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Explainer: What do MEPs actually do once they get a seat in the European Parliament?

Here’s what you can expect of the people you’re voting for on Friday.

Image: Wiktor Dabkowski/PA

THIS FRIDAY VOTERS will decide who will sit in Ireland’s seats in the European Parliament.

The thirteen successful candidates will take their places in the parliament on 2 July for a five-year term.

Throughout their campaigns they have all been making promises, so let’s take a look at what the role actually involves and the reality for an Irish MEP when they get there.

Representation

In the same way that TDs are elected to the Dáil to deal with national issues, MEPs represent their constituents on European issues. 

The main task of an MEP is to vote on European legislation – and these laws are then binding across the whole of the European Union. So, if there is a particular piece of legislation in Europe you have in interest in, you can contact your local MEPs and urge them to vote in a particular way. 

The kinds of issues MEPs will vote on could include:

  • Working hours and other conditions for employees throughout the European Union;
  • Access to healthcare in another EU country;
  • The kinds of pesticides that are safe to use on food grown in the EU;
  • How much you pay for mobile phone calls in other member states;
  • Environmental issues like clean air and water.

MEPs can also question and lobby the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. And the European Parliament decides on the EU budget and influences how EU money is spent.

However the parliament’s role in the drafting of legislation can often be misunderstood. It is up to the European Commission to propose new EU laws – the parliament is then tasked with approving them.

The parliament can request the Commission to submit a legislative proposal or request it to complement proposed legislation with minor changes. But ultimately the main role is to debate and vote on legislation that comes from the Commission. 

The reality

The members of the European Parliament sit in political groups and these are organised  by political affiliation.

There are currently eight political groups and each must have  a minimum of 25 members, with representatives from at least seven of the member states.  Some MEPs do not belong to any political group and are known as ‘non-attached members’.

While the parliament as a collective has certain roles and powers, as individuals, the level of influence an MEP has can depend on which grouping they belong to and their priorities. 

Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, who sat as an MEP from 2011 to 2014, described the parliament as “a relatively speaking powerless institution” compared to the Council and Commission.

He was a member of the left wing European United Left/Nordic Green Left grouping. Sinn Féin MEPs and independent Luke Ming Flanagan have also joined this grouping in the parliament, which won 52 of the 751 seats in 2014. 

However it is by no means the largest – the parliament is dominated by two main groupings; the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. 

Being a member of these two parties means your grouping’s collective view on an a piece of legislation is more likely to win out in votes. 

In the smaller groupings, the real ability to make a difference is outside of the parliament chamber, according to Murphy.

He said it was a good platform internationally, on human rights issues in particular.

He got to participate in the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza and was able to highlight labour rights issues in Kazakstan and the plight of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. 

“That was impactful – I’m banned from all of those places now. A lot of people didn’t know that, but it’s a signal that the governments really weren’t happy with the impact we were having drawing attention to it by going there.”

During his time Murphy also worked with other left-wing MEPs in Europe to promote large-scale anti-austerity protests across the union. 

“It puts you in a good position to harness that kind of cross-European solidarity on issues.”

And Murphy also said he was able to use his voice in the parliament to bring attention to Irish issues. He gave the example of his use of parliamentary privilege to name the people involved in an €85,000 RTÉ payout over comments made by Rory O’Neill about homophobia. 

Similar to the use of privilege in the Houses of the Oireachtas, comments made by MEPs in the parliament chamber are protected and can be reported by media. 

Work at home

Murphy explained that one week of every month for an MEP is spent in their constituency and there are a number of things they can work on while they’re back home. They can attend any Dáil committee, if there’s a particular area they want to have input on, for example.

MEPs can also make representations on behalf of constituents at an EU level. 

“You get justice cases coming to you. So for example we dealt with a guy’s case who was wrongly imprisoned in a particular country and we were trying to get him out,” Murphy said.

There was another guy wrongly imprisoned in Corfu in Greece. In both those cases they were either Irish or married to Irish citizens. I was able to meet with the Greek ambassador about it and I went to the court case.

Committees 

At committee level in the parliament, there is also an opportunity to shape policy direction. The size of the grouping a member is in will determine how many seats they can fill on committees. 

There are 20 specialised committes with between 25 and 73 full members and an equivalent number of substitutes. There are committees on foreign affairs, human rights, security and defence, budgetary control, transport, fisheries, legal affairs, civil liberties, women’s rights and education. 

These committees meet one week each month and similar to Oireachtas committees they examine proposed legislation and discuss policy in detail, often hearing from experts in the specific area of law. 

They will then produce reports with findings and a list of recommendations.

If a committee recommends the parliament pass a certain piece of legislation or a trade agreement, for example, it is likely the majority of MEPs will vote that way. 

If you are still undecided about who to vote for on Friday, have a look at our candidate audits. We asked the candidates in each constituency the big questions of the campaign:

If you want to know which political party matches up with your own political preferences for European policy, there’s a handy quiz here

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