Voters across the European Union are preparing to go to the polls at the end of May for the 2019 European Parliament election. Turnout has been on a downward trend ever since the first ballot 40 years ago, with the perceived complexity of how things work in Brussels one frequently posited explanation. As part of a series outlining the form and functions of the key EU institutions, here we explain the role of the European Parliament.
What is the European Parliament?
The European Parliament is the European Union's only institution directly elected by its citizens, with the first ballot held in 1979. The Parliament is the centre of debate on issues affecting the 28 member states and their citizens and has legislative, supervisory and budgetary responsibilities.
It sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg, with Members of European Parliament (MEPs) shuttling between the two, and its administrative offices are in Luxembourg.
There are 751 MEPs, although this will fall to 705 once the UK has left the EU. They represent the second-largest electorate in the world – 512 million EU citizens – after the Parliament of India.
The minimum age to vote in European elections, which take place every five years, is established by national law in each of the member states. The age of eligibility is 18 in all besides Greece, where it is 17, and Austria and Malta, where it is 16. Voting is compulsory in Belgium, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Greece. The precise day of elections is also set by individual member states.
Voter turnout at the elections has fallen each year since their inception and has been less than 50 per cent for the last 20 years.
The number of MEPs for each member state is proportionate to its population, but no country can have fewer than six or more than 96 MEPs.
MEPs are elected using individual national electoral systems, but these observe common provisions established by EU law such as proportional representation, which ensure that if, for example, a party gets 20 per cent of the votes, it will also win roughly 20 per cent of seats, so all sizes of political parties have the chance to send representatives to the Parliament.
Parliament uses all 24 of the EU's official languages in its daily business and all are of equal status, with all documents being published in every language and MEPs having the right to speak and work in their own language, with provisions made for them to do so.
What does the Parliament do?
The European Parliament is the legislative arm of the European Union and represents its citizens. It also has supervisory and budgetary responsibilities. It shares powers of budget and legislation with the Council of the European Union, which represents EU member state governments. It also plays a key role in electing the president of the European Commission, and has the power to dismiss the Commission.
Parliament sits in eight political groups, organised by affiliation rather than nationality. At least a quarter of the member states must be represented within each group and 25 members are needed to form a group. MEPs can also sit as non-attached members, who are not part of any group.
In its legislative role, the Parliament passes laws (along with the Council of the EU) which have been proposed by the European Commission. It also asks the Commission to propose legislation.
There are 23 committees in parliament, dealing with policy areas such as security and defence, human rights, international trade and constitutional affairs, which examine proposals for legislation. MEPs can propose amendments, or the rejection of a bill. Plenary sessions in which MEPs gather in the chamber to vote on proposed legislation are held four days each month in Strasbourg.
Parliament also scrutinises the democratic processes of all the EU institutions, as well as the Commission's reports, including the budget, of which it has approval.
Who is in charge?
The Parliament's president presides over its debates and activities, ensuring the rules of procedure are upheld, and represents it both within the EU and internationally.
Their signature is required to enact EU laws and the budget and they attend European Council meetings and set out Parliament's point of view with regards to the agenda.
The president serves a term of two and a half years, half the lifetime of the parliament, which is usually divided between the two biggest political parties.
The Parliament's current president is Italian Antonio Tajani, a member of the pro-European, centre-right European People's Party (EPP).
What is the job of an MEP?
MEPs are the elected representatives of the constituents of a geographical area within each member state, and their interests.
They listen to local and national concerns of individuals, groups and businesses; question and lobby the European Commission and the Council of Ministers on their behalf, and debate and vote on proposed legislation that will have an impact on them.
Examples of areas of legislation MEPs might vote on include workers' rights, mobile phone roaming charges, health and safety and pesticide use.
The minimum age to stand as a candidate is set by the national government of each member state and varies from 18 in France and Germany to 25 in Greece and Italy.
Salaries are the same for each MEP and as of July 2018 are € 8,757.70 per month, which is paid out of the Parliament's budget. MEPs pay EU tax and insurance contributions, after which the salary is €6,824.85. Most countries in the bloc oblige MEPs to pay an additional national tax, meaning their final take-home pay can vary from country to country.
In addition, they are entitled to perks including a general expenditure allowance, golden parachute, travel expenses, daily allowance, a budget for staff, car service, a pension and medical expenses.