Stereotypes have formed about members of the European Parliament: They're lazy; they just like to make speeches; they're ineffectual. But upon closer examination, they've been a pretty busy bunch lately.
The EU Parliament could use some good PR
The European elections taking place in the middle of June will signal the end of the fifth legislative period of the European Parliament, the body whose members have been directly elected by European citizens since 1979.
But over the years, parliamentarians have found themselves up against several stubborn stereotypes; in particular, that they don't do much when they gather in their sparkling headquarters in Strasbourg, or that they don't have much connection to the everyday lives of everyday EU citizens.
But the real story is rather different, since the European Parliament decides on many laws that do affect Europeans directly. The problem is, their work isn't often seen as "sexy" enough to attract a lot of attention, since it involves a good deal of committee work, meetings, and detailed legislative and budgetary negotiations -- not the kind of thing that makes for good prime-time coverage.
However, as the most recent legislative period wraps up, the judgement has been generally favorable. Most agree that the law-making group can be proud of tangible results. According to its outgoing president, Pat Cox, in the past five years the parliament has passed 403 laws in its so-called codecision procedure, meaning it approved legislation that the EU Commission had proposed and had gone through the Council of Ministers.
Irish Liberal Democrat Pat Cox after being elected president of the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2002
"That is 250 percent more than in the five previous years," said Cox.
During this last legislative period, members spent some 2,250 hours in plenary meetings, where they held detailed discussions about questions such as internal markets, consumer and environmental protection, industrial policy and the EU budget, over which it has broad-ranging authority along with the Council of Ministers.
But before parliamentarians enjoy basking in too bright a light for their accomplishments, statistics show that pure industriousness is only part of the reason the Parliament's record has been so stellar over the past five years. Purely technical reasons, as well, have played a role. After the treaties of Nice and Amsterdam, the European Parliament found itself with added responsibilities.
"There was simply more to do in this legislative period," said Paul Dunstan, who keeps statistics for the parliament's administration.
Negotiations and amendments
The EU Parliament is not a rubber stamp body in any sense of the word. If proposals coming from the Commission do not meet its approval, it can reject them, or start a negotiation process with the Council of Ministers, the so-called conciliation committees, in order to make amendments. Some 86 legislative proposals were sent into negotiations, which can last years, over the last session. Only two of them were rejected outright.
The amendment process is a powerful tool parliamentarians have at their disposal to leave their mark on EU legislation. In the Parliament's 17 committees, between 9,000 and 10,000 amendments were made.
It seems an unwieldy number, but it's an unwieldy process, given that proposed legislation is undergoing scrutiny from representatives from 25 member states and several fractions, from conservative to socialist, none of which has a majority in parliament.
Despite the good numbers from the past five years, there has been some sharp criticism from members of parliament about their own colleagues, their performance and their generous perks. Hans-Peter Martin, a parliamentarian himself, has been vocal in criticizing travel expense reimbursements and per-diems that fellow parliamentarians receive and have accused many "lazy" members of letting lobby groups or members of the EU Commission write their decisions for them.
The Parliament's administration rejects such charges.
The presidents of parliaments of the 10 new European Union member states and EU ambassadors gathered for a group photo at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in May
In the last five years, 52 international agreements were approved by the parliament, including the expansion of the bloc to 25 members on May 1, which, according to Pat Cox, was the body's shining moment.Two days after the "big bang," on May 3, 160 representatives from the new member states -- mostly from eastern Europe along with Malta and Cyprus -- were welcomed into the Parliament in a symbolic ceremony in Strasbourg.