Skip to main content

The Organizing of the European Parliament: Committees, Specialization and Co-ordination

  • Shaun Bowler and David M. Farrell

This article addresses the issue of specialization and committee formation in the European Parliament in the light of the largely US-centred debates on these issues. Clear evidence is found of specialization of behaviour, both with regard to committee assignment and the use of parliamentary questions. This is also accompanied by a trend towards a greater role for the party groups in co-ordinating and controlling behaviour across these specializations.

Hide All

1 Pinder, John, European Community: The Building of a Union (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Spinelli, Altiero, The Eurocrats (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966).

2 Corbett, Richard, ‘Testing the New Procedures: The European Parliament's First Experiences with its New “Single Act” Powers’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 27 (1989), 359–72; Jacobs, Francis, Corbett, Richard and Shackleton, Michael, The European Parliament, 2nd edn (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1992); Lodge, Juliet, ‘The European Parliament–from “Assembly” to Co-Legislature: Changing the Institutional Dynamics’, in Lodge, Juliet, ed., The European Community and the Challenge of the Future (London: Pinter, 1989), 5879.

3 Attin´, F., ‘The Voting Behaviour of the European Parliament Members and the Problem of the Europarties’, European Journal of Political Research, 18 (1989), 557–79; Bardi, Luciano, Il Parlamento della Communità Europea (Bologna: II Mulino, 1989); Bardi, Luciano, ‘Transnational Party Federations in the European Community’, in Katz, Richard S. and Mair, Peter, eds, Party Organizations: A Data Handbook on Party Organizations in Western Democracies, 1960–90 (London: Sage, 1992), pp. 931–73.

4 Jacobs, et al. , The European Parliament.

5 Cooper, Joseph, The Origins of Standing Committees and the Development of the Modern House (Houston, Tex.: Rice University Press, 1970).

6 Tsebelis, George, ‘The Power of the European Parliament as a Conditional Agenda Setter’, American Political Science Review, 88 (1994), 128–42.

7 Tsebelis, George, Nested Games: Rational Choice in Comparative Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

8 Smith, Gordon, Politics in Western Europe, 5th edn (Aldershot, Hants: Gower, 1989), p. 207.

9 Ward, A., ‘Parliamentary Procedures and the Machinery of Government in Ireland’, Irish University Review, 4 (1974), 234–5.

10 Shepsle, K. and Weingast, B., ‘The Institutional Foundation of Committee Power’, American Political Science Review, 81 (1987), 85104; Shepsle, K. and Weingast, B., ‘Why are Congressional Committees Powerful?’, American Political Science Review, 81 (1987), 935–45.

11 Krehbiel, Keith, Information and Legislative Organization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991); Krehbiel, Keith, ‘Where's the Party?’, British Journal of Political Science, 23 (1993), 256–66.

12 Loewenberg, G., Parliament in the German Political System (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 149.

13 Fitzmaurice, John, The Politics of Belgium (London: Hurst, 1983), p. 96.

14 Tsebelis, , ‘The Power of the European Parliament’.

15 For an exception, see Krehbiel, , ‘Where's the Party?’, which looks at parties in legislatures, as opposed to just individuals.

16 Cox and McCubbins develop an explanation of developments within the US Congress along similar lines. They seek to downplay the image of ‘committee government’ within the House and to place renewed emphasis on the ways in which parties manage the legislature as a whole, and specifically the ways in which the majority party manages the legislature, committee system included, to its own benefit. See Cox, G. and McCubbins, M., Legislative Leviathan: Party Government in the House (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

17 For comparative assessments of parliamentary committees, see Lees, J. D. and Shaw, M., eds, Committees in Legislatures (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1979); Norton, Philip, ‘Legislatures in Perspectives’, West European Politics, 13 (1990), 143–52; Strom, K., ‘Minority Governments in Parliamentary Democracies: The Rationality of Non-Winning Cabinet Solutions’, Comparative Political Studies, 17 (1984), 199227; Strom, K., Minority Governments and Majority Rules (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

18 To an extent, it reflects the fact that (uniquely in Europe), to date, the Union's governmental system is characterized by a separated system of powers, allowing the EP greater freedom of action in running its own affairs. Whether this will be maintained in the future–and the recent decision in the Maastricht Treaty to grant the EP investiture powers over the Commission raises doubts–is debatable. See Bowler, Shaun and Farrell, David M., ‘The Internal Organization of the European Parliament’ (paper given at the Western Political Science Association, Pasadena, 1994).

19 Another way of assessing the importance of committees is to examine their role in the Union's policy process. See Jacobs, et al. , The European Parliament.

20 Bowler, Shaun and Farrell, David M., ‘Legislator Shirking and Voter Monitoring: Impacts of European Parliament Electoral Systems upon Legislator-Voter Relationships’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 31 (1993), 4569.

21 Even US Senators from some states in the upper Midwest can be said to have relatively small constituencies.

22 Weil, G., The Benelux Nations: The Politics of Small-Country Democracies (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), p. 143.

21 The following discussion is based on three sets of data: an analysis of parliamentary questions in 1989; information on leadership and committee positions gathered from the EP's List of Members (Luxembourg: Official Publications, 19891991); material on MEPs' personal backgrounds obtained from The Times Guide to the European Parliament (London: Times Publications, 1989). The membership of the EP's committees is renewed in the mid-term. Therefore, this discussion relates to the first half of the 1989–94 term.

24 Krehbiel, , ‘Where's the Party?’

25 Unfortunately, we do not have the data to assess the degree of procedural protection enjoyed by EP committees, nor, for that matter, the issue of what happens to committee proposals on the floor of the House (i.e. at plenary). On the latter point, however, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is quite uncommon for committee proposals to be rejected or radically altered; certainly the absence of any attention to this question in the highly detailed study by Jacobs and his colleagues, suggests that it is generally uncontentious. If anything, the tendency in recent years, as described by these authors (all senior staff members), has been towards a more influential role for committees in the parliamentary process. Jacobs et at. describe two decision-making procedures which have been introduced as time-saving devices, but which have amounted to a growth in committee influence. First, committees, when presenting a report, increasingly request that it be adopted without debate at the plenary. Secondly, there is the Rule 37 procedure–derived from Italian legislative practice–which allows a report to be adopted by a committee on behalf of the EP and without involving a vote in plenary. According to Jacobs and his colleagues, the application of this rule has become more widespread in recent years. See. Jacobs, et al. , The European Parliament, pp. 123–4.

26 See also Bowler, Shaun and Farrell, David M., ‘The Greens at the European Level’, Environmental Politics, 1 (1992), 132–7.

27 Jacobs, et al. , The European Parliament, p. 244.

28 Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament (Luxembourg: Official Publications, 1989), 24.2. For extended discussion of a similar process within the US Congress, see Cox, and McCubbins, , Legislative Leviathan.

29 Rules, 18.2.

30 Rules, 86–88.

31 Rules, 115.1.

32 Rules, 110.1.

33 Currently there are three subcommittees: Security and Disarmament (twenty-five members); Human Rights (twenty); Fisheries (twenty-four). In general, see Jacobs, et al. , The European Parliament, chap. 7.

34 Rules, 111.

35 Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament (Luxembourg: Official Publications, 1972), 40.3.

36 Cocks, B., The European Parliament (London: HMSO, 1973), p. 118.

37 Rules, 1989, 111.1. This also formalized the rights to speak and vote; Rule 111.2 incorporated the earlier wording.

38 Loewenberg, , Parliament in the German Political System, p. 200.

39 That farmers are attracted to the Agriculture Committee may strike one as obvious: it is easily supported by impressionistic evidence. However, the fact is that we have shown this to be the case across the board, i.e. this is systematically the case across a range of committees and interests.

40 Of course, it is always possible that the committee membership is unable to agree on anything!

41 The fact that we accord a great deal of importance to the position of party groups as a co-ordinating mechanism suggests that we are in broad agreement with the approach of Cox, and McCubbins, (Legislative Leviathan). However, the predominance of the majority party, which is a feature of their analysis, is not an issue here since the EP conforms more closely to mainland European, rather than Anglo-American, practice.

42 ‘Appoints’ is, perhaps, too simple a word for the actual process involved. The appointment of rapporteur usually involves a bidding process between groups which entails a points system, where each report is valued at a given number of points, and each group within the committee has a number of points to spend in bidding for rapporteurships. Rapporteurs are used in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, and have been used in the earlier French Republics. Rapporteurs are sometimes used in the German Bundestag (Section 70 of the Bundestag's Rules of Procedure), and they were common in the Imperial Reichstag. See DiPalma, G., ‘Institutional Rules and Legislative Outcomes in the Italian Parliament’, Legislative Studies Quarterly, 1 (1976), 147–80; Krugar, F-K., Government and Politics of the German Empire (New York: World Books, 1915); Meny, Y., Government and Politics in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy and Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); Sait, E., Government and Politics of France (New York: World Books, 1926); Trossman, H., The German Bundestag: Organization and Operation (Neue Darmstadter Verlagsanstalt, 1965); Weil, , The Benelux Nations.

43 It is a position which some rapporteurs have found difficult to deal with, and, hence, they were removed by a vote of the committee. In general, see Jacobs, et al. , The European Parliament, pp. 115 ff.

* Department of Political Science, University of California, Riverside; and Department of Government, University of Manchester. Earlier versions of this article were read at meetings of the Western Political Science Association, Pasadena, 1993, and the International Studies Association, Western Region, Monterey, 1993. Our thanks to Simon Bulmer, Martin Burch, Stephen Van Beek, Christine lngebritsen, George Tsebelis, Keith Krehbiel and David Sanders for their comments; the usual disclaimer applies. We would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Commission of the European Communities (DGX), the British Academy, the Academic Senate of UC Riverside, the Center for German and European Studies of UC Berkeley and the University of Manchester.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed