Short for EP by abbreviationfinder, the European Parliament is the EU’s second legislative chamber. The European Parliament differs from a national parliament in Europe in that it can neither propose new laws nor decide on taxes. Its main task is to legislate. When Parliament does not reach an agreement with the Council of Ministers, the bills die.
The European Parliament has a veto over agreements with third countries as well as over the EU budget, which gives the Assembly considerable influence. Then monitors the use of EU money through its Committee on Budgetary Control and exercises its right to grant or deny the other institutions discharge in respect of the management of EU funds;
Another source of influence is Parliament’s right to comment on appointments. For example, Parliament must elect the President of the Commission and then approve the new Commission in its entirety (but not individual Members). It also expresses its views on the Court of Auditors and the Governor of the European Central Bank (ECB) and appoints the EU Ombudsman (see below).
Since 1979, Members of the European Parliament have been elected every five years through direct elections in the Member States. The elections are conducted in accordance with the traditions of the individual nation. Turnout is usually lower than in national elections. The parliament elected in May 2014 had 751 members from 28 countries, 20 of whom are Swedish. The next election will be held between 23 and 26 May in all EU countries, in Sweden on Sunday 26 May.
Parliament meets in plenary one week a month in the French city of Strasbourg and also holds at least six short sessions a year in Brussels. In the intervening periods, the members work in Brussels. Many attempts have been made to stop the monthly moving circus between Strasbourg and Brussels, which is both costly and impractical, but the proposals have never won unanimity.
Members do not group themselves by country of origin in parliament but gather in political groups. More than 100 national parties are represented in the European Parliament, divided into seven parliamentary groups. The two largest groups have long been the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats and Conservatives) and the Social Democrats.
The political groups are the real centers of power in Parliament. Among other things, they agree on who will be the chairman, vice-chairman and chairman of the approximately 20 professional committees, where the actual political work takes place. In debates and votes, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the usual right-left scale in opinions, as Members of the European Parliament are also governed by national or regional interests.
Parliament played a decisive and well-publicized role around the turn of the year 1998-1999, when the data on the abuse of power within the European Commission had become extensive. A report by an independent committee of experts was so serious that Parliament threatened to overthrow the Commission if it did not resign spontaneously, which it did.
Parliament also received attention in the autumn of 2004 when Members did not want to approve a newly appointed Commission because a Commissioner had spoken in a way that was perceived as derogatory towards homosexuals and women. Parliament also got its way this time. In 2012, the European Parliament signed an international trade agreement, Acta, which had already been signed by some 30 countries in the world, of which 22 were EU governments. Acta could thus not enter into force.
The question of how much power the European Parliament should have is often discussed. As the EU’s only directly elected body, it has fought for increased influence – and won it step by step. The budget veto has been used to strengthen Parliament’s role. The veto over agreements with third countries or new member states has also been used for this purpose.
Every new treaty change that the EU has made has given Parliament more say so that it now has shared decision-making power with the Council of Ministers over legislation in virtually all policy areas. Outside the members’ direct influence is largely only tax policy as well as foreign, security and defense policy.
When disputes arise as to how EU rules or decisions are to be interpreted, it is the European Court of Justice that decides. The court can impose fines on countries that do not comply with EU rules. It can also reject decisions taken by the Commission, the Council of Ministers and Parliament if they are not compatible with the EU Treaty.
The European Court of Justice acts as a guide for national courts when interpreting EU laws and regulations so that they are followed equally by everyone, everywhere. When complex cases are to be decided, therefore – in some cases – national courts may request prior notice from the European Court of Justice, which states how the rules should be interpreted in the specific case. However, it is always the national court which then rules on the case.
The European Court of Justice consists of two sections. The Supreme Court, which bears the name of the European Court of Justice, is in charge of all decisions of principle, all cases against Member States and gives prior notice to national courts.
The Court consists of a judge from each of the 28 Member States and eleven so-called Advocates – General, who prepare cases. Judgments are appointed for six years by the governments of the Member States following a review by an advisory committee. The court seldom meets with all judges, but more often in groups of three or five. In a particularly important case, there are 15 judges.
The lower court, the tribunal, handles cases where a private individual or a company has complained about EU institutions’ decisions, cases concerning state aid and customs duties, and personnel matters. The tribunal can also examine whether an EU institution is liable for damages. There are 45 judges but usually meet in groups of three or five. If the case is particularly complicated, there are 15 judges.