The role of the European Parliament

Apr 25, 2019

As canvassing begins for May’s European Parliament elections, this week we take a look at how the EU is structured with a particular focus on the operations of the European Parliament.

The EU’s institutions

The European Institutions are made up primarily of the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council of the European Union.

The European Parliament is the only directly elected EU body and represents the EU’s 508 million people; making it one of the biggest parliaments in the world.

The European Council and the Council of the European Union represent the governments of the member states. 

The European Council sets the EU’s broad priorities and comprises national Heads of State or Government, the President of the Commission and President of the European Council.

The Council of the European Union represents the governments of the individual member states and the Presidency of the Council is shared by the member states by rotation. The Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) is one of the more well-known configurations of the Council of the European Union and is composed of the economics and finance ministers of the 28 EU member states.

Other EU institutions are:

  • The European Commission which proposes and implements EU laws;
  • The Court of Justice which is the highest court in matters of EU law and ensures equal application of EU law across all Member States;
  • The Court of Auditors which audits EU finances; and
  • The European Central Bank which is the central bank for Europe’s single currency, and maintains the euro’s purchasing power and price stability in the euro area.

The role of the European Parliament

As the only elected institution of the EU, the European Parliament has a role to guard human rights and democracy in the EU and beyond.  Members of the Parliament are primarily responsible for representing citizens at EU level and defending their interests to EU leaders and the institutions of the EU.

The Parliament decides jointly with the Council of the EU on laws that affect the daily lives of EU citizens through the use of parliamentary committees.  Such laws include freedom of travel, consumer protection, food safety and the environment. 

The Parliament also has budgetary powers. Along with the Council of the European Union, a 7 year financial framework is adopted and the annual budget is approved.  It also monitors that EU funds are correctly used.

Approval by the Parliament is required for most international agreements and treaties concluded by the EU and that includes the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU.

Parliament also has a role in electing the President of the European Commission. 

The structure of the European Parliament

8 political groups and 751 MEPs made up the European Parliament during the last 5 year term (2014 – 2019) with the following allocation:


Party name

Seats 2014-19




Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)





Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament





European Conservatives and Reformists Group





Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe





Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left





Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance





Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group





Europe of Nations and Freedom





Non-attached members










Each group must have a minimum number of members (normally 25) and have representatives from at least one quarter of the member states.  Non-attached members are members who don’t belong to any political group. 

How do MEPs sit in the Parliament?

MEPs are elected for a five-year term from elections held in their home country.  Seats are divided among the member states in proportion to their population. MEPS are grouped by parties and not by their nationality.

Similar to the way we elect councillors to work on local issues and TDs and MPs to deal with national issues, MEPs are elected to deal with issues at EU level.

Debates take place in the Parliament and are translated into each European language that is in use by the member states.

MEPs can change EU laws by submitting amendments to the Parliament.

Some examples of laws that are passed by MEPs that affect our daily lives include:

  • How many hours employees in the EU can be required to work and their entitlement to holidays and rest periods
  • Mobile phone roaming rates when you travel to another EU country
  • Safety legislation around children’s toys
  • Safe drinking water and swimming water
  • Studying in other EU countries
  • Changing seasonal (summer and winter) time

The President of the European Parliament

The President is elected for a renewable term of two and a half years.  This is half the lifetime of one Parliament.  The President oversees the work of the Parliament, takes part in parliamentary debates and represents the Parliament in dealings with other EU institutions and the rest of the world.

Each new President is nominated by the European Council and formally elected by the Parliament.  The current President is Antonio Tajani who has taken been in office since 2017 and his current term will end at the time of the European elections.

Parliamentary committees

MEPs are divided up into a number of specialised committees.  This is done in order to carry out preparatory work for the Parliament’s plenary sittings.  At the moment, there are 20 such committees.  Between 25 and 73 MEPs make up a committee and the political balance of the committee reflects that of the overall Parliament. 

The committees meet once or twice per month in Brussels, draw up the subjects to be discussed by MEPs and hold public debates.  The committees draw up, amend and adopt legislative proposals and own-initiative reports. They consider Commission and Council proposals and, where necessary, draw up reports to be presented to the plenary assembly.

Examples of committees are Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and Budgetary Control. Sub-committees can also be established to investigate specific issues.

The delegations of the European Parliament

The Parliament’s delegations maintain relations and exchange information with parliaments in non-EU countries. These delegations help to represent the EU externally.

For more information on the European Parliament and how it works visit the European Parliament website.

Next week we will look in more detail at the role of MEPs and what type of policies the Parliaments decides upon.