The legislative role of the European Parliament

Essay 2001 15 Pages

Law - European and International Law, Intellectual Properties



1. Introduction

2. The evolution of the legislative role of the EP
2.1. The evolution before 1986
2.2. The Single European Act
2.3. The Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties - the co-decision procedure

3. The EP's role today
3.1. co-decision - a brief evaluation
3.2. the legislative process as a whole - evaluation
3.2.1. The complex shaping of the proces
3.2.2. legislative initiative

4. quo vadis, EP? - the EP's role in the future
4.1. The Treaty of Nice and its changes regarding the European Parliament
4.1.1. the Parliaments resolution of 13 April 2000
4.1.2. the Treaty of Nice itself
4.2. General expectation about the future role of the EP

1. Introduction

When in 1952 the European Coal and Steal Community "Assembly" met for the first time it was a "relatively powerless"[1] institution of 78 delegated representatives. When the "European Parliament" meets today, almost 50 years later, it is not only the name that has changed in the meantime, but also the size, the powers and, above all, the whole idea behind it. Especially by establishing direct elections in 1978 and establishing the co-decision procedure in 1996 the Parliament's role has changed towards a more and more influential institution. However, these were hard-won gains, reflecting the longstanding scepticism or even distaste of governments in most EEC member states for any increase of the powers of the European Parliament. Moreover, the Parliament had to struggle for years with a bad public perception (if it was perceived at all), for example that it was not more than a waste of taxpayer's money. And particularly due to this bad perception, the elections for the EP still suffer from a remarkable low participation. Nevertheless, the Parliament has become an important institution within the EU, that has to be taken seriously. In March 1999, for example, by threatening to sack the Commission and demanding an independent report on alleged fraud and lack of accountability within it, it became the moving power behind the resignation of the entire European Commission. Moreover, the EP has become a forum for speeches of many world leaders and the committees of the Parliament have produced highly influential reports. However, the new role of the EP within the EU and Europe at all is best shown in another, much more significant area, namely it's legislative competence.

2. The evolution of the legislative role of the EP

2.1. The evolution before 1986

Significantly, the Schuman declaration in 1950 made no mention of a Parliamentary body at all[2], a fact, which underlines that there was no strong idea of democratic participation of the citizens at this very early stage. However, when the ECSC Treaty was signed in 1952, one of the four institutions which were set up was an Assembly made of national Parliaments. But the discussion about its role focussed more on its symbolic than on its practical functions and hence rather on its status than its activities.[3] One of the issues discussed at this early stage was how the members should be elected. The ECSC treaty provided in Art. 21 for the possibility of direct elections for the future. In the EEC Treaty this provision changed into the clause of Art. 138, which was a classic compromise: the Parliament would be directly elected, but only if the member states could agree, unanimously, on an appropriate mechanism.[4] However, the actual legislative competence of the Assembly at this stage was very limited. In extreme circumstances the Assembly could require the resignation of the high authority, but beside this, it had only advisory and supervisory powers. Indeed the 1957 EEC Treaty provided for EP participation in legislation by obliging the Council to consult the Parliament on Commission proposals before their adoption.[5] But although the Parliament, as we shall see, over the years tried to extend the scope of this procedure, it in effect played the weakest role in the whole EEC legislative process until 1980. In this time the other two institutions, the Council and the Commission, consolidated their own legislative powers. Indeed, the Parliament was consulted by the Council in certain policy areas and the Council sometimes, when pressured by the Parliament, tended to extend the consultative process to areas, where it was not foreseen by the treaties. But it was obvious that the Parliament suffered from the lack of any true involvement in the legislative process and played a largely peripherical role.[6]

It should be noted at this point, that the name European Assembly officially remained until the European Single Act in 1986, when it was changed to "European Parliament". However, this merely confirmed the practice of the institution itself and also the practice of the ECJ, which for many years referred to it as the European Parliament.[7]

As Westlake outlines[8], in the 1960's and 1970's, especially after the Luxembourg Accord in 1966, Council decision-making was seen as being painfully slow and inevitably bogged down in the search for unanimity on even the most detailed legislation. Nevertheless, the Council and especially it's preparatory bodies, which prepared the legislation because of it's complexity, became the de facto legislators in this time. Besides the consultation procedure, the only link to the legislation process for the Parliament was the Commission, over which the Parliament exercised supervisory powers. The Commission listened to the advice of the Parliament's commitees, tried to incorporate the parliamentarian's views and supported the call for direct elections. However, because of this link between Parliament and Commission, the Parliament was also weakened, when, due to the Luxembourg Accord, power shifted away from the Commission towards the Council.

The first significant own powers the Parliament had been granted were budgetary powers.[9] These powers were granted to the Parliament by the 1970 Luxembourg treaty and the 1975 Brussels treaty. However, even the most significant power within this area, namely the formal right to reject or adopt a budget under the Art. 203 - 204 (now Art. 272 - 273), was in reality a very limited power, because it only focused on the non-compulsory expenditure side of the budget.[10] Moreover, from the ECJ's point of view in reality it requires the joint assent of the Council and the Parliament to adopt a budget and therefore the symbolical "last word" is a mere theoretical construction.[11]

But as the ECJ limited the Parliaments power within this area it extended it in another one: In the 1980 Isoglucose ruling it created a de facto suspensive legislation veto, by determining that, whenever the formal consultation of the Parliament was foreseen by the treaties, the Council had to wait until the Parliament had delivered it's opinion. This ruling, together with it's own internal rule-making autonomy was used by the EP to create a special procedure of back-referring opinions to the commitees, which gave the Parliament virtually a negative legislative power (of delay).[12] Indeed this power was also limited, in that this power could only be invoked effectively in matters of urgency[13], but it increased the significance of the whole consultation procedure for the EP by involving it more in the legislative process.

Besides this, the Parliament made great use of "own initiative" reports, which were the only way to initiate legislation for the EP. Some of these reports led to Commission proposals and finally to Council regulations.[14] However, this was only another procedure, where the EP in effect needed the agreement of the Commission and the Council.

2.2. The Single European Act

The first true formal involvement of the EP in the legislative process was brought by the Single European Act (SEA) in 1986. It implemented a new procedure, called co-operation. The essence of this new procedure was that it added a second reading onto the consultation procedure.[15] While the first reading remained identical with the consultation procedure, the second reading included some new features. The main distinction between the consultation and the co-operation procedure was that the Council's decision having received the Parliament's amendments was no longer final. Instead there was a need for the Council to adopt a common position. In the second reading the Parliament could approve this position or it could reject it or amend it again, in last two cases by an absolute majority of it's members. Moreover, for the second reading there was set up a time limit of three month.[16]


[1] Craig/deBurca, p. 66

[2] Westlake, p. 137

[3] Westlake, p. 137

[4] see: Westlake, p. 137; Craig/deBurca, p. 9

[5] laid down in 22 articles of the EEC Treaty and 11 articles in the ECSC Treaty, see also: Corbett, p.113

[6] Westlake, p. 138

[7] see Usher, p. 60

[8] Westlake, pp. 139 - 140

[9] for a comprehensive overview see: Westlake, A modern Guido to the European Parliament (1994), pp. 121-131

[10] for a very comprehensive description see: Corbett, pp. 93 - 113; for a short overview see: Hartley, pp. 44 - 48

[11] see: Usher, p. 61; Westlake, case 34/86 Council vs. European Parliament [1986] ECR 2155

[12] Corbett, p. pp. 118 - 120; Earnshaw, Judge, p. 97; Westlake, p. 141

[13] Earnshaw, Judge, p. 97

[14] for an overview of the "successfull" own initiative reports see: Corbett, pp. 121 - 121

[15] Westlake, p. 142; Earnshaw, Judge, p. 97

[16] for a detailed description of the co-operation procedure see: Corbett, pp. 263 - 266


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Europäisches Parlament european parlament historische Entwicklung historical development Gesetzgebungsverfahren der EU Demokratie-Defizit Mitentscheidungs-Verfahren proceedings Vertrag von Ni




Title: The legislative role of the European Parliament