Key roles in the EU Parliament: what you need to know


The weeks leading up to a new five-year legislative term and parliamentary session are a frantic time for the European Parliament. Political parties from the member states are forming into cross-national groupings: these groupings are selecting their leaders for at least the next two-and-a-half-years and a multitude of discussions are ongoing about the distribution of roles among the groups and member states, not just for the EU’s ‘top jobs’ but for important roles within the Parliament itself.

The first week following the opening of the new parliamentary session, on 2 July, will be one in which many positions will be filled for roles that often attract much public attention. Below is a guide to the most important of these positions, what the occupants of those roles do and how they are elected.

President

What do they do?

The president of the European Parliament is considered to be one of the EU’s ‘top jobs’, as the head of one of its institutions. The president has many functional responsibilities in the Parliament—chairing the plenary sessions when the whole Parliament meets, as well as the Conference of Presidents and the Parliament’s Bureau—but their main function is to oversee the activities of the Parliament, including the application of its rules, and act as its legal representative.

The president represents the Parliament before the other EU institutions, presenting its view in inter-institutional discussions, most notably at European Council meetings, as well as in international relations. Finally, the president signs all legislative acts that are decided by co-decision on behalf of the Parliament.

How are they elected?

On the face of it, the European Parliament elects its own president without the involvement of the other EU institutions, with each political grouping able to propose a candidate for the presidency. However, in practice a candidate is often agreed upon in advance who has the support of a majority of the political groups as part of a package deal for the EU’s top jobs.

Nevertheless, other nominations for the role may still be made by other groups. Once these nominations have been received by the outgoing president (or an outgoing vice-president acting on their behalf), several rounds of voting can take place. A candidate needs to receive an absolute majority (i.e. a majority of all MEPs, whether they all vote or not) of votes in the first round in order to be elected.

If none achieves this, a further two rounds of voting take place. If none still fails to win an absolute majority, a fourth round of voting is held between the two candidates with the highest number of votes from the third round.

A simple majority of votes cast is needed to win. If there is a tie, the older candidate is elected. Mirroring the European Council, presidents of the European Parliament serve for two-and-a-half-year terms, meaning there is a ‘mid-term’ election halfway through the Parliament to renew the post.


Vice presidents

What do they do?

Vice-presidents’ most visible role is to deputise for the president and chair debates in their absence, in order of precedence (see below). Some are also given responsibility for co-ordinating the Parliament’s relations with national parliaments and civil society, as well as acting as permanent representatives of the Parliament on conciliation committees, where differences over legislation are resolved between the EU institutions.     

Alongside the president and quaestors (see below), vice-presidents are members of the Parliament’s Bureau, which is the body responsible for all administrative, staff and organisational matters.

How are they elected?

There may be as many as 14 vice-presidents elected in the European Parliament. They are elected by MEPs on the first sitting of the parliamentary session, immediately following the election of the president. Any MEP may present themselves as a candidate for the role, but unless they have the backing of a political group it is near-impossible to obtain a vice-presidency position.

If there are exactly 14 candidates for the vice-president roles, then the candidates are all elected by acclamation—i.e. automatically, by virtue of the absence of any opposition—before their order of precedence (see below) is decided by a vote. If there are more than 14 candidates, then vice-presidents are elected in a series of ballots. In the first two ballots, candidates must receive the support of an absolute majority of MEPs in order to be elected.

Candidates are usually elected gradually in successive rounds. If any of the 14 positions remain open after the second ballot, a third ballot is held where a simple majority (i.e. more votes for than against) is required for election.

All vice-presidents are not elected equally. They are elected in an order of precedence—i.e. an order of seniority—according to how many votes they receive, with the most-voted for candidates taking greater precedence. In practice, this means that when deputising for the president, those vice-presidents higher up the order of precedence will undertake more senior duties first.

As with the president of the Parliament, the vice-presidents serve two-and-a-half year terms and the positions come up for re-election halfway through the five-year legislative term.


Quaestors

What do they do?

The term quaestor comes from an ancient Roman word for a financial administrator, and that is broadly the role of quaestors in the European Parliament. They manage the administrative and financial business of the Parliament, with each of the five office holders given specific responsibilities for issues that members may have with the likes of allowances and transport.

How are they elected?

The five quaestors are elected in the same way as vice-presidents, with two ballots where an absolute majority is required, followed by a third ballot by simple majority, if still required to fill the posts. As with the president and vice-presidents, quaestors serve two-and-a-half-year terms, with the posts renewed halfway through the legislative period.

Committee chairs

What do they do?

Committee chairs, predictably enough, chair the meetings of the committees on which they sit, as well as sometimes speaking for them in plenary sessions of the whole Parliament and representing them at meetings of the Conference of Committee Chairs, which is the monthly meeting of the chairs of all the Parliament’s standing committees.

How are they elected?

Although there may be a formal vote within each committee to elect its chair—in which a candidate must obtain an absolute majority of committee members’ support in the first round or a simple majority in a second round—in practice very few nominations are pushed to a vote. Instead, individual candidates are usually elected by acclamation, meaning a candidate is considered automatically elected by virtue of a lack of opposition.

This is the result of the allocation process of official positions within the Parliament, which aims to ensure that there is fair representation across committees. Rule 204 of the Parliament states that: ‘The diversity of Parliament must be reflected in the composition of the bureau of each committee; it shall not be permissible to have an all male or all female bureau or for all of the Vice-Chairs to come from the same Member State.’

Chairs (and vice-chairs) of committees are distributed among the political groups using the d’Hondt system, which is also used in the UK to elect MEPs, based on the size of each group. As the d’Hondt system plays out, each group selects the chair (or vice-chair) position that it wishes to occupy from those remaining. There are 20 committees and two sub-committees, currently amounting to 108 positions in total. Therefore, it is likely that each grouping will be entitled to chair at least one committee or sub-committee.

The table below shows roughly the number of allocations each grouping will get in the 2019-24 legislative period. The figure in brackets indicates the change of allocations if the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group fails to reach the threshold to form a group (and thus fails to be allocated positions) as seems likely:

Chair and vice-chair allocations by grouping, 2019-24
European People’s Party (EPP)27 (+2)
Socialists & Democrats (S&D)23 (+1)
Renew Europe16 (+1)
Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA)11 (+1)
Identity and Democracy11
European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)9
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD)6
European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)5 (+1)
Sources: European Parliament; icon.cat/util/elections#.

 

The groups will usually try to balance out the distribution of positions that they acquire among their national delegations—i.e. the individual national parties within their groups—so that none is grossly over- or underrepresented. This is sometimes achieved using in a further d’Hondt allocation process within the groups themselves.

Chairs (and vice-chairs) are elected for two-and-a-half-year terms—the same as the president, vice-presidents and quaestors. This means that there is a mid-term re-election for these posts, although in reality there is little change except to reflect any movement in group composition during the first half of the parliamentary term.      


Committee vice-chairs

What do they do?

There are typically four vice-chairs per committee, except for two: the Development Committee, and the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, which have three vice-chairs. The number of vice-chairs is proposed by the Conference of Presidents and confirmed in a vote by the plenary sitting of the entire Parliament. Vice-chairs deputise for and support the work of the chair of a committee, as well as sitting in on meetings of group co-ordinators (see below), acting as a link between a committee bureau and the committee members.

How are they elected?

The election of committee vice-chairs is part of the same procedure as that to elect committee chairs (see above).

Group co-ordinators

What do they do?

Group co-ordinators are the lead figures and spokespeople for their groups on each committee. They are centrally involved in distributing rapporteurships between political groups—which is negotiated with other co-ordinators—distributing any they acquire within their committee groups and co-ordinating the work of their groups on that committee. The process for distributing rapporteurships is set out in the section below.

If their group is allocated a rapporteurship, the co-ordinator must assign it to a committee member within their political grouping on that committee, taking into account the balance of positions held across the Parliament by the national delegations within their group. They also meet with other co-ordinators to decide the agenda for committee meetings.

How are they elected?

Each set of MEPs from a particular group on a committee selects its own co-ordinator for that committee. If necessary, this is done by a vote of those MEPs.


Rapporteurs

What do they do?

When committees are assigned topics and legislation for consideration as the lead committee, they usually nominate a member of that committee to lead its work on the preparation of a report which will be presented to Parliament setting out the committee’s recommendations. This individual is known as a rapporteur. They essentially speak for their committee throughout the legislative process for a particular report, representing it at each stage of the legislative process and in conciliation meetings with the other EU institutions.

Essential to the role is being able to secure compromise among committee members to gain as wide support as possible prior to the report being voted on by a plenary of the whole Parliament.

How are they elected?

The process for selecting rapporteurs is not officially set out in the Rules of Procedure of the Parliament. Instead, the political groups have informally developed an auction system to ensure a degree of proportionality in the distribution of these positions. Each group is allotted a number of points which reflects its number of seats on a committee, often one or two points per member. Groups then bid for the right to hold the rapporteurship for particular reports or opinions. A typical report costs two to three points, whereas opinions typically cost one point. The more important a piece of legislation the higher the cost of the rapporteurship, as a number of groups are likely to bid for it. This often means that only the bigger groups can ‘afford’ to bid for these rapporteurships.

A committee nominates a rapporteur for each proposal falling under its remit, unless it decides to approve it without amendment. The co-ordinators for each political group collectively assign a point value to each proposal before bidding on behalf of their respective groups. This typically runs to a maximum of three to five points; if two groups are still competing for a rapporteurship at this stage, the position ought to go to the group which has used fewest points so far. However, groups may negotiate among themselves to allow one to take the report in question in exchange for allowing a later report to be taken by the other group. On some major reports two rapporteurs can be selected.

This process can be highly fluid with the rigidity with which the rules are applied determined by the group co-ordinators on a given committee. It is generally on the most salient issues that the rules are applied most firmly. Some rapporteurships, such as that on the annual budget, are appointed on a rotating basis between the political groups.


Group leaders

What do they do?

The leaders of each political group are some of the most well-known figures in the Parliament. This is not least because they speak on behalf of their groups at the beginning of debates, as well as being the spokespeople for their groups in other public forums. Furthermore, each leader represents their group in the bi-weekly meeting of the Conference of Presidents, which determines the legislative and business timetable of the Parliament, decides on the membership and responsibilities of committees, and also represents the Parliament with other EU institutions, national parliaments and non-EU countries.

How are they elected?

Each political group elects its own leader to represent it from among its MEPs. These are often simple majority votes of candidates.

By Matt Bevington, researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this explainer are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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