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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The European Parliament

Kristin Archick
Specialist in European Affairs

The 754-member European Parliament (EP) is a key institution of the European Union (EU), a unique political and economic partnership composed of 27 member states. The EP is the only EU institution that is directly elected. Although the EP does not formally initiate EU legislation, it plays a significant role in the EU’s legislative and budgeting processes, and works closely with the two other main EU bodies, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers).

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) serve five-year terms. The most recent EP elections were held in June 2009. The EP currently has seven political groups, which caucus according to political ideology rather than nationality, plus a number of “non-attached” or independent members. The EP has 20 standing committees that are key actors in the adoption of EU legislation and a total of 41 delegations that maintain international parliament-to-parliament relations. The EP is led by a President, who oversees its work and represents the EP externally.

Once limited to being a consultative assembly, the EP has accumulated more power over time. Experts assert that the EU’s latest effort at institutional reform—the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on December 1, 2009—increases the relative power of the EP within the EU considerably. The EP now shares legislative power with the Council of Ministers in most policy areas, giving the EP the right to accept, amend, or reject the vast majority of EU laws (with some exceptions in areas such as tax matters or foreign policy). The Lisbon Treaty also gives the EP the power to decide on the allocation of the EU budget jointly with the Council, the right to approve or reject international agreements, and greater decision-making authority on trade-related issues.

Many analysts note that the EP has not been shy about exerting its new powers under the Lisbon Treaty, and in some areas, with implications for U.S. interests. In February 2010, the EP rejected the U.S.-EU SWIFT agreement allowing U.S. authorities access to European financial data to help counter terrorism; in July 2010, the EP approved a revised U.S.-EU SWIFT accord, but only after several EP demands related to strengthening data privacy protections were agreed to by the United States and the other EU institutions. EP data privacy concerns also necessitated a new round of U.S.-EU negotiations on another anti-terrorism measure that permits the sharing of airline Passenger Name Record (PNR) data; an updated U.S.-EU PNR accord was ultimately approved by the EP in April 2012. Meanwhile, the EU and its member states are currently unable to join a new Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)—negotiated by the United States, the EU, and several other countries to strengthen the protection of intellectual property rights— because the EP has rejected it due to civil liberty and free speech concerns.

Although supporters point to the EP’s growing institutional clout, others assert that the EP still faces several challenges of public perception. Skeptics contend that the EP lacks the legitimacy of national parliaments and that its powers remain somewhat limited. Criticism has also been directed at the costs incurred by the EP, especially given what some consider to be duplicate EP facilities in several European cities and consequent travel expenses incurred by MEPs.

Ties between the EP and the U.S. Congress are long-standing, and institutional cooperation currently exists through the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue (TLD). In light of the EP’s new powers following the entrance into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the EP and its activities may be of increasing interest to the 113
th Congress. Also see CRS Report RS21372, The European Union: Questions and Answers, by Kristin Archick.

Date of Report: January 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RS21998
Price: $29.95

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