The high point of the European Parliament's political activity, plenary sittings represent the culmination of the legislative work done in committee and in the poitical groups. The plenary sitting is also the forum in which the representatives of the citizens of the European Union - the Members of the European Parliament or MEPs - take part in Community decision-making and express their standpoint vis-à-a vis the Commission and Council.
For many years the Parliament was simply a forum for debate, a purely consultative body.
But since its election by direct universal suffrage and thanks to the active work of its members, it has been able to secure greater powers and acquire the status of equal partner in codecision with the Council in areas covering three quarters of Community legislation. Today, the European Parliament has 754 elected members from 27 Member States of the European Union and conducts its plenary debates in 23 languages. In plenary, MEPs, officials, interpreters and translators follow very precise procedures in order to ensure the best possible conduct of the sitting.
Plenary sittings are chaired by the President of the European Parliament. The President of the European Parliament is assisted in this task by the 14 vice-presidents, who can take over the chair. The President opens the sitting, sometimes with a tribute or a speech on a current topic. Parliament is in fact constantly concerned to respond to the latest developments in any major issue and has no hesitation in changing its agenda in order to call on the Union to act. The President's influence can be decisive in this respect.
During the sitting, the President calls upon speakers and ensures that the proceedings are properly conducted. He also directs the voting procedure, putting amendments and legislative resolutions to the vote and announcing the results. His authority ensures that the votes, which can be long and complex, proceed at a rapid pace.
Most of the 754 MEPs belong to a political group, of which there are currently 7, representing all ideological tendencies in the EP. Some MEPs are not affiliated to any political group and are thus known as "non-attached" Members. It is the political groups that decide which issues will be discussed in plenary. They can also table amendments to the committee reports to be put to the vote. However, no Member can be obliged by his group to vote in a particular way.
The European Commission and the Council of the European Union take part in the sittings in order to facilitate collaboration between the institutions in the decision-making process. If Parliament so requests, the representatives of the two institutions may also be called upon to make declarations or to give an account of their activities in response to questions put to them by Members. These debates may be wound up with a vote on a resolution.
Plenary sittings bring together a large number of participants and thus cannot be improvised, but require thorough organisation in advance, insofar as possible. Thus the plenary agenda is drawn up in detail by the Conference of Presidents of the political groups.
In parallel, the Conference of Committee Chairmen (composed of the chairs of all the standing and temporary parliamentary committees) can make recommendations to the Conference of Presidents regarding the work of the committees and the drafting of the plenary agenda.
Parliament meets in plenary session every month (except August) in Strasbourg, for a 'part-session' lasting four days (from Monday to Thursday). Six times a year, it also meets in Brussels for two days (Wednesday and Thursday). The part-session is divided into daily sittings.
Plenary business mainly focuses on debates and votes. Only the texts adopted in plenary and written declarations ( Rule 123) signed by a majority of Parliament's component Members formally constitute acts of the European Parliament.
These concern different types of text depending on the subject under consideration and the legislative procedure applicable:
During the plenary sitting, Parliament can decide to express its opinion on any matter which it considers important. It can also ask the Commission to submit an appropriate proposal on issues which in Parliament's view require a Community legislative act to be adopted. The sitting also includes a period set aside for Question Time with the Council and/or the Commission. In general, Question Time with the Commission is held on Tuesday, and with the Council on Wednesday. The questions must be submitted in advance, in writing, to the President of Parliament, who decides whether they are admissible.
Parliament's annual calendar of work is adopted each year in plenary, usually in June, on a proposal from the Conference of Presidents of the political groups. The calendar indicates the weeks set aside for committee meetings and for political group meetings. The plenary agenda indicates whether the statements by the Council, Commission or European Council and the oral questions to the Council and Commission are to be followed by a vote on a motion for a resolution. Debates on cases of breaches of human rights, democracy and the rule of law may also give rise to motions for resolutions. These texts are generally tabled by a committee, a political group or at least 40 Members.
The minutes of each sitting give details of the exact proceedings and business of the day (documents tabled, debates, votes, explanations of vote, appointments, etc.). The results of votes are also annexed to the minutes.
A parliamentary report put to the vote in plenary is generally the subject of a debate in which the Commission, the representatives of the political groups and individual MEPs express their views. Speaking time per person, often very short, depends on the number of Members who have asked for the floor.
Unlike the voting, which is sometimes held at a very rapid pace, the debates can last for several hours, depending on the number of Members who wish to speak. They usually speak in their own language, and what they say is interpreted simultaneously by the interpreters into the other official EU languages.
Speaking time in the Chamber is allocated according to the following criteria: a first fraction of speaking time is divided equally amongst all the political groups, then a further fraction is divided among the groups in proportion to the total number of their members. MEPs who wish to speak are entered on the list of speakers in an order based on the numerical size of their group. However, a priority speaking slot is given to the rapporteurs of the committees responsible and to draftsmen of other committees asked for an opinion.
Distinguished visitors regularly come to address Parliament, including Heads of State, who are normally received in formal sitting.
Votes are generally held around midday. Voting generally proceeds at a rapid pace: Members sometimes have to vote on hundreds of amendments.
During the vote on a parliamentary report or a resolution, Members can change the text submitted to them by adopting amendments, which may seek to delete, reformulate, replace or add to the content of the text under consideration. MEPs first vote on each amendment individually and then on the whole text as amended.
Normally MEPs vote by show of hands, and the President of the sitting determines the majorities in each case. If the show of hands is unclear, the president calls for an electronic vote to secure a more precise result. A roll call vote must be taken if requested by a political group or at least 40 Members the evening before the vote. In this case, the individual vote cast by each MEP is recorded and published in an annex to the minutes, unless voting by secret ballot has also been requested.
In plenary, the European Parliament normally takes decisions by an absolute majority of votes cast. A quorum (minimum number of Members who must be present in order for the result of a vote to be valid) exists when one third of the component Members of Parliament are present in the Chamber. If the president, at the request of at least 40 Members, establishes that the quorum is not present, the vote is held over to the next sitting.
The Commission can respond to the result of the vote and announce its conclusions. At the end of voting time, Members who so request may take the floor again to give an explanation of vote and to make their analysis and explain their choice or that of their group.