The European Parliament first appeared in 1952 as an ad hoc assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). In 1970 this assembly gained powers to oversee the budget and after 1975 was able to reject the whole budget but not write one.
From 1979 the assembly was directly elected. Following the 1986 Single European Act, the assembly was renamed a parliament but given no powers. Proportional representation was introduced in 2004.
Currently there are 751 MEPs who sit in eight pan-EU political groups and 14 sit as “independents.” This EU institution votes by simple majority. Britain has 73 MEPs. Groups over a particular size receive substantial finances amounting to millions for activity and have privileges including meeting rooms. Each MEP costs £1.6 million, which goes towards their own salary, support staff in European Parliament buildings and offices in their own country. The largest group is the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) with 217 seats. The 21 Tory MEPs belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group of 74 MEPs. Twenty Labour MEPs are part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats with 190 seats. The 22 Ukip MEPs are part of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group, which has 45 seats. The European United Left-Nordic Green Left has 52 seats.Those on the “left” can nearly gain a majority on some issues.
The European Parliament’s official seat is in Strasbourg, meeting for 12 four-day plenary sessions. There is a president adding to other presidents of EU institutions. The European Parliament also meets in Brussels for committees, group meetings and further plenary sessions. There are special committees dealing with different aspects of EU legislation and policies. European Parliament administration takes place in Luxembourg. Each MEP’s papers are housed in a trunk and transported in a lorry fleet between Brussels and Strasbourg. All trunks have to be in place before business starts.
MEPs’ main complaints include no time to study documents and the number of times they have to vote. One young Danish MEP from the Danish People’s Movement reported she had to vote 80 times in one session with no time to understand the papers tabled.
The current institution has 5,900 staff where most are interpreters translating simultaneously into 21 languages. All documents have to be available in 21 official languages. MEPs are elected every five years and paid £60,000 plus very generous allowances and pensions. Some become millionaires and others move through the EU “revolving doors” to EU institutions and national governments. Very few use their income to oppose the EU. Nick Clegg was an MEP.
The European Parliament is required to give assent to treaties, including TTIP and new member states. The European Parliament cannot:
- Raise taxes
- Write budgets
- Raise armed or police forces
- And does not control the eurozone mint or European Central Bank.
These should be the powers of a parliament. The European Parliament cannot initiate legislation but does “co-decide,” or rubber stamp, with the Council of Ministers on legislation where the commission retains the exclusive power. However, legislation can be blocked by the so-called parliament and can be got around by the commission representing amended legislation, several times if necessary.
Recent voting where TTIP could have been blocked was lost and the European Parliament president turned down amendments because he said there were too many and late. In EU publicity material, the European Parliament is deliberately placed first in the list of EU institutions to promote the impression the EU is democratic, which it is not.
The European Parliament is not part of the executive and remains an assembly — an expensive talking shop which in reality only has influence and virtually no powers. The political role of MEPs is to act as ambassadors for the EU, hence the judicious finances they receive — for instance, the Ukip group receives £3m. Although the electorate can contact MEPs direct and have influence, there is no means via the European Parliament for voters to kick out the EU government, change treaties or legislation.
John Boyd is secretary of Campaign Against Euro Federalism and a member of Trade Unionists against the EU.