The European Parliament

The members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sit not in national blocks but in Europe-wide political groups that bring together all the main political parties operating in the EU member states.

TABLE: Number of seats per political group, as at 1 April 2003.

Political groupAbbreviationNo. of seats
European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European DemocratsEPP-ED232
Party of European SocialistsPES175
European Liberal, Democrat and Reformist PartyELDR52
European United Left/Nordic Green LeftEUL/NGL49
Greens/European Free AllianceGreens/EFA44
Union for Europe of the NationsUEN23
Europe of Democracies and DiversitiesEDD18

The Parliament's origins go back to the 1950s and the founding treaties. Since 1979, MEPs have been directly elected by the citizens they represent.

Parliamentary elections are held every five years, and every EU citizen who is registered as a voter is entitled to vote. So Parliament expresses the democratic will of the Union's 374 million citizens, and it represents their interests in discussions with the other EU institutions.

In 2002, Pat Cox was elected President of the European Parliament.

Number of seats per country
(in alphabetical order according to the country's name in its own language)

Czech Republic-2424
United Kingdom877878
(MAX) TOTAL626732786

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Where is Parliament based?

The European Parliament works in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The monthly plenary sessions, which all MEPs attend, are held in Strasbourg (France) - the Parliament's "seat". Parliamentary committee meetings and any additional plenary sessions are held in Brussels (Belgium), whilst Luxembourg is home to the administrative offices (the "General Secretariat"). 

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What does Parliament do?

Parliament has three main roles:

  1. It shares with the Council the power to legislate. The fact that is a directly-elected body helps guarantee the democratic legitimacy of European law.
  2. It exercises democratic supervision over all EU institutions, and in particular the Commission. It has the power to approve or reject the nomination of Commissioners, and it has the right to censure the Commission as a whole.
  3. It shares with the Council authority over the EU budget and can therefore influence EU spending. At the end of the procedure, it adopts or rejects the budget in its entirety.

These three roles are described in greater detail below.

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1. The power to legislate

The most common procedure for adopting (i.e. passing) EU legislation is "co-decision" (see the section on Decision-making in the European Union). This places the European Parliament and the Council on an equal footing and the laws passed using this procedure are joint acts of the Council and Parliament. It applies to legislation in a wide range of fields.

On a range of other proposals Parliament must be consulted, and its approval is required for certain important political or institutional decisions.

Parliament also provides impetus for new legislation by examining the Commission's annual work programme, considering what new laws would be appropriate and asking the Commission to put forward proposals.

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2. Democratic supervision

Parliament exercises democratic supervision over the other European institutions. It does so in several ways.

First, when a new Commission is to be appointed, Parliament interviews all the prospective new members and President of the Commission (nominated by the member states). They cannot be appointed without Parliament's approval.

Second, the Commission is politically answerable to Parliament, which can pass a "motion of censure" calling for its mass resignation.

More generally, Parliament exercises control by regularly examining reports sent to it by the Commission (general report, reports on the implementation of the budget, the application of Community law, etc.). Moreover, MEPs regularly ask the Commission written and oral questions.

The members of the Commission attend plenary sessions of Parliament and meetings of the parliamentary committees, maintaining a continual dialogue between the two institutions.

Parliament also monitors the work of the Council: MEPs regularly ask the Council written and oral questions, and the President of the Council attends the plenary sessions and takes part in important debates. 

Parliament works closely with the Council in certain areas, such as common foreign and security policy and judicial co-operation, as well as on some issues of common interest such as asylum and immigration policy and measures to combat drug abuse, fraud and international crime. The Council Presidency keeps Parliament informed on all these subjects.

Parliament can also exercise democratic control by examining petitions from citizens and setting up temporary committees of inquiry. 

Finally, Parliament provides input to every EU summit (the European Council meetings). At the opening of each summit, the President of Parliament is invited to express Parliament's views and concerns about topical issues and the items on the European Council's agenda.

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3. The power of the purse

The EU's annual budget is decided jointly by Parliament and the Council of the European Union. Parliament debates it in two successive readings, and it does not come into force until it has been signed by the President of Parliament.

Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control (COCOBU) monitors how the budget is spent, and each year Parliament decides whether to approve the Commission's handling of the budget for the previous financial year. This approval process is technically known as "granting a discharge".

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How is the Parliament's work organised?

Parliament's work is divided into two main stages:

  • Preparing for the plenary session. This is done by the MEPs in the various parliamentary committees that specialise in particular areas of EU activity. The issues for debate are also discussed by the political groups.
  • The plenary session itself. Plenary sessions, attended by all MEPs, are normally held in Strasbourg (one week per month) and sometimes in Brussels (two days). At these sessions, Parliament examines proposed legislation and votes on amendments before coming to a decision on the text as a whole.

Other items on the agenda may include Council or Commission "communications" or questions about what is going on in the European Union or the wider world.

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