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About this book

This broad-ranging text examines the political dynamic of the European Parliament (EP), showing how the EP is a key component of the political system of the EU. It looks at how, and how effectively, the parliament translates citizen demands into policies, and, in so doing, contributes to wider debates around democracy and legitimacy in the EU.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction: Situating the European Parliament in the EU’s Political System

With an economic crisis not completely overcome, a new crisis of its migration regime, Brexit and a more uncertain relationship with the United States (US), the European Union (EU) faces a critical turning point for the integration project. A wide array of political and social problems lay at the core of these crises: dissatisfaction with political parties, lack of trust in institutions, a rise in nationalism and protectionism, political apathy and disenfranchisement. These factors all raise questions about representation and legitimacy – questions that affect one EU institution in particular: the European Parliament (EP).
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Chapter 2. The Gradual Empowerment of the European Parliament

It is difficult to imagine that the European Parliament has ever been anything but the self-assured legislator that it is today. However, the active role of the Parliament in the EU’s political system is relatively recent. For most of its history, the EP was seen as a ‘talking shop’: a powerless institution prone to issuing big declarations with no visible impact on the daily business of the EU. It is, therefore, important to understand where the EP comes from and how it has managed to stand on a par with the parliaments of the member states and gain far-reaching powers in the EU’s political system.
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Chapter 3. Internal Organisation

Although concentrating on the US House of Representatives, Polsby underlined the necessity to organise legislative life in a political system for it to be stable. Indeed, legislatures need to develop internal rules that allow them to make decisions on, for example, the allocation of resources such as time, money and staff as well as to assign parliamentary rights - such as the right to propose amendments or negotiate compromises (Krehbiel 1991: 2). Therefore, the internal organisation of a legislature reveals its capacity to perform in a political system as well as its independence from other institutional actors. Formal and informal rules can decide on the levels of expertise, the capacity of different actors to influence political outputs as well as the loci of powe r and decision-making.
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Chapter 4. Legislative and Budgetary Functions

As seen in Chapter 2, the European Parliament has witnessed an astonishing increase in its formal and informal powers. As a result, it has become a full partner in the EU’s institutional triangle and can now exert its influence in both legislative and budgetary matters. This chapter analyses the formal procedures in which the EP can have a say and thereby shape the outputs of the EU’s political system. It examines how the legislative powers of the EP have emerged over time through formal and informal revisions of the treaties as well as the EP’s shifting position in budgetary matters. The aim is to reflect on whether the EP is a ‘unique’ parliament or whether it can be compared to other forms of parliamentarism.
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Chapter 5. Non-Legislative Functions

Apart from the classic formal powers, the EP can make use of a wide range of less well-known instruments. Most of these are symbolic functions: they are used to scrutinise and control other EU institutions, enhance the link between the EP and EU citizens or raise awareness of current political debates. Some of these functions have become increasingly relevant over time and served to enhance the powers and legitimacy of the EP. Although the original treaties already foresaw some of these functions, the majority have evolved through processes of informal interpretation and formal incorporation into the treaties.
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Chapter 6. Elections and Electoral Support

This chapter looks at the Parliament as part of a political community that raises demands and provides enough support to legitimise the eventual (policy) outputs. In the end, the Parliament is the only directly elected EU institution, and, therefore, is supposed to be the main representative of EU citizens. It examines to what extent EP elections are representative by looking at how they are organised in different member states and how citizens make use of them. The objective is to determine whether institutional elements, such as differences in the national electoral systems, or individual explanations on citizens’ voting behaviour, affect the quality of representation - that is, the capacity of MEPs to filter inputs from EU citizens into the EU’s political system.
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Chapter 7. Lobbying, Interest Representation and the Media

Indeed, anyone who has spent some time in Brussels will have noticed the high amount of offices dedicated to representing a myriad of interests - from corporate business, to religious faiths, civil society as well as regions and international organisations. Despite the high density in interest representation, we still do not know much about how lobbyists and other representatives interact with the EP. As Dionigi (2017) has remarked, this is surprising, since now that the EP is a co-legislator in almost all policy fields, interest groups should recognise an additional channel to exert influence on the decision-making process - one that is more open and accessible than the Council and even the Commission. Indeed, the number of interest representatives present in the EP has increased steeply in recent years. For instance, while in 2012 the EP gave around 2,000 personal accreditations to people representing organised interests, in 2016 the number had gone over the 6,000 mark (LobbyFacts 2016).
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Chapter 8. MEPs and Their Offices: Managing Frontstage and Backstage Roles

As we have seen in the previous chapters, MEPs form a direct link between citizens and the EU’s political system - they are the main transmission belt between their demands and the final outputs. However, how do MEPs aggregate these demands and what do they do when they receive conflicting inputs? The activities of MEPs and their offices have received increasing attention, since it has become evident that members tend to adopt different roles and set different priorities according to the environment in which they perform. This observation resonates with older studies that examined US or UK parliamentarians and their attitudes as representatives (Davidson 1969; Fenno 1978). Although there have been many different definitions of roles, Searing (1991: 1248) understands them as ‘the part one plays in an event or process’. This, of course, is a rather basic definition, but it encourages us to ask individual members how they think they should behave and why. Indeed, the increasing professionalisation and specialisation of the EP shows us that MEPs have different understandings of what part they should play as parliamentarians (Beauvallet and Michon 2010).
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Chapter 9. Political Groups and National Party Delegations

Parties are often considered essential elements of democratic systems (Schattschneider 1942) - they are the transmission belts that help to input demands into the political system while providing the necessary stability for this system to work. Parties aggregate individual members into a coherent whole and provide the necessary ideological orientation to help form coalitions and pass legislative proposals. As we have seen in Chapter 6, Article 10.4 TEU considers that ‘[p]olitical parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union’. At the same time, the nature of the EP elections, the lack of clear majorities and the absence of government/opposition dynamics suppose a challenge for those embarking on the study of the EU’s party system. On the one hand, Chapter 6 has shown us how tenuous the link between electors and their MEPs is. Indeed, the second-order nature of the elections and the control of national parties over nominations even question the necessity of stable political parties. Why invest in formal parties if they cannot reward (or sanction) MEPs with votes (re-election) or offices (government)? On the other hand, the EP’s party system has existed since the establishment of the Common Assembly and has managed to maintain a high degree of stability. This means that MEPs see in political groups an added value when trying to translate demands into outputs. Indeed, political groups show a high level of ideological coherence and an increasing level of internal cohesion. This chapter examines their role and how we can explain this efficiency despite lacking some of the core instruments of party control over their members.
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Chapter 10. Sites of Translation: From Committees to the Plenary

The previous chapters examined the role of individual actors and their aggregation in ideological groups. Indeed, political groups serve as an instrument of aggregation that helps organise and translate demands into outputs. However, this process does not occur in an institutional vacuum; it develops in the framework of specialised committees. As we have seen in Chapter 3, standing committees occupy a central position in internal decision-making: policy outputs are formulated and agreed upon at committee level, with the EP plenary generally ratifying these decisions. Therefore, committees are the main site of translation and perform core functions of deliberation and negotiation. They are a ‘microcosm’ of the larger assembly; committees define ‘a set of privileged groups, sub-groups of parliamentarians with specific powers, and a set of procedures that specifies the powers of these sub-groups with respect to the functions that legislatures perform’ (Strom 1998: 23)
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Chapter 11. The EP as a Co-Decider: Key Negotiating Roles and the Power of Consensus

The capacity of the EP to successfully participate in and exert influence on the EU’s political system is intimately linked to its role as co-legislator. Since 2009, the procedure by which the EP and the Council jointly decide on EU policies has been known as the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ and is now in use for 85 policy areas - which cover around 95 per cent of EU legislation. Over the years, co-decision has grown in importance, to the point that it has managed to displace other legislative procedures, in particular the consultation procedure, which was considered as ‘ordinary’ in the past (see Chapter 4). Therefore, the change in the designation of the procedure is full of symbolic power and shows that co-decision has become a commonplace feature in the daily life of the EU institutions (Huber and Shackleton 2013). That is why, in order to understand the nature and functions of the EP, we need to understand its role in co-decision: how it negotiates, whose views are prioritised and how this affects the way inputs are translated into outputs.
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Chapter 12. Conclusion

From an unelected organ with almost no powers, the European Parliament has grown into a fully-fledged legislature. This answers the main question of the book: the EP does actually matter. It matters when the EU passes legislation, when it decides on how to allocate the budget, when it ratifies international agreements and when it seeks to use its normative power abroad. The days of ‘talking shop’ are well and truly over. The EP is now an indispensable component of the EU’s political system, since it provides the legitimacy and accountability of a directly elected institution.
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