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Irish Ciarán Cuffe (centre, sitting at 318) voting with fellow MEPs at the European Parliament. EPA
ME-What?

'Sausage making': What is an MEP and what do they do?

What exactly is an MEP? What do they do? And how does the job compare to being a TD, senator or councillor?

VOTERS ACROSS THE European Union (EU) will go to the polls between 6-9 June to elect the next 720 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) to represent them in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The European Parliament is the second largest parliament in the world and comprises 705 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) from 27 member states. The number of seats will be increased in the next election to 720.

Ireland currently has 13 MEPs representing its three European constituencies and will gain an extra seat after the elections on 7 June, bringing the total number of Irish MEPs to 14. Each member state is allocated a minimum of six seats in the Parliament.

But what exactly is an MEP? What do they do? And how does the job compare to being a TD, senator or councillor?

Plenary

For the most part, an MEP’s job is to vote on legislation and directives in a manner which best represents the interests of their constituents.

The majority of this voting is done during ‘Plenary’ – a four-day session to debate and vote on the newest laws. Some of these laws can be very specific, such as setting an EU-wide maximum level of contaminants allowed in food.

Other laws can be more technical, for example this month, the Parliament voted to adopt regulations on Artificial Intelligence which will change how developers approach their products and place safeguards against malignant use of AI. 

For laws which will have a greater impact on a large number of people, the MEPs usually debate the draft legislation the day before the vote. This gives the politicians a chance to voice support or criticism and allows the negotiators of the amendments to lay out how the law will work.

Barry Andrews Irish MEP Barry Andrews (Right) speaking during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Barry Andrews on X Barry Andrews on X

On the back of the debates, research and guidance from special advisors, MEPs make a decision on how they will choose to vote.

Normally, MEPs will choose to vote in a manner that represents their constituents, which can prove awkward – given the many different perspectives represented in Parliament.

For example, last month Fine Gael MEPs voted in favour of the Nature Restoration Law while the majority of its parliamentary group voted against. Fine Gael cited the importance of maintaining nature and biodiversity in Ireland for doing so.

Because of the broad scope of laws that come before MEPs, the group of politicians have a lot of power in terms of lawmaking in each country. In Ireland, it’s estimated that roughly 70% of legislation that is drafted, amended and adopted comes from the EU.

For this reason, and for the various consequences which come about over failures to fulfil legislative responsibilities (including large fines), an MEP should consider each ‘text’ that is put forward to them.

The European Parliament debate and vote on three different types of text:

  • Legislative reports: texts on the effectiveness of a draft law or changes to legislation within the EU.
  • Budgetary procedure: formal declaration on the expenditure and revenue of the EU.
  • Non-legislative reports: symbolic reports drafted by MEPs so the Parliament can draw the EU institutions’ and the public’s attention to a particular topic.

MEPs can choose to voice their opinion on these reports before voting on them. Each member is often provided with a very short period of time to make their point – depending on the number of politicians who have asked for the floor.

Priority in these debates is given to the rapporteur – the MEP who led negotiations on amendments at committee level and prepared the legislative report.

Irish Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe had the floor for five minutes when voicing his opinion on why the Parliament should adopt the so-called ‘Retrofitting Directive’, which he was the rapporteur for.

general-view-of-the-hemicycle-of-the-european-parliament-in-brussels-belgium-with-the-flag-of-the-european-union-above-the-desk-of-the-president European Parliament chamber Strasbourg, France. Alamy Alamy

Once the Parliament has made a decision on these laws, they’re passed onto the rest of the EU’s institutions to be debated and later implemented.

  • You can find out more on that process here.

Dr Ian Cooper, a research fellow at Dublin City University’s Brexit Institute said: “MEPs are not as powerful as TDs but are probably more powerful than Senators or councillors.

If you judge it from the politicians themselves, they see being a TD as the most important role.

“From some perspectives, MEPs are more important because they’re passing legislation that affects 450 million people, and the Irish MEPs have an important role to play.

“But, they don’t have the same high-profile in Irish politics, and this is a classic problem in every member state. Very often citizens will go and not cast their vote on European issues, but base it on national issues.”

Cooper provided the example of the Green deal, which is important for voters who are farmers, but not something that would be spoken about on the doorsteps.

“The EU has actually been passing loads of legislation recently – like legislation on Artificial Intelligence and another one on gig workers – things that actually have real effects on people’s lives but not necessarily in a way that will move voters,” he added.

Committees

Committee rooms are where MEPs spend the majority of their time. Parliamentary groups put forward members to the committee based on their previous qualifications. There are committees for each EU competency and relevant subcommittees.

The EU Competences are as follows:

  • Establishing and maintaining a customs union between member states
  • Regulating commercial competition
  • Introducing monetary policies for the European Union
  • Managing fisheries within the member states
  • Regulating and monitoring commercial activity
  • Establishing and maintaining international relations with external states

The relevant European Commissioner will send draft proposals of legislation to these committees which then suggest amendments, debate and scrutinise of the new rules.

If European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis wants to introduce legislation on tariffs, the draft is put to the committee which will scrutinise the decision and put amendments forward.

The chair of each committee appoints ‘rapporteurs’ to every piece of draft legislation, who then must lead amendment negotiations. ‘Shadow rapporteurs’ are appointed to serve as the opposition.

Assistant Professor of Politics at DCU and the Deputy Director of the Brexit Institute Christy Anne Petit said that these negotiations are not supposed to be done on political grounds, but the rapporteur has the tedious, and often difficult, task of reaching a compromise.

commiteee room Committee room at the European Parliament in Brussels. European Parliament European Parliament

While the MEPs will maintain their political positions and national interests during negotiations, the academic said that the majority of agreements are made on the grounds of a consensus reached between the politicians.

“The role of the rapporteur is to reach a compromise across seven political groups – and, of course, those who are not aligned – while also being aware of what’s going on in the national reality of each member state,” Petit said.

“In European law, a lot of coalitions take place,” Petit continued. “These are not only political but also a grouping of member states. So, the MEP will have a lot of work to do to understand and liaise with the other counterparts.”

Every detail is looked at during committee scrutinisation and each amendment must be agreed through a consensus by the committee. This is one of the safeguards thwarting attempts from Commissioners to push major policies through by themselves.

To avoid months-long debates, the Parliament and Council of Ministers often hold marathon debates, known as ‘Trilogues’. 

Dr Ian Cooper compared the work in committee meetings and trilogues to “sausage making” – it’s often ugly, but it works.

trilogue-ml Interinstitutional negotiation or Trilogue room at the European Parliament in Brussels. European Parliament European Parliament

Trilogues take place over the course of a number of days or weeks and will not conclude until an agreement has been reached.  

Once the amendments have been agreed and the committee supports it, the rapporteurs bring the draft legislation to the Parliament for at plenary, through a legislative report. It’s the last opportunity for the bill to be passed.

Role in international diplomacy

MEPs also hold a particularly crucial role in international diplomacy and democratic oversight. Observation missions, set up by the parliament to act as a watchdog during international elections, have become commonplace.

Many of these international relations groupings are populated with senior policy makers, according to Petit, and have been set up to oversee democratic elections or the implementation of new processes in developing nations.

Dr Ian Cooper also drew attention to the roles that Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly and Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews have on the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, where MEPs and British MPs meet twice a year to oversee the implementation of the Brexit deal.

“They have an important role, I think, in bringing transparency and democratic oversight of how Brexit is being put into practice and how it’s being implemented,” he said.

“I use that as an example but there are many other similar bodies where the Members of the European Parliament have a role in diplomacy or international affairs.”

rafah meps A small delegation of MEPs on a recent visit to the Rafah Crossing on the Egyptian border with Gaza.

Petit suggested that the increase in this line of work has trickled down into the rest of the Parliament, as she believes MEPs have placed a stronger importance on building accountability mechanisms into new legislation over the last 10 years.

While Irish MEPs have a role to play in developing those mechanisms, the State has been on the wrong side of them in many instances.

Last week, Ireland was warned that the EU could take legal action against the State over its failures to protect peat bogs from turf cutting.

While Government have maintained that it has a strong defence in the case, this is just one of many examples where the accountability mechanisms have worked efficiently.

 —

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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