the period 2000-2006.

Although the Commission has the power of initiative as regards European laws, legally speaking, it should be stressed that Parliament may call on the Commission to take a legislative initiative and make detailed recommendations as regards its content. Thus Parliament may exercise political power upstream of legislation.

Parliament's legislative work is organised for the main part as follows:

- the Commission submits a legislative proposal to Parliament; one of the standing committees (the 'committee responsible') is instructed to draw up a report and appoints a rapporteur (i.e. a member of the committee who is entrusted with the task of drafting the committee's report).
One or more other committees may be asked to deliver opinions. Each adopts its opinion and forwards it to the committee responsible;

- MEPs - and the committees asked to deliver opinions - can table amendments to the draft report drawn up by the rapporteur; it is then adopted, possibly with some changes, by the committee responsible;

- the political groups examine the report from their own political standpoint;

- finally, the report is discussed in plenary session. Amendments to it may be tabled by the committee responsible, the political groups or a number of Members. Parliament votes on the report, thereby adopting its position on it.

How Parliament and the Council jointly adopt European 'laws'

The ordinary legislative procedure involves one, two or three readings:

- The Commission proposes a legislative text;

- The European Parliament adopts a position on the basis of a report by its relevant standing committee; it usually suggests changes to the Commission proposal in the form of amendments. This is the first reading ;

- The Council of Ministers either approves Parliament's amendments - in which case the legislative proposal is adopted - or modifies them by adopting its position;

- On the basis of a recommendation by the relevant standing committee, the European Parliament delivers an opinion at second reading : it approves, rejects or amends the Council position by an absolute majority of its Members (367 votes);

- The Commission often takes account of Parliament's amendments and forwards an amended proposal to the Council. The Council can adopt it by a qualified majority; it can modify it only by a unanimous vote.

- In the event of disagreement between Parliament and the Council, a conciliation committee made up of the members of the Council and a delegation from Parliament meets for a maximum of six weeks. The EP delegation, which reflects the composition of Parliament, is chaired by one of its Vice-Presidents. It always includes Parliament's rapporteur.

- In the vast majority of cases the two parties reach an agreement, in the form of a joint text;

- Parliament is invited to confirm this agreement at the third reading . If no agreement is reached, the European 'law' is not adopted.


Citizenship of the Union, which exists by virtue of the Treaty and, in the event of its entry into force,, the Constitution, is conferred on everyone who is a national of an EU Member State. EU citizenship is additional to, and does not replace, national citizenship. Election by universal suffrage gives the European Parliament full legitimacy. By voting in its elections the citizens of Europe enhance its status and influence.

European citizenship gives EU citizens the right of free movement and residence in the territory of the Member States, the right to vote and stand for election in European and local elections, the right to diplomatic protection in third countries, as well as:

- the right to petition the European Parliament;

- the right to bring complaints before the European Ombudsman;

- the right to address any of the Union institutions or bodies in one of the official languages and to receive an answer in the same language.

The right to information

Any citizen of the Union and anyone residing in one of the Member States has a right of access, under certain conditions, to documents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. These conditions have been spelled out in a European Parliament and Council regulation regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. A register open to the public in each institution and accessible via Internet makes it easy to access and search for these documents.

Requests may be submitted in writing or electronically ( ) by any European citizen and any natural or legal person resident or having its seat in a Member State, as well as by persons who are not citizens or residents of the Union.

Members of the public can easily gain access to numerous Parliament documents via its website ( ): these include minutes and verbatim reports of plenary sessions, texts adopted, committee reports, the background to parliamentary issues, press releases, etc. Information can also be found about Members' activities and speeches, and how to contact them. For existing legislation or Commission proposals to which Parliament reacts, see the websites of the Commission - and Council - .

Members of the public can also obtain information from the European Parliament's information offices in the Member States or ask questions (e-mail address: ). All documents published by European Union bodies can be accessed at the European documentation centres in large European cities (see ).

The right of petition

Anyone residing in an EU Member State has the right to submit a petition to the European Parliament, individually or as part of a group, on matters concerning them directly which fall within the European Union's remit. They should write to:

The European Parliament
L-2929 Luxembourg

or e-mail via the website:

The Ombudsman

Any member of the public with a complaint regarding maladministration by a European institution can bring it before the Ombudsman appointed by Parliament.

1, avenue du Président Robert Schuman
BP 403
F-67001 Strasbourg Cedex
Fax (33)388 17 90 62


ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly:

the 'parliament' of the Cotonou Convention, which links 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries to the Member States of the European Union. It is made up of representatives of the 79 countries and 79 Members of the European Parliament, and promotes north-south interdependence, human rights and democracy. Its meetings are held in ACP and European Union countries on an alternating basis.

Acquis communautaire:

the whole range of rights and obligations linking the Member States in the European Union. Countries seeking membership are legally obliged to accept the acquis communautaire and to incorporate it in their legislation before they can join the European Union.

Area of freedom, security and justice:

this 'area' embraces measures on asylum, immigration, police and judicial cooperation in civil and criminal matters, prevention of racism and xenophobia, and the fight against organised crime.

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union:

the Charter, which was drawn up and adopted by a Convention made up of representatives of the European Parliament, the national parliaments, the Member States and the European Commission, has been incorporated in the European Constitution. It will therefore impose obligations on not only the European institutions, but also the Member States when they implement European Union law.

Citizenship of the Union:

all nationals of EU Member States have the status of citizens of the Union. This guarantees, among other things: freedom of movement and residence within the territory of the Union; the right to vote and stand in local and EP elections in the country of residence; and the right to petition the European Parliament and to bring complaints before the European Ombudsman. Citizenship of the Union does not replace national citizenship, but complements it.


a legislative procedure introduced by the Maastricht Treaty which places the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers on an equal footing for the adoption of Community legislation. The European Constitution will turn the 'codecision procedure' into the 'ordinary legislative procedure' for the adoption of European 'laws'.

Committee of the Regions:

a consultative committee set up by the Maastricht Treaty and made up of 344 representatives of the local and regional authorities of the Union, appointed by the Member States. It meets in Brussels.

Common foreign and security policy (CFSP):

initiated in the early 70s, the Union's foreign policy has developed steadily and has incorporated the common security dimension. According to the European Constitution security policy includes the progressive definition of a common defence policy for the Union.

Constitution for Europe:

drawn up by a Convention chaired by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and consisting of MEPs, members of national parliaments, representatives of Member State heads of state and government and European Commissioners, the Constitution (legally speaking a constitutional treaty) was adopted by an Intergovernmental Conference in July 2004. It must be ratified by the 25 Member States. It will coexist with the national constitutions. The first part deals with the values, objectives and competences of the European Union, the powers of its institutions and its financial resources. The second part incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights (see under that heading), and the third describes the Union's internal and external policies and the workings of the Union. The fourth part essentially deals with the procedures for adopting and amending the Constitution.

Council of Europe:

not to be confused with the European Council, this is an intergovernmental organisation with 45 member countries, which drafts pan-European Conventions for adoption in areas such as human rights, culture and education. It has been based in Strasbourg since 1949. The Council of Europe is not an EU body.

Council of Ministers:

made up of ministers (or their representatives) from each of the Member States. It meets periodically in Brussels or Luxembourg to adopt Community legislation, often jointly with the European Parliament. Its decisions are prepared by the Committee of Permanent Representatives of the Member States (Coreper). The make-up of the Council varies with the subject (finance, agriculture, foreign affairs, etc.). At present the Council presidency rotates among the Member States on a 6-monthly basis. The European Constitution envisages assigning the presidency every 18 months to a group of 3 Member States, and the Foreign Affairs Council will be chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Court of Justice:

consisting of 25 judges and 8 advocates-general, the Court ensures compliance with the law in the application and interpretation of the treaties. Its seat is in Luxembourg. It is not to be confused with the International Court of Justice, which is an organ of the United Nations and has its seat in The Hague, or the European Court of Human Rights, which has its seat in Strasbourg and is an organ of the Council of Europe.

Economic and Social Committee:

a consultative committee consisting of 344 representatives of various economic and social groups in the Union. It meets in Brussels.


the term used to describe the four waves of new accessions whereby the six founding members of the European Community - Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - were joined by a further nineteen: Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom in 1973; Greece in 1981; Spain and Portugal in 1986; Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995; Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia in May 2004.
Negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania are continuing. Turkey, and recently Croatia, have been recognised as accession candidates. In December 2004 the European Council will take a decision on opening accession negotiations with Turkey, on the basis of a recommendation from the Commission.


European Union programme, now merged with the Socrates programme, under which students from one Member State can spend part of their education in another country of the Union.


informal grouping of the twelve members of the Economic and Finance Council representing the euro zone.

European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom):

established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

European Central Bank:

based in Frankfurt, the European Central Bank is responsible for the monetary policy of the euro zone, i.e. the Member States that have opted for the single currency. Its Executive Board consists of six members. The Governing Council consists of the governors of the central banks of the euro zone and the members of the Executive Board.

European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC):

the first European community, set up by the Treaty of Paris of 18 April 1951. It was abolished in 2002.

European Commission:

the institution that initiates Community legislation, runs European common policies, implements the budget and ensures compliance with the treaties. At present it is made up of 25 independent members (one from each of the Member States). It is appointed for 5 years subject to the approval of the European Parliament, to which it is accountable. From November 2004 the President of the Commission will be José Manuel Durao Barroso.

European Community (EC):

originally created under the name 'European Economic Community' (EEC) by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, it largely dealt with economic and trade matters (the 'first pillar'). Since 1993 (the Maastricht Treaty) it has coexisted with the European Union, which dealt with foreign and security policy on the one hand (the 'second pillar') and, on the other, action in justice and police matters (the 'third pillar'). In the event of the European Constitution coming into force the 'pillars' will disappear at the same time as the European Community and its content will be merged in the 'European Union'.

European Council:

since 1975 the European Council has brought together, at least twice a year, the heads of state or government of the Member States of the Union - assisted by the foreign ministers - and the President of the European Commission. It lays down the broad policy guidelines of the Union and discusses topical international issues of major importance. The meetings are referred to by the media as 'summits'. At present it has a rotating presidency: the Member States hold the presidency in turn for six months. The European Constitution envisages replacing the rotating presidency by a permanent presidency held for 2 and a half years. The future Foreign Minister of the Union will take part in the deliberations.

European Court of Auditors:

the European Court of Auditors has 25 members. It monitors the management of Community finances and can inform Parliament and the Council of any irregularities it may uncover. It is based in Luxembourg.

European Union (EU):

when the concept of the 'European Union' was introduced by the Maastricht Treaty (1993), it was concerned with the foreign and security policy on the one hand ('second pillar') and action in the fields of police and judicial cooperation on the other (the 'third pillar'). It was set up 'alongside' the European Community, which largely dealt with economic and social aspects. When the European Constitution comes into force the 'pillars' will disappear at the same time as the European Community and its content are merged in the 'European Union'.

Intergovernmental Conference (IGC):

forum in which the Member State governments negotiate changes to the treaties. It was the IGC that adopted the European Constitution in June 2004.

Investiture of the Commission:

the Member States nominate the person they envisage appointing as President of the Commission 'by common accord'. The nominee presents his or her political aims to the European Parliament, which then either approves or rejects the nomination. The Member States, in consultation with the President-designate, then choose nominees for the other members of the Commission, who are heard by Parliament's standing committees. The new Commission is elected or rejected by the European Parliament.

Minister of Foreign Affairs:

the European Constitution envisages the appointment, by the European Council, of a Minister of Foreign Affairs, who will replace the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the Union. He or she will chair the Foreign Affairs Council and will also be the Vice-president of the European Commission, in order to ensure the consistency of the Union's international action.

Qualified majority:

the method of voting used by the Council of Ministers in the legislative procedure (except where unanimity is required). At present it involves giving the vote of each Member State a weighting which reflects the size of its population. The European Constitution makes provision for a double majority: 55% of the Member States and 65% of the population of the European Union.

Structural funds:

the term denoting the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF), the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund and the Cohesion Fund. Their purpose is to narrow the development gap between regions and between EU Member States.