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Important points 1994-1999






The European elections in June 1999 will mark the 20th anniversary of the first direct elections to the European Parliament (EP) - an ideal occasion to see how Parliament has used its powers during its latest term of office to further the interests of the European Union's 375 million citizens.

Parliament's influence has grown steadily since it came into being almost 50 years ago. It is now a key player in the EU's institutional system. On the way it has acquired nearly all the rights to which a directly elected assembly is usually entitled in a parliamentary democracy, although the road thus far has been a long and arduous one.


From advisory role to co-decision

When the European Coal and Steel Community was set up in 1952 it had only a "Common Assembly" made up of Members appointed by the national parliaments of the six founding Member States. The assembly had a purely advisory role, a situation which changed in 1970 when the EC budget was first financed from the Community's own resources. From this point on the European Parliament (as the Assembly was now known) began to take part in the process of drawing up and adopting the budget. In 1975 its budgetary powers were again significantly expanded, allowing it to amend the Council's draft budget and also reject it completely. Parliament thus became an equal partner with the Council in "the budgetary authority".

On the legislative front, Parliament took its first step towards becoming a full member of the "legislative team" alongside the Commission and Council when the Single European Act was adopted in 1986. Under the Single Act, Parliament began to take part in the general legislative process (particularly the laws paving the way for the single market) via the cooperation procedure. This procedure entails two parliamentary readings and has made it easier for Parliament to feed its own proposals into the legislative process. Since the Single Act the European Parliament's approval has also been needed (under the assent procedure) for accession and association treaties. Parliament gave its assent under this new procedure in 1994 to the accessions of Austria, Finland and Sweden.

The EP's powers were radically altered once more by the Treaty on European Union signed at Maastricht in 1992 (and hence known as the Maastricht Treaty). As a result of this treaty (which entered into force on 1 November 1993), Parliament wields a power of codecision together with the Council of Ministers on legislation in important policy areas including the single market, culture, education, health, research and the environment.

The basic assumption of the codecision procedure is that Parliament and Council are equal. Its aim is to bring about a consensus between the two institutions. Agreement is reached via the "conciliation procedure", which follows on from Parliament's second reading. Under this procedure Parliament and Council are equally represented on a Conciliation Committee, whose task is to reconcile divergent positions of the two sides. Experience shows that in the vast majority of cases the procedure works. When it doesn't work, the legislative process has failed. This means that, under codecision, EU legislation cannot be adopted against Parliament's will.

Community laws adopted over the last five years have to a large degree been the product of the codecision and cooperation procedures. Most primary economic and social legislation - and over 60% of environmental legislation - comes under these procedures. Two conclusions can be drawn from this:

-    The European Union today is more than just the voice of its Member States on the international scene. The Union has a direct, immediate impact on national economic and social policies. Its laws, which greatly influence or even take the place of national laws, affect the public directly.

-    Parliament cannot be bypassed within the EU legislative process. The public can thus rest assured that someone is keeping a watchful eye on “Brussels”.

Despite Parliament's active role in shaping EU law, there is still room for progress. The EP does not enjoy the classic parliamentary right to propose draft legislation itself; the Commission has a monopoly in this area. Parliament can only request that the Commission draw up legislative proposals in fields where Parliament thinks action is needed at EU level. An example would be the improved rules on compensation to victims of road accidents abroad within the EU. A suggestion by Parliament on this issue was taken up by the Commission and fed into the normal legislative channels. The result: in December 1998 an EU law on compensation was adopted by the Council.


Parliament's supervisory role

One of Parliament's key supervisory tasks is its scrutiny of EU budget spending. Each year, on the basis of reports of the Court of Auditors, which inspects the Commission's accounts and says whether budget funds have been properly used, Parliament grants (or refuses to grant) a “budgetary discharge” to the Commission.

Parliament is also entitled to set up temporary committees of enquiry to investigate breaches of Community law. In the last five years it has successfully used this right twice, to enquire into the BSE crisis and the Community transit procedure.

Since the Maastricht Treaty the appointment of a new Commission has required Parliament's approval. In January 1995 parliamentary committees held public hearings to question the Commission President and other Commissioners designated by the national governments. The entire Commission plus President Santer were then approved by Parliament's plenary. The same procedure was used to appoint the members of the European Central Bank's Executive Board in May 1998.

Another supervisory power Parliament can deploy vis-à-vis the Commission is a censure vote. This procedure has been used twice by the outgoing Parliament, although the requirement for an absolute majority (i.e. 314 votes in favour of the motion) as well as two-thirds of the votes cast was not reached in either case. The two cases occurred in February 1997 (in connection with the BSE crisis) and in January 1999 (following the refusal to grant the 1996 budget discharge). The decision to withhold the budget discharge nevertheless had political consequences: for the first time in the history of the European Communities the Commission as a whole resigned, in response to the findings of a report commissioned from a committee of independent experts set up by Parliament following its vote in January. Whether this will lead to a shift in the balance between the EU institutions in the long term remains to be seen.


Equality with Council on the horizon

Parliament's lawmaking powers will be significantly expanded as a result of the Amsterdam Treaty, which was signed on 2 October 1997 and, following ratification by the last Member State in March this year, is due to enter into force before the European elections in June. From now on the EP will have an equal say on legislation in 38 areas instead of the current 15. These will include employment, social policy, health, transport, consumer protection, further developments in the single market (e.g. free movement of workers and freedom of establishment), education and vocational training.

However, Parliament's increased powers are not limited to legislative activity. In future even the designation of the Commission President, which will take place by common accord between the Member States, will require Parliament's approval. As a result, the Member States will make every effort in advance to find a candidate who can count on broad support within Parliament. This is the only way to ensure that the next Commission, which will be subject as a body to parliamentary approval, enjoys the EP's confidence.


What Parliament does affects us all

The expansion in the EP's powers brings with it a heavier burden of responsibility. Parliament must ensure that the worries and concerns of the public are taken seriously, that solidarity with people inside and outside the EU does not waver and that human rights and democracy do not go by the board as a result of globalisation, world financial crises, breakneck developments in biotechnology and the risks posed by the information society.

This brochure aims to show how, over the last five years, Parliament has successfully championed the public's rights on a wide range of important issues and thereby increased its influence over the everyday lives of us all.

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