Can MEPs make your life better?

Although the European Parliament has been given more powers, most EU legislation still originates from the unelected European Commission

The European Parliament is the only body directly elected by citizens in the European Union, and the 24 May elections will allow voters in Malta and the other 27 member states to choose the representatives who will shape and decide future legislation.

For many years, European Parliament was simply a talking shop and a purely consultative body. But since EU citizens started electing their representatives and thanks to the active work of MEPs, it has been able to secure greater powers and acquire the status of equal partner in co-decision with the Council in areas covering three quarters of Community legislation.

Following the Lisbon Treaty, MEPs were vested with greater powers and they can now negotiate legislation with the Council, made up of national government ministers, in what is called co-decision.

The co-decision process, by which a law is only passed when approved by both bodies, applies to pivotal legislation areas including agriculture, the single market, consumer rights, regional aid, workers’ rights, asylum and migration, and the environment.

Although the European Parliament has been given more powers, most EU legislation still originates from the unelected European Commission.

But MEPs can nonetheless press the Commission to legislate on particular issues.

They can also act on issues raised by voters who petition them directly, as happened in the case of the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) and the fisheries reform, where public pressure made a big impact.

MEPs also have the power to sanction EU trade agreements with non-EU countries and the accession of new member states.

Moreover, despite being elected directly by voters, the parliament does not function like national parliaments, which are made up of a government and opposition parties, or a single opposition party in Malta’s case.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the parliament’s co-decision powers were enhanced, to give it a bigger say over agriculture and the budget, but the composition of the new parliament will most probably hold a decisive influence on the future of the EU – particularly if, as expected, there is a surge in the number of Eurosceptic MEPs.

With the possibility of a bigger presence of Eurosceptic MEPs representing a wide range of parties such as the far-right National Front in France and the populist 5-Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo in Italy, the European Parliament could embark on a different direction, with bigger autonomy being granted to member states.

How does Parliament function?

Plenary sittings are chaired and overseen by the President of the European Parliament. 

The president’s signature is required for enacting most EU laws and the EU budget and is normally divided between the two major political parties, the European People’s Party and the Socialists.

In the last legislature the post was shared by EPP member Jerzy Buzek and S&D MEP Martin Schulz. Fourteen vice-presidents, who can take over the chair if necessary, assist the President in carrying out the required duties.

The president opens plenary sittings and oversees proceedings by calling upon speakers and ensuring proper conduct. In addition, the president also directs voting procedures, putting amendments and legislative resolutions to the vote and announcing the results.

The majority of MEPs belong to a political group, of which there are currently seven, representing all ideological currents in the EP. This number is set to grow, with Eurosceptics and populists expected to garner enough numbers to form new political groups.

Yet, a number of MEPs are not affiliated to any political group and are described as “non-attached” members. Political groups decide which issues should be included on the agenda and discussed in plenary sessions.

Parties have the power to propose amendments to the committee reports to be put to the vote, but MEPs are granted a free vote and unlike national MPs, members of the European Parliament vote against their own party.

The European Commission and the Council of the European Union also participate in plenary sittings in order to facilitate collaboration between the institutions in the diverse decision-making processes.

Upon Parliament’s request, Commission and Council representatives may be called to appear in front of MEPs and make declarations or to give an account of their activities in response to questions put to them.

The plenary agenda is drawn up in detail by the presidents of the political groups while the Conference of Committee Chairpersons can make recommendations regarding the work of the committees and the drafting of the plenary agenda.

Plenary business mainly focuses on debates and votes. Texts and declarations must be signed by a majority of MEPs to formally become acts of the European Parliament.

Text and declarations vary depending on the subject under consideration and the applicable legislative procedure. These include legislative reports, which are examined by MEPs in the framework of the various community legislative procedures such as co-decision, assent and consultation.

Only the co-decision procedure gives Parliament an equal role as legislator with the Council of the European Union, meaning certain parliamentary reports have more legislative weight than others.

Another pivotal aspect in the Parliament’s functions is the budgetary procedure. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union make up the bloc’s budgetary authority, which determines, on an annual basis, the EU’s expenditure and revenue.

During plenary sittings, Parliament can decide to express its opinion on any matter it deems important.

Parliament 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 the Commission. Questions must be submitted in advance, in writing, to the President of Parliament, who decides whether they are admissible.


Committees play an important role in drafting non-legislative reports which Parliament can adopt to address the other European institutions and bodies, including national governments, or indeed third countries, with the aim of drawing attention to a specific matter and eliciting a response.

Although these reports have no legislative value, these initiatives are founded on a parliamentary legitimacy which may well convince the Commission to come up with proposals on the matter concerned.

This happened with Malta’s controversial Individual Investor Programme, which was at the centre of a two-day debate in the European Parliament, with 89% of MEPs approving a resolution which called on the Commission to state clearly whether citizenship schemes respect the letter and spirit of the EU treaties and EU rules on non-discrimination.

In order to do the preparatory work for Parliament’s plenary sittings, MEPs are divided up among a number of specialised standing committees.

At present, there are 22 parliamentary standing committees, which are made up of between 24 and 76 MEPs, and these have a chair, a bureau and a secretariat.

The political make-up of the committees reflects that of the plenary assembly, and are entrusted with drawing up, amending and adopting legislative proposals and own-initiative reports.

Committees consider Commission and Council proposals and, where necessary, draw up reports to be presented to the plenary assembly.

Parliament can also set up sub-committees and special temporary committees to deal with specific issues, and is empowered to create formal committees of inquiry under its supervisory remit to investigate allegations of maladmistration of EU law.

Parliamentary committees meet once or twice a month in Brussels and their debates are held in public.

Given the limited number of MEPs, Maltese members cannot sit on each and every committee, however although each of the six MEPs are members on one committee they are also nominated as substitutes on a number of other committees and delegations.

Joseph Cuschieri, the outgoing head of delegation of Labour MPs, sat on the committee on transport and tourism while his Nationalist Party counterpart David Casa sat on the committee on employment and social affairs.

The other Labour MEPs – Claudette Abela Baldacchino and Marlene Mizzi – respectively sat on the committee on the internal market and consumer protection and the committee on economic and monetary affairs. The remaining Labour MEP, John Attard Montalto, did not have any committee responsibilities but was part of the delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia.

The second PN MEP, Roberta Metsola, sat on two committees: the committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs and the committee on petitions.

Parliament and you

During the 2009-2014 legislature, Parliament adopted a number of key legislations which had a direct bearing on European citizens and their quality of life.

Although the majority of European citizens are detached from EU institutions, legislation approved by Parliament influences their daily lives, from the quality of food to mobile phone charges.

Under EU treaties, all the positions voted by Parliament in plenary before the elections, whether at first reading, or second reading, or under the consultation procedure, remain legally valid for the next legislature.

This means that after the elections the new Parliament will pick up the files where the previous Parliament left them, and will continue with the next stage of the relevant decision-making procedure, namely the ordinary legislative procedure – i.e., co-decision – or a special legislative procedure; i.e., consultation.

But what about laws that do not reach the plenary before the elections? In this case, there is no legally valid Parliament position and Parliament’s internal rules of procedure stipulate that in the event of this, the work done on them (in committee) during the previous parliamentary term lapses. Yet, the new Parliament will then decide whether to pick up the legislation again.

Credit card fees

In April 2014, the European Parliament voted on its amendments to the draft rules in order to consolidate the work done so far and hand it over to the next Parliament. This ensures that the newly elected MEPs can decide not to start from scratch, but instead build on work done during the current term.

Banks’ card payment fees cost EU retailers over €10 billion each year, according to European Commission figures. The proposal establishes caps on fees when paying by debit and credit card for domestic and cross-border purchases.

MEPs backed a plan seeing banks’ charge for processing consumers’ payments via credit cards capped at 0.3% of the transaction value and at a maximum of seven euro cents for debit cards.


Thanks to legislation approved by Parliament, Maltese students and the rest of their European peers will enjoy a new system which recognising diplomas for professional qualifications. A new professional card and one-stop-shop will make it easier to work abroad. The recognition of diplomas concerns about 800 regulated professions in the EU such as doctors, architects and nurses.

Moreover, €14.7 billion have been voted for programmes aimed at students between 13 and 30 studying abroad. In addition, one third of the budget will go to the university programme, Erasmus. About 5 million people will benefit, of which 2 million will be university students.


As a parting gift before the end of the current legislature, outgoing MEPs overwhelmingly voted to ban all roaming charges in the EU as of December 2015. This is a significant step in the protection of consumers of telecom services and should lead to further reforms in the telecom services field.

In the meantime, Maltese and European customers will enjoy new limits to charges data services (20c per megabyte from 1 July 2014); roaming calls with mobile phones (19c from 1 July 2014); and text message charges will be capped at 6c per message from July 2014.

Besides roaming, regulation also improved management of radio spectrum, increased competition among telecom firms and reinforced rights of internet users.


The outgoing Parliament adopted a new policy which is set to come in force by mid- 2015 covering basic rights for asylum seekers, including access to services such as health and education and access to job market, not later than nine months after filing an application, instead of the current 12 months. The new criteria for detention of asylum seekers limits discretion of member states, with minors being detained only as last resort and for the minimum time possible. Recently, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced that child migrants would no longer be kept in detention centres.


Access to healthcare in other member states and reimbursement according to rules of country of origin has been facilitated. This covers a number of treatments, and although refusal needs to be justified, prior authorisation of the country of residence may be requested.

Moreover, medical prescriptions will be more easily recognised in other EU countries.

The controversial tobacco directive saw the introduction of health warnings to cover 65% of cigarette packages and a ban on flavoured cigarettes. E-cigarettes were also regulated.

Digital rights

Following protests all over Europe – including Malta – in June 2012 the European Parliament exercised its Lisbon Treaty power to reject an international trade agreement and voted against the ratification of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

Although the EU and the majority of its members, including Malta, had signed the agreement in 2011, MEPs concluded that ACTA was open to misinterpretation and could jeopardise citizens’ rights.

ACTA was negotiated by the EU and its member states, the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland to improve the enforcement of anti-counterfeiting law internationally. However, the EP’s vote meant that neither the EU nor its individual member states could ratify the agreement.


The adoption of energy efficiency rules oblige member states to set up national targets with binding targets for saving energy in specific areas such as renovation of public buildings, smart metering systems and audits.

The reform of the fisheries policy limits overfishing and bans discards of fish at sea. Fishermen have to respect the “maximum sustainable yield” per particular fish stock.

Maternity leave and parental leave

Parliament voted this term to extend minimum paid maternity leave in the EU from 14 to 20 weeks, and for at least two weeks paternity leave. No agreement was reached with the Council and the issue will be decided by the new Parliament.


The creation of the banking union is aimed at preventing crisis and deals with banks in trouble. The European Central Bank was granted a new role to supervise banks. Banks of significant size or posing risks to the system or receiving public aid will be supervised directly by the ECB, which will also be responsible for signalling which banks are in bad shape and need intervention.

New resolutions also regulate a fund financed by banks to avoid using taxpayers’ money to prop up failing banks, with common criteria for deciding who pays first. The fund will be set up over eight years.

In addition, deposits of up to €100,000 in a single bank will be guaranteed.