The Structure and Purpose of the European Parliament (EP)

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  • 0:01 European Parliament
  • 0:59 History
  • 2:41 The Body
  • 3:33 Scope
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the European Parliament, its history, how its delegates are elected, and how its mandate has changed over time as well as its growth as an institution.

European Parliament

The U.S. government can be a little confusing at times for students. Not only does the U.S. government have two houses with unequal numbers of representatives in each, but there are also state governments with their own multiple houses with various amounts of representatives. Each of these state governments interacts with the U.S. government differently. Add in the thousands of local and municipal governments, and the hierarchy of governance can be difficult for adults to understand, let alone students!

Now imagine if we took all of those layers of government and added a larger, overarching government which controlled some things, but not others, across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and a couple dozen island nations. Might be pretty confusing, right? Well, that is similar to the structure and prerogative of the European Parliament, the legislative body that helps govern the European Union. The rest of this lesson will detail exactly what the European Parliament is, how it's elected, and how it interacts with the other various forms of European government.


First off, let's learn a little bit about how the European Parliament came into existence. The European Parliament began as the Common Assembly for the six member states of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was founded in 1951. When further layers of cooperation were added between these states and the group renamed itself the European Economic Community, the Common Assembly first became the European Parliamentary Assembly in 1958 and then simply the European Parliament in 1962. In the first years of the body, member states of the European Economic Community (what later became the EU) appointed its delegates to the Parliament. However, in the mid-1970s, the member states resolved to allow for the direct election of members of the European Parliament by the citizens of member states. After several resolutions, the first open elections for European Parliament were held in 1979.

In its roughly half-century of existence, the European Parliament has expanded its membership several times. The amount of members has expanded when new member states are added to the EU. Additionally, reviews of population have caused the allotment for each state and overall number of members to change according to population and demographics.

Finally, the clout of the European Parliament has increased over time. In the 1970s, the European Parliament was granted extended control over the EU's budget. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the European Parliament gained legislative control which had previously been reserved solely for the EU's European Commission and the European Council. For example, the President of the European Commission now has to be approved by the European Parliament before he/she can take office.

The Body

The European Parliament itself is made up of 751 members as of the 2014 parliamentary elections. The number of members each country is allowed to elect is decided by population. No country is allowed to have more than 96 members, while no country is allowed to have fewer than 6. As of 2014, only Germany maintains the maximum number of delegates, while several nations - Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg, and Malta - retain the fewest allowed. Though Members of European Parliament (or MEPs) are elected according to their own country, they sit in Parliament with other members of their European political party, such as the European People's Party or the European Conservatives and Reformists. Parliamentary elections occur every five years since 1979, making the European Parliament which was elected in 2014 the 8th European Parliament.

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