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The aim of this entry is not to explain the legal powers of the European Parliament and its role in the European Union. The objective is to set out what the majority of MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) do from day-to-day, and what they can and can't deliver for the members of their constituency.
The Legislative Process
When the European Parliament was first set up, it was to all extents and purposes a talking shop. This is no longer true. The Members of the European Parliament now have a say in many of the areas in which the EU operates.
Sitting on a Committee
As with the Westminster Parliament, most of the useful work is done in committees. All MEPs are members of one committee and will fill in for a colleague on another if they can't make it. The committees are divided up by subject matter: industry and energy, women's rights, agriculture and so on. Some committees are more sought-after than others. The legal affairs and internal market, or the consumer protection and environment committees are recognised as being powerful1.
As well as just being a member of the parliament, an MEP can also become a chair of a committee (an influential post), a leader of a political group (even better) or, lower down the pecking order, a quaestors (dealing with the running of parliament), a political co-ordinator on a committee, or the vice-chair of a committee, group or even the Parliament itself. The big daddy of them all is the role of President of the European Parliament.
On top of this, MEPs draft reports on pieces of legislation and other policy documents that are presented to Parliament. This is an important role - the rapporteur (as this job is called) can broker agreements both in the parliament and with the other institutions. If they are not inclined to play ball, they can make it more difficult for an agreement to be reached.
As well as the main committees, there are groups on things like relations with South America, and on issues such as animal rights. These are often on issues where the Parliament2 has little power, so the declarations and such that are made generally have little impact.
Voting and Discussion in Plenary
The European Parliament is based in Strasbourg and must have most of its plenary (full) sessions there. However, nearly every other EU body is based in Brussels, and if the EP wants to have influence, that's where they need to be. Therefore, they have their committee sessions and some plenaries in Brussels, and one week in four they pack all the papers in boxes and everyone takes the train or plane to Strasbourg.
A plenary session is where all the MEPs sit, debate and vote together. This is the most fundamental part of the MEPs mandate, and something that takes up quite a lot of time. Unlike in national parliaments, it is difficult to sway the outcome of votes with a rousing speech or a cutting remark, as most MEPs are listening in their own language. A joke in Greek is unlikely to have the same impact after it has been translated into Lithuanian via English. In addition, the time allocated to each party and politician is strictly controlled, which is probably a good thing.
The votes generally follow party lines. The European Parliament votes electronically on tight issues, so time is not lost going through lobbies or whatever.
Because the EU is a union of sovereign states and not a federation, the EP does not have the last word on which laws are adopted. They have to negotiate with the Council of Ministers, representing the Member States.
Keeping the Commission in Check
Parliamentarians can ask questions of the Commission, give them grief over the budget, and grill members of the commission in committees both during their mandate and before they are nominated. All this helps keep the Commission on its toes.
Pick a Specialised Subject
Most MEPs find that the best way to make an impact on such a large structure is to pick a specialised area to work on. This doesn't necessarily need to be linked to what they did before, or their constituency, although it can be3. Michael Cashman MEP described this process quite well, noting that in the UK he is best known as an ex-EastEnders actor whereas in the EP he has made his name in the somewhat recondite field of access to documents... Glenys Kinnock MEP is an expert on the world trade regime for bananas, and the impact it has on developing countries. Graham Watson MEP works mainly on civil liberties. Often this speciality enables them to get rapporteur posts (see above) on legislation related to the area concerned.
Helping Their Constituents
MEPs in most member states are elected on regional lists, so it is difficult for them to identify with a specific local area. They also have a lot of constituents, which does not facilitate contact with the people that they represent. Nevertheless if you write a letter to them, they will respond, and they run surgeries in their local area.
Meeting the Lobbyists
Now that MEPs are starting to matter, representatives of big business, NGOs or local authorities are coming to see them, to explain why X would not be a good idea, or why they should vote for Y. There are a lot of these people in Brussels, and they are very tenacious. It is impossible for MEPs to know every subject they vote on well, so many of them rely on the advice they are given from sources they trust. Some groups will even help MEPs write their reports - sometimes it is painfully obvious who has been holding the pen...
The Life of an MEP
Ask MEPs what they hate most about the job and many will say the constant travel. Imagine you represent a constituency in northern Finland. You spend Friday and the weekend with your constituents, talking about the impact of the Habitats Directive4 on moose-hunting, and maybe seeing your wife and children if they haven't left you yet. Sunday night, you take a plane to Helsinki and then on to Brussels. One week in four, you have to get to Strasbourg, which has diabolical transport links. Every now and then, there is probably a moose conference in Stockholm or Canada - you need to go. Cunning MEPs keep a suitcase ready-packed, but you can see how the travel combined with the anti-social hours wears them out.
While we are on the subject of the travelling circus to Strasbourg, you might like to know that the MEPs are not to blame for that. The responsibility for maintaining the monthly trek to Strasbourg and the environmental, social and economic damage this causes is down to the national governments and France in particular.
Pay is currently linked to what their national MPs get. This is a bit odd as it means that some MEPs get a lot more than others, for what is essentially the same work. In addition they get an office allowance and there is a very bad travel reimbursement system, which regularly features in the tabloid press. All of this is due for an overhaul, but so far no consensus has been found.
Nearly all MEPs have an assistant, who follows them around. These are given more or less responsibility and pay, depending on their MEP. Some do dogsbody work, some are quite political. Assistants are usually in their twenties and will do the job for a few years, before moving on to become a lobbyist or similar. In addition, many MEPs will have a secretary based in their constituency office.
On top of this they can get help from the civil servants and special advisers who work for the European Parliament in one way or another.
So, are MEPs Useful?
Your MEP can help you, but only within the limits of their competence. They will not be able to make your local council mend the pavement. However, if your council is going to build over your favourite nature spot without assessing whether this is going to wipe out the rare Essex gerbil, they may be able to make some noise to ensure that European legislation is respected. If you don't like the sound of one of the European Commission's plans, then they may be able to help. They may also assist in getting European funding for your region.
In summary, being an MEP is often a tiring and thankless5 job, even if it is well-paid. At the very least, you should show them the respect of voting in the European elections. If you don't, you might end up with a useless MEP and you never know, at some point that might become a problem.