European Law Monitor

Make your voice heard!

What does an MEP actually do • an explanation by Richard Corbett MEP.

Just as you elect councillors to deal with local issues and MPs to deal with national issues, so you elect Members of the European Parliament to deal with European issues.

Your MEP is your voice in Brussels. You don't need to go through the Foreign Office diplomats to be represented in the European Union: you have your own representative for your own area.

MEPs represent regional constituencies. Yorkshire and the Humber, for instance, elects seven MEPs (six from June 2004). Elections are by proportional representation, with each party putting up a team of candidates.

An MEP's main task is to vote on European legislation, just as MPs in the House of Commons vote on national legislation. European legislation is binding across the whole of the European Union.

MEPs sit in the European Parliament. The Parliament's main task is to debate and vote on European legislation, just as the House of Commons votes on national legislation.

The Parliament's role

The EU does not and cannot legislate in areas that are purely of national concern, such as housing, how we organise our schools and local authorities, our health service or our levels of income tax. However, in some areas, it is mainly European, rather than national, law that regulates us all. This is the case for commercial legislation, for consumer protection, environmental standards, subsidies for economic development, competition policy, safety standards and social rights.

EU legislation is normally adopted jointly by the European Parliament and the Council, which is composed of ministers from national governments of each of the 25 Member States. Both Parliament and Council hold two readings of draft legislation and if, by then, they have not agreed on the same text, a conciliation committee negotiates a compromise, which must then be approved by Parliament and Council.

This detailed scrutiny ensures that European legislation is acceptable both to the representatives of national governments and to MEPs whom the electorate has directly chosen to represent them.

The European Parliament compared to national parliaments

The European Parliament is not a "sexy" parliament. Compared to many national parliaments, it lacks the cut and thrust of debate between government and opposition. Like the US Congress, its real work is done in committee. The plurality of languages used makes the debates far from spectacular. For these reasons among others, it gets far less media coverage.

But, when it comes to the detail of legislative or budgetary work, MEPs shape legislation in a way that MPs in many national Parliaments do not.

In some national parliaments, when a government publishes a bill, it is usually clear what will come out of the procedure - it is headline news if the parliament amends it against the will of the government. Some even claim that certain national parliaments are little more than rubber-stamps for their government's legislation.

This is certainly not the case in the European Parliament. A draft Directive really is a draft - MEPs go through it paragraph by paragraph, amending it and rewriting it. So do the ministers in the Council - and ultimately the positions of the two must be reconciled in what (since the Amsterdam Treaty) amounts to a bi-cameral legislature at EU level. But the net effect is that every year, thousands of amendments to draft legislation put forward by ordinary back-bench MEPs end up on the statute books and apply in twenty five different countries.

In national parliaments, being a backbencher, or an opposition party MP often offers very limited power and little job satisfaction other than the prospect of, perhaps, one day wielding ministerial power. MEPs, on the other hand, while not having a career path to a ministry (though a surprising number do become ministers in their member states) can play a significant role in shaping legislation - a classical parliamentary function almost forgotten by some national parliaments.

The nature of day-to-day work is also different. One measure of a good MP in a national context is someone who is a good debater, able to score points over his or her opponents. An effective MEP is someone who is good at explaining, persuading and negotiating with colleagues from 25 different countries.

This is done at three levels. First, within political Groups as MEPs from different national parties work towards developing a common position as a Group. Second, with other Groups in the Parliament, as no Group has an overall majority and coalitions must be built. Indeed, the type of majority can vary from one issue to another as there is no predetermined coalition, but a general willingness to work by means of achieving substantial majorities on most issues. Third, once Parliament has a position, there is a need to negotiate with Council for the final outcome. Such a style of Parliament leaves ample scope for an active MEP, providing that he/she is good at building the necessary majorities.

The Parliament in the EU

The European Parliament is part of what makes the EU radically different from a traditional intergovernmental organisation. Indeed, it is only necessary to imagine what the EU would be like without the Parliament: it would be a system totally dominated by bureaucrats and diplomats, loosely supervised by ministers flying periodically into Brussels.

The existence of a body of full-time representatives in the heart of decision-taking in Brussels, asking questions, knocking on doors, bringing the spotlight to shine in dark corners, in dialogue with their constituents back home, makes the EU system more open, transparent and democratic than would otherwise be the case. MEPs are drawn from governing parties and opposition parties and represent not just capital cities but the regions in their full diversity. In short, the Parliament brings pluralism into play and brings added value to the scrutiny of EU legislation.

It also takes the edge off national conflict. Council can all too often give the appearance of decision taking by gladiatorial combat between those representing "national interests". Reality is more complex and the fact that the Parliament organises itself not in national delegations but in political groups shows that the dividing line on most concrete subjects is not between nations but between political viewpoints or between sectoral interests.

Despite the significant and growing role of the European Parliament, turnout in European elections has remained low, and even declined to 50% of the electorate in the 2004 election. This is likely to remain the case, for a number of reasons.

First, European elections will remain less significant for day to day issues of immediate concern to voters than national elections. Second, there is no government directly at stake in European elections and the bulk of the electorate is used to voting in national elections to keep or throw out a national government. Third, the EU institutions are inevitably more distant than national or local institutions and, as in other federal-type systems, will usually have a lower turnout at the "federal" level (e.g. USA, Switzerland). Fourth, the lower media coverage of the European Parliament alluded to earlier. Fifth, the consensus-style decision-making at EU level which often prevents partisan alternatives from being highlighted to the electorate.

Finally, however, there is the widespread lack of understanding as to how the EU institutions actually operate. In some countries (none more so than the UK), a significant proportion of the press is overtly hostile to the EU, but in all countries there is an abundance of incorrect information, false assumptions and numerous misunderstandings in the media and among national politicians.

This is something that, to a degree, can be remedied with better information and explanation - and perhaps a bit less defensiveness about a Parliament that in certain crucial respects compares well to our national parliaments as a pluralistic forum in which legislation is shaped through discussion and compromise.

As we look around the world - or, indeed at our own European history - we can be proud of what we have achieved with our unique multicultural, multilingual parliament.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Richard Corbett. If you would like to contact Richard Corbett directly you may do so either by going to the "Find an MEP" part of our website, or by clicking on: