MEPs: What do they do? (at length!)
MEPS can occupy a variety of roles, none of them excluding each other, namely:
- General functions, common to all MEPs, and that relate mostly to their political and/or national affiliation;
- President or Vice-President of the EP;
- Members of the Conference of Presidents;
- Members of the Bureau;
- Members, substitutes, coordinators, chairs or vice-chairs in Committees or Delegations; and
- Rapporteurs or Shadow Rapporteurs.
MEPs are usually members of one of the 7 Political Groups or “non-attached”. But they are also members of their country delegation and this can lead to conflicting voting behaviour between the discipline required by a political group and the discipline required by national interests!
Individual MEPs can help forge the voting discipline of their political party and some individual MEPs can play a substantial role as “back-benchers”.
- Put questions to the Commission or Council, either at question time (oral procedure) or for a written answer. Frankly, in light of the poor attendance at many plenaries outside voting time, question time in plenary does not carry much impact. Written questions have the merit of putting things “on the record”.
- Table a motion for resolution or a written declaration. These rarely end up translating into a Committee Report, but they do allow an MEP to create “noise” around an issue.
- Table amendments to any text in committee
- Explain a vote prior to the final vote on a text in plenary. This action has been reduced in impact by the fact that President of the EP can decide the explanations of vote will take place after the vote, a time at which plenary is usually nearly empty!
- Ask questions related to the work of Parliament’s leadership functions
- Table amendments to the Rules of Procedure
- Raise points of order. These are limited to interventions of 1 minute, and can be given on any subject since 2002.
- Move the inadmissibility of a matter
- Make personal statements
- Table an amendment at plenary, either as a Political Group or if signed by 40 MEPs (5% of membership). 40 MEPs can also nominate Candidates for the key roles in EP (President, Vice-President, Quaestor or Ombudsman), request roll call votes, opposed the adoption of reports without debate and through a “block vote” table a motion for resolution at plenary level or propose to reject or amend a Council Common Position or the draft budget
The President is elected and candidates are nominated either by Political Groups or upon a nomination signed by 37 MEPs. His election requires an absolute majority of MEP votes (unless there is still no result after three ballots, at which stage a simple majority is enough) and he is elected for two and a half years.
The President of the European Parliament has quite a number of tasks (defined under Rule 19 of the Rules of Procedure), some of which he can delegate:
- Chair the EP sittings: in practice this is also done by the Vice-Presidents.
- Represent the EP in international relations, on ceremonial occasions and in administrative, legal or financial matters. There again, the extensive travel burden can be shared with the Vice-Presidents.
- Sign the budget into law.
- Co-sign with the President of the Council of the European Union all legislation adopted under co-decision procedure.
- Chair the Conference of Presidents (President of EP, Chairs of the political groups and two representatives of the non-attached MEPs that cannot vote) and Bureau meetings.
- Vote in the Bureau.
- Chair the Parliament’s delegations in conciliation meetings with the Council in the framework of a third reading in the co-decision procedure, though this task is usually handled by the Vice-Presidents in charge of conciliation.
- Right to attend and address the opening of the European Council meetings (which bring together the Heads of State or Government of the Member States at least 4 times per year).
14 Vice-Presidents are elected just after the President and their order of precedence, although of little practical importance, is determined by the number of votes they received.
Their role consists of:
- Presiding over the plenary sessions instead of the President
- Replacing the President when required at external functions
- Taking part in the work of the Bureau.
They split tasks amongst themselves, based both on the weight of their Political Group and on special aptitudes.
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To be part of the Conference of Presidents, an MEP has to be either the President of the EP, the Chair of a Political Group or one of the two non-attached MEPs allowed to participate to the Conference but without voting rights.
Decisions are usually taken by consensus but weighted votes according to the number of members in each political party sometimes occur.
The Conference meets at least twice a month behind closed doors, the meetings being prepared by the President’s Cabinet, the Secretary-General of Parliament and the Secretaries-General of the Political Groups. Aside from its members, the Conference invites a representative of the Commission, of the Council and the chair of the Conference of Committee Chairs when discussing the draft agenda of the Parliament.
The Conference of Presidents sets the broad political direction of the EP internally and externally but with practical implications.
- The proposal as to which MEPs will be part of which Committees and Delegations, and the competence of the latter
- The adjudication of disputes on competence between Committees
- The authorization to draft reports
- The establishment of the draft agenda of the plenary part sessions
The 6 Quaestors are elected for a two and a half years term after the President and 14 Vice-Presidents and these functions are split between political parties according to their numeric weight, and taking into account the President’s political affiliation. They are also member of the Bureau and meet once a month.
The Quaestors are responsible for the administrative and financial matters directly concerning MEPs and their working conditions.
- Handling day-to-day issues related to the allocation of offices, exhibitions’ authorizations, security, passes, the allocation of services and equipment to MEPs (e.g. office equipment, allowances, vehicles, etc.)
- Present proposals to modify or rewrite rules presented by the Bureau as an advisory body.
The Bureau comprises the President of the EP, the 14 Vice-Presidents and 6 Quaestors (but only in an advisory capacity), the President holding the decisive vote in case of tie. The Bureau usually meets twice a month.
The Bureau has a vast scope of administrative and financial responsibilities that include:
- Appointing the Secretary-General
- Handling all organizational issues related to the internal running of the EP, including staff policies, the organisation of sittings, and the authorisation of committee or delegation meetings outside the usual places of work as well as hearings, and study- and fact-finding journeys by Rapporteurs.
- Deciding on the funding of the EP political parties and preparing the draft estimates of the EP’s expenditure.
Nearly every MEP is member or substitute of one or more Committees. There are currently 20 standing committees, which prepare for a specific sector the work prior to plenary sittings. They are not all equal in terms of prestige or powers and their number is size is set at the July session of the newly elected Parliament, and confirmed halfway the EP term. Individual MEPs are assigned to Committees by their Political Groups. Committees usually meet twice a month for a few days or half days, during the weeks that follow plenary sittings in Strasbourg, although some short extra meetings are held in Strasbourg. Normal working hours are 3 pm to 6:30 pm and 9 am to 12:30 pm.
On top of these standing Committees, the EP also has Temporary Committees, with a 12-month mandate that can be renewed.
It must be noted that there is little difference in status between substitutes and full members: substitutes have full speaking rights and can vote in replacement of absent full members (which is not a rare occurrence).
Each Committee has a Chair and four Vice-chairs. The chair has a considerable influence on a Committee as he/she can shape its agenda, speak at plenary sessions at a time of sensitive votes, and represent the Committee at the Conference of Committee Chairs and at external functions.
Their designation is done according to a very complex system referred to as the “d’Hondt” or proportional representation system, with posts for chairs, vice-chairs, but also the leadership of the EP being taken into account in a “package deal”. This system takes into account the weight of Political Group for the chair allocation, and then the weight of national delegations to designate the candidate. They all have a 2,5 year term.
Less visible but certainly equally important are the Coordinators in each Committee. Each Political Group designates its Coordinator for each Committee. He/she is the Group’s main spokesperson for that Committee but also the one that negotiates how many points should be attributed to a Report and who will be put forward if his/her group bids for it. They assist Rapporteurs and Shadows in the drafting of voting recommendations and decide which substitutes can vote in the absence of full members. They also ensure that MEPs vote at critical times.
Committees prepare in their specialized area the work for plenary sessions.
- Examine and propose amendments to the Commission proposal of Directives and Regulations, either as lead committee (Report) or as secondary committees delivering an Opinion to the lead Committee. It must be noted that the Commission’s Directorate General for the President proposes which committee is responsible and which ones are consulted for an opinion, that decision being open to dispute that requires the intervention of the Conference of Presidents and, if no decision is reached within 6 working weeks, a vote at plenary.
- Draft own-initiative reports, within a strict quota per committee, according to which each Committee can at any given time only have six parallel initiative reports under consideration.
MEPs are also usually member or substitute to at least one delegation.
They meet once to twice a year, alternatively at one of the EP’s locations and at a venue decided by the non-EU Parliament. Preparatory meetings are held in Brussels or Strasbourg to set the agenda for these formal exchanges, with Ambassadors of the concerned countries and members of the Commission being invited.
Each delegation has a chair and usually two vice-chairs, nominated for 2,5 years. Their designation is done according to a very complex system referred to as the “d’Hondt” or proportional representation system, with posts for chairs, vice-chairs, but also the leadership of the EP being taken into account in a “package deal”.This system takes into account the weight of Political Group for the chair allocation, and then the weight of national delegations to designate the candidate. This sometimes results in certain Political Groups holding chairmanship of a delegation, to the great dismay of the other Nation concerned, resulting in some extreme cases in a refusal to collaborate with a given delegation for several years.
Delegations maintain relations and exchange information with parliaments in non-EU countries, notably:
- They ensure that the EP is represented abroad, as a counterweight to the role of the Commission and the Council
- They exchange information with other parliaments, to spread their own message but also to learn from other practices.
- They monitor the situation as regards the respect of human rights and the holding of elections.
- They allow Parliament to discuss with candidate countries for accession to the EU.
- Their Chair submits reports (always in writing for interparliamentary delegations, sometimes orally for the other types of delegations) summarizing the result of the delegation meetings to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and where appropriate, to the Development Committee.
Delegations must coordinate in general with the Committees in Parliament on relevant subjects.
A subset of delegations includes the so-called “Parliamentary Assemblies”, namely: ACP-EU, Euromed and the Euro-Latin American one.
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Rapporteurs are the MEPs in charge of drawing up a report incorporating the amendments of the MEPs within the committee that is primary responsible, whereas draftsmen have the same role for the Opinions issued in secondary Committees.
The choice of Rapporteur depends on a complex system whereby each Political Group receives per Committee a quota of points according to its size. Each Report and opinion then gets allocated by the Coordinators of each Committee a certain number of points, Political Groups being able to then bid for that report or opinion. Theoretically, in case of multiple bids, the Political Group that has the most points left in relation to the total points it initially received (notional allocation), has priority. That rule is however put aside in practice and a lot of horse trading can occur on the side (e.g. you get this report but I am sure that the next one is mine and it so happens it matters more to me). In terms of tactics, some Groups like to raise the stakes by bidding even when a report does not truly interest them. In specialised areas, putting forward a specific MEP that is recognised as an expert in that area can, on the contrary, allow a group to have a Report for only a few points. On the annual budget and certain annual reports (e.g. the one on competition policy) each Group takes its turn in rotation.
Once a Rapporteur is designated, the other Political Groups often designate Shadow Rapporteurs that lead on that Report for their Group and have informal meetings with the Rapporteur to discuss amendments.
The Rapporteur’s role includes:
- Preparing initial discussions on a subject (often a legislative proposal), present a draft text with his/her suggested amendments, give his/her voting recommendations on the amendments presented by other MEPs.
- Presenting the report at plenary.
- Following developments after first reading in case of co-decision procedure, prepare a recommendation for second reading and participate in conciliation meetings.
- Deciding on the timeline for a Report, especially when the other institutions ask for a speedy treatment or at the end of the term of the Parliament.
Rapporteurs can be assisted by the Committee staff, their own research assistants, their group’s political advisors, staff within their constituency, research institutes and…lobbyists!
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