- 1 Purpose
- 2 Functions and powers
- 3 Legitimacy
- 4 Committee system
- 5 Role in digital rights debates
The European Parliament (EP) is the democratic core of the European Union, being composed of 736 members (MEPs, Members of the European Parliament) elected by the citizens of the Member States. Seats are assigned to the Member States according to their population, but no more than 99 or fewer than 5 seats in order to avoid great disparities between the “big” and “small” States.
Elections take place every five years and are regulated by national laws in the respect of some European standards (e.g. to have a proportional representation system). Instead, the President is elected every two and a half years by the MEPs and presides over the debates and activities of the European Parliament.
Originally the EP had mainly a consultive role in European legislative process and and it was composed of delegates from the national parliaments. Then, treaty revisions have introduced a direct election of MEPs (since 1979) and have allowed the European Parliament to gain a leading role in the European decision-making process.
Nevertheless, the European Parliament differs significantly from the traditional conception of parliament as it has developed at the national level. As a matter of fact, it shares the legislative power with the Council of the European Union, in the adoption of the legislation, and with the European Commission, that hold an almost exclusivity in proposing legislation.
Moreover, a real “confidence relationship” between the legislative and executive power does not take place and the European political parties are the mere product of the coordination between the political parties at the national level.
Functions and powers
Concerning the functions and the powers, the European Parliament has expanded his role over the years thank to treaty revisions. Currently, the “ordinary legislative procedure” (previously known as “codecision procedure”), that gives an equal weight to the European Parliament and to the Council in the adoption of legislation, covers the main areas of policy.
Control over the Executive
Furthermore, the EP exerts a control over the executive (Council and Commission), even if weaker than that present in the national parliamentary systems. Indeed, the President of the Commission, appointed by the Council, must receive the approval of the EP and the same occurs in the case of the College of Commissioners, appointed by the Member States and endorsed by the EP as a whole. Moreover, the European Parliament, with a two-thirds majority, can censure the Commission forcing it to resign. Even if this power remembers the vote of no confidence typical of the national parliamentary systems, it is important to underline that the European power of censure has never been used and that it cannot be exerted over the other branch of the executive, i.e. the Council.
Budgetary and supervisory powers
In the European arena the EP also exerts budgetary and supervisory powers, that have been strengthened over the years through the treaty revisions. In relation to the former, the Lisbon Treaty has placed the European Parliament on an equal footing with the Council, removing the distinction between compulsory e non-compulsory expenditures, and applying a simplified version of the ordinary legislative procedure to whole EU budget. Concerning the latter, the European Parliament supervises the activities of the European Union exerting financial control, receiving citizens' petitions, appointing the Ombudsman, presenting oral and written questions to the Council and to the Commission, setting up committees to examine potential violations or wrong application of the European Law by the Member States.
The difference between the European Parliament and the national parliaments have often raised the issue of the democratic deficit of the European union, i.e. the lack of legitimacy of the European level due to the weakness of the EP compared to the power of the Council. Actually, as already underlined, the treaty revisions have contributed to restore the balance of powers between the European Institutions and, therefore, many decisions cannot be taken without the approval of the European Parliament.
In addition, it is necessary to observe that the European Union represents an unique case in the global legal experience and it could be inefficacious to judge the democracy in the European Union with a mere comparison between the functions and powers of the institutions at the European and national level.
One needs to think to the intensive sharing of power at the European levels with more institutions that exert the same power, whilst in the national parliamentary systems the separation of powers is the rule and the functional interferences are the exception. Only starting with the awareness of these peculiarities, it is possible to analyse and evaluate the democracy within the European system.
Prior to legislation, topics are examined by Parliamentary committees. Reports are noted or adopted. This helps influence the general policy direction of the EU.
During the legislative process, key committees examine the legislation at various points. They eventually propose and examine amendments to legislation.
Role in digital rights debates
The EP is perhaps the most accessible, relatively speaking, of the three institutions during a legislative process. MEPs can be contacted by phone, email and in person, and to a certain degree, expect to hear from citizens.
The EP has frequently taken positions that differ from the Council and Commission. Often MEPs have responded to concerns about human rights and impacts of legislation on European business interests. Nevertheless, the EP is very open to lobbying from corporate interests, who invest heavily in their presence in the EU political system, because of its wide impact on business regulation. This is arguably exacerbated by the relative lack of attention given to EU processes by member states' media.
The EP has played critical roles, both positive and negative, in a number of digital rights debates: