What is the role of the European Parliament?

The European Parliament is one of the 3 main institutions involved in the creation of European law. The others are the European Commission and the European Council.

The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty gave the European Parliament an increased role in policy-making, although its influence is still relatively small compared to the Council and Commission. The links below give a good introduction to what the Parliament and the other two main institutions do.

How are decisions made in the Parliament?

The processes by which decisions are reached in the Parliament often vary depending on the type of legislation or other decisions being made. It is important to note, also, that much of the work which influences the final decision taken by the Parliament on a piece of proposed legislation takes place at an informal level, outside the formal Committee meetings and plenary sessions. This includes, for example, lobbying by the public, businesses and other organisations, and meetings with representatives from the Commission, Council or Presidency and bodies such as the Economic and Social Committee. Within the Parliament, Rapporteurs will discuss their report with their colleagues and advisers within political groupings, and there is a considerable amount of negotiating which goes on with MEPs of other political groups in order to try and get as much support as possible for the report.

Committees and parliament

If a committee report is adopted by the Parliament it then passes to the Council for their consideration. What happens at this stage depends on the procedure the proposal falls under. The number of times a piece of legislation in preparation goes back and forth between players, from the time of the initial proposal to its final adoption as a piece of EU legislation, varies according to the procedure. The legal base of each proposal, as set out in the Treaties, determines which procedure it falls under. The process can take years. Parliament often has to deal with the same proposal twice, as there is frequently a ‘Second Reading’ (if it is co-decision procedure – see below), after the Parliament’s decision the first time round has been considered by the Council and Commission. There are four different procedures.

How much influence the Parliament’s own decision on a particular proposal has on the final piece of legislation varies – it is just one of a number of institutions involved in forming legislation. A lot of bargaining and give and take goes on between the different institutions involved. On some matters the Parliament’s opinion must be taken into account, and the legislation cannot be passed without Parliament’s agreement (this is called the co-decision procedure (for a guide to the co-decision procedure in a PDF format, please click here). On others, however, the Parliament gives its opinion but this does not have to be taken into account by the Council, which has the final say. This is called the consultation procedure. There is also a cooperation procedure, which gives the Parliament more say than in consultation but less than in co-decision, but this is now rarely used, and an assent procedure, which is reserved solely for special measures.

It is in the Parliament’s interests that as much as possible is based on co-decision procedure, where its powers are strongest, and as little as possible is based on the consultation procedure, where its powers are weakest. The procedure a legislative proposal falls under depends, broadly speaking, on its subject area. Since 1997, more EU legislation is subject to co-decision procedure, but agricultural, justice and home affairs, trade, fiscal harmonisation and EMU issues are still not.

Can citizens influence what goes on in Parliament?

The role of lobbying

During the time when a proposed piece of legislation is with the Parliament, from receiving the proposal to the Parliament’s adopted report, there are many different influences acting on the path the Parliament takes with regard to the issue. Besides all the many people working on it inside the Parliament and in other EU institutions, MEPs are lobbied from all sides including:

  • individuals, especially constituents
  • businesses and firms with an interest in the outcome
  • non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with an interest in the outcome
  • professional lobbying organisations hired to lobby on behalf of organisations or firms

The amount of lobbying, and who does the lobbying, varies from one issue to the next. This depends on factors such as who the interest groups are and how controversial the issue is.

Sometimes all MEPs are lobbied on an issue. Sometimes the lobbying is more targeted, not extending beyond the Rapporteur and other MEPs who work particularly on that issue. This is likely for more specialised topics.

There is no way of measuring the real influence of lobbying, but there is no doubt it does have an effect. It does this by:·

  • informing MEPs about the opinions of their constituents and European citizens in general
  • pointing out new angles and arguments on a subject
  • bringing a particular report or proposal to someone’s attention

Sometimes it is the sheer volume of lobbying on a particular issue that has an effect, while on other occasions just one letter can make a difference. The effect of corporate lobbying is of particular concern to the Greens, as it has sometimes resulted in the watering down of legislative proposals, for example, on animal testing and control of chemicals. Powerful industry lobbyists not only apply pressure to MEPs, they also influence the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Greens have argued that there needs to be clearer regulation of lobbying.