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Europe

The European Parliament Explained

Voters in the European Union will go to the polls in mid-June to decide who will represent them in the European Parliament. DW-WORLD has put together a guide to the EP and the elections.

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Hundreds of candidates hope to have a seat here come mid-June


Without the Pariament, nothing in Europe works" is often heard from the mouths of members of the European Parliament (MEPs). It also reflects the institution's greatest problem: Since the first European election in 1979, MEPs have been fighting to be able to do more than just express their opinions about EU Council decisions. Instead, they want the power to make legislation, too, arguing that MEPs should have more influence if the EU is meant to be democratic.

Indeed, the EP is the only directly-elected EU body, whereas, the most powerful institution, the Council of the European Union, is made up of the governments of the member states. The members of the European Commission, the EU executive body, are also nominated by the governments.

The EP is made up of parliamentarians from all EU member states. After EP elections from June 10-13, their ranks will rise from 626 to 732, since EU citizens from the ten new member states will vote in MEPs for the first time.

Treaties specify how many MEPs each country may have based on population. Germany, with the highest population in the EU, will elect 99 representatives to the body, as it did in the last election. France, Italy and Britain, however, will each delegate 78 MEPs, nine fewer than in the past. Spain will have to do without ten seats. Like new member Poland, it will be represented by 54 MEPs. Malta will have the fewest seats of all the EU states -- five.

The EP convenes for weekly sessions 11 to 12 times per year in the Palais d'Europe in Strasbourg, France. The EU's founding fathers chose Strasbourg, near the French-German border, to symbolize the friendship between former archenemies France and Germany.

But the parliament is equally at home in Brussels, the real capital of the EU, where committee and political group meetings take place. Plenary sessions that only last one or two days are also held in Brussels. The parliament's administration is based in nearby Luxembourg.

Who votes for the EP?

EU nationals above the age of 18 may vote for EP representatives in free, general elections every five years. EU nationals who live in one of the other 24 Union states may either vote by mail in their country of citizenship or in the EU country where they live. Around 450 million EU citizens from the 25 member states have the right to vote.

Voters in Britain and the Netherlands will go to the polls on June 10, Czech and Irish voters on June 11 and Italian, Latvian and Maltese voters on June 12. The remaining countries have designated June 13 voting day. The results will be made public after all polling stations are closed.

Candidates are chosen from country lists according to proportional representation. MEPs may not at the same time hold office in their national parliaments, except until 2009 in Ireland and Britain.

What does the EP do?

In conjunction with the Council of Ministers, the EP passes legislation that is valid for all EU countries.

Essentially, the EP has three main tasks: shaping existing policies, developing the EU system and interacting with voters. The EP is supposed to act both as advocate and mouthpiece for EU citizens as well as generating ideas and designing and monitoring European policies.

Parliament has broadened its influence in recent years, particularly in the 1992 Maastricht and 1997 Amsterdam Treaties. The EU's yearly budget must now be approved by MEPs, and not a cent may be spent until the parliament's president signs the budget into law. Many of the EU directives proposed by the Commission require EP approval as well. MEPs have the authority to amend proposed legislation on internal market issues, consumer affairs or education, before the European Council has the final word. But they have no decision-making powers on tax or agriculture policies.

How does the EP work?

Much of the European Parliament's work is prepared in specialist committees. All told, 17 standing committees deal with issues ranging from foreign affairs to fisheries to regional policy to women's rights. The EP may also establish ad hoc, temporary committees to deal with important issues.

The committees submit their work to parliamentary groups, of which most MEPs are members. From there the issues move on to plenary sessions, where the they are debated and voted on.

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