The European Parliament
This is your Parliament - a Parliament for all European citizens. The 785 MEPs are your representatives. They are working to build the European Home of the EU's 492 million citizens.
The Parliament, along with the Council of Ministers, legislates for the EU. The 785 Members of Parliament from the 27 EU countries adopt laws that are within the competence of the European Union and which have an impact on the daily lives of its citizens.
The President is elected for a renewable term of two and a half years, i.e. half the lifetime of a Parliament. The President represents the European Parliament vis-à-vis the outside world and in its relations with the other Community institutions.
The European Parliament elected German socialist Martin Schulz (S&D, Germany) as its new President on January 17 2012.
Mr Schulz got 387 votes out of 699 votes cast and will serve as European Parliament President until the next MEP elections in June 2014.
Mr Schulz replaces the outgoing President Jerzy Buzek (EPP, Poland).
Where is Parliament based?
The European Parliament has three places of work: Brussels (Belgium), Luxembourg and Strasbourg (France).
Luxembourg is home to the administrative offices (the 'General Secretariat'). Meetings of the whole Parliament, known as 'plenary sessions', take place in Strasbourg and sometimes in Brussels. Committee meetings are also held in Brussels.
What does Parliament do?
Parliament has three main roles:
Passing European laws - jointly with the Council in many policy areas. The fact that the EP is directly elected by the citizens helps guarantee the democratic legitimacy of European law.
Parliament exercises democratic supervision over the other EU institutions, and in particular the Commission. It has the power to approve or reject the nomination of commissioners, and it has the right to censure the Commission as a whole.
The power of the purse. Parliament shares with the Council authority over the EU budget and can therefore influence EU spending. At the end of the procedure, it adopts or rejects the budget in its entirety.
These three roles are described in greater detail below.
1. Passing European laws
The most common procedure for adopting (i.e. passing) EU legislation is 'codecision'. This procedure places the European Parliament and the Council on an equal footing and it applies to legislation in a wide range of fields.
In some fields (for example agriculture, economic policy, visas and immigration), the Council alone legislates, but it has to consult Parliament. In addition, Parliament's assent is required for certain important decisions, such as allowing new countries to join the EU.
Parliament also provides impetus for new legislation by examining the Commission's annual work programme, considering what new laws would be appropriate and asking the Commission to put forward proposals.
2. Democratic supervision
Parliament exercises democratic supervision over the other European institutions. It does so in several ways.
When a new Commission takes office, its members are nominated by the EU member state governments but they cannot be appointed without Parliament's approval. Parliament interviews each of them individually, including the prospective Commission President, and then votes on whether to approve the Commission as a whole.
Throughout its term of office, the Commission remains politically accountable to Parliament, which can pass a 'motion of censure' calling for the Commission's mass resignation.
More generally, Parliament exercises control by regularly examining reports sent to it by the Commission (the annual general report, reports on the implementation of the budget, etc.). Moreover, MEPs regularly ask the Commission questions which the commissioners are legally required to answer.
Parliament also monitors the work of the Council: MEPs regularly ask the Council questions, and the President of the Council attends the EP's plenary sessions and takes part in important debates.
Parliament can exercise further democratic control by examining petitions from citizens and setting up committees of inquiry.
Finally, Parliament provides input to every EU summit (the European Council meetings). At the opening of each summit, the President of Parliament is invited to express Parliament's views and concerns about topical issues and the items on the European Council's agenda.
3. The power of the purse
The EU's annual budget is decided jointly by Parliament and the Council. Parliament debates it in two successive readings, and the budget does not come into force until it has been signed by the President of Parliament.
Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control (COCOBU) monitors how the budget is spent, and each year Parliament decides whether to approve the Commission's handling of the budget for the previous financial year. This approval process is technically known as 'granting a discharge'
How is the Parliament's work organised?
Parliament's work is divided into two main stages:
Preparing for the plenary session. This is done by the MEPs in the various parliamentary committees that specialise in particular areas of EU activity. The issues for debate are also discussed by the political groups.
The plenary session itself. Plenary sessions are normally held in Strasbourg (one week per month) and sometimes in Brussels (two days only). At these sessions, Parliament examines proposed legislation and votes on amendments before coming to a decision on the text as a whole.
Other items on the agenda may include Council or Commission 'communications' or questions about what is going on in the European Union or the wider world.