Committees of the European Parliament: Where the Power Rests
The committee system is one of the most prominent features of the European Parliament. It is where the institution holds its main strength and where its structure is defined.
The way in which the European Parliament enters the legislative process of the EU is through a system of parliamentary committees. These comprise between 20 to 70 members and their make-up reflects the political composition of the Parliament itself. Currently the 20 standing committees are responsible for covering all of the EU's areas of competence, addressing topics such as the environment, education or economic and social matters. Additionally several special committees and sub-committees are created on an ad hoc basis dealing with issues deemed to be of particular importance. Such was the case with the special committee set up in 2006 to investigate the alleged secret CIA prisons operating in some of the EU member states.
The committees of the European Parliament play an indispensable role in the EU legislative process. Although amendments to legislation are also formulated at the plenary level, it is in the committees where the main work of scrutinizing and amending the Commision’s proposals takes place. Overall a parliamentary committee is where the European Parliament's influence over the policy-making process of the EU is most visible.
Parliamentary committees in the legislation process
To explain how the committees work it is useful to look at what happens to a single piece of legislation once it has been put forward by the Commission. After leaving the Commission the draft proposal is assigned to a committee whose dossier corresponds most closely to the policy area. It is then carefully examined and debated by the members of that committee. In the process a number of amendments are usually introduced, the Commission being involved in the relevant exchanges and debates. The work of the committees results in producing reports on proposed bills, and can lead to adoption of a legislation resolution by the plenary session.
Members of the committees are chosen from among the MEPs according to their political affiliation. A special role belongs to the rapporteur who becomes the Parliament's main negotiator for a given legislative act. The rapporteur is responsible for drafting the reports hence it is a role sought after by many MEPs for its prestige. The position is generally allocated to the most active members of the committees who display an interest and expertise in a given topic, but political motivation is also apparent.
The mechanism of parliamentary committees has been perfected over the years to achieve maximum levels of cohesiveness and efficiency. This is important as the Parliament's success is measured by its ability to speak with one voice. Sophisticated debates and exchange of arguments at the committee meetings allow for reaching such consensus. In fact the position adopted at the committee level is often mirrored at the plenary session and used to start negotiations with the Council. Generating consensus is therefore an important value-added of the committees to the work of the Parliament.
Parliament's vehicle of power
Throughout its history the European Parliament has ceased to be a mere “talking shop” — where issues are debated but no actions follow— and has become efficient and influential in exercising its decision-making role at the European level. After the adoption of Lisbon Treaty and under the ordinary legislative procedure the Parliament has been continuously showing a great deal of legislative ability as well as proving able to shape outcomes according to self-defined priorities. This is illustrated distinctly by the amount of successful amendments to the EU legislations.
The European Parliament has always been an institution in transition, from the outset gradually increasing its prerogatives. It has now conclusively achieved a position of immense influence, becoming indispensable for the EU legislative process. The committees have been in the foreground of those changes and it is there that the Parliament's newly acquired powers find expression in earnest.
The empowerment of the European Parliament continues and it seems likely that it will continue well into its imminent eighth legislature.