Many are content to see the more or less shiny exteriors of a car, but some want to understand how the engine works. The committees of the European Parliament are essential parts of the parliamentary engine.
Plenary sittings are the tip of the iceberg, but the preparatory work takes place in specialised committees, most of them standing (permanent).
The names of the committees give a fair indication of their areas of activity. In Eurospeak the committees are known under their acronyms.
The European Parliament’s web pages offer a listing on the existing committees, and from there you can access information about the work of each of them:
Sub-committee DROI Human Rights
Sub-committee SEDE Security and Defence
Economic and Monetary Affairs
Employment and Social Affairs
Environment, Public Health and Food Safety
Industry, Research and Energy
Internal Market and Consumer Protection
Transport and Tourism
Agriculture and Rural Development
Culture and Education
Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
Women's Rights and Gender Equality
The first paragraph of Article 197 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (and Article 14(4) of the Treaty on European Union as presented in the consolidated version of the Treaty of Lisbon) leave most of the internal organisation to be decided by the European Parliament itself.
The EP’s Rules of Procedure (16th edition, October 2008) constitute the backbone of its internal organisation:
Here we are going to sample the common rules on procedure in committee, dealt with in Chapter 2 of the Rules of Procedure.
The committee chair proposes the procedure to follow and the committee appoints a rapporteur to draft the report. The rapporteur drafts amendments to the legislative proposal (with short justifications) and a draft legislative resolution (with an explanatory statement including financial impact):
CHAPTER 2 PROCEDURE IN COMMITTEE
Rule 42 Legislative reports
1. The chair of the committee to which a Commission proposal has been referred shall propose to the committee the procedure to be followed.
2. Following a decision on the procedure to be followed, and if Rule 43 does not apply, the committee shall appoint a rapporteur on the Commission proposal from among its members or permanent substitutes if it has not yet done so on the basis of the annual legislative programme agreed under Rule 33.
3. The committee's report shall comprise:
a) draft amendments, if any, to the proposal, accompanied, if appropriate, by short justifications which shall be the responsibility of the rapporteur and shall not be put to the vote;
b) a draft legislative resolution, in accordance with Rule 51(2);
c) if appropriate, an explanatory statement including a financial statement which establishes the magnitude of any financial impact of the report and its compatibility with the financial perspective.
If there is overwhelming support in the committee for approving the legislative proposal without amendments, a simplified procedure can be adopted. Likewise if the amendments seem clear enough on the basis of the initial discussion:
Rule 43 Simplified procedure
1. Following a first discussion of a legislative proposal, the chair may propose that it be approved without amendment. Unless at least one-tenth of the members of the committee object, the chair shall present to Parliament a report approving the proposal. Rule 131(1), second subparagraph, (2) and (4) shall apply.
2. The chair may alternatively propose that a set of amendments be drafted by the chair or by the rapporteur reflecting the committee's discussion. If the committee so agrees, these amendments shall be sent to the members of the committee. Unless at least one-tenth of the members of the committee object within a set time limit, which may not be less than twenty-one days from the date of dispatch, the report shall be considered as having been adopted by the committee. In this case the draft legislative resolution and the amendments shall be submitted to Parliament without debate pursuant to Rule 131(1), second subparagraph, (2) and (4).
3. If at least one-tenth of the committee's members object, the amendments shall be put to the vote at the next meeting of the committee.
4. The first and second sentences of paragraph 1, the first, second and third sentences of paragraph 2 and paragraph 3 shall apply, mutatis mutandis, to committee opinions within the meaning of Rule 46.
The European Parliament does not deal solely with legislative proposals, but expresses its opinion on a variety of Commission consultation papers and requests for opinion:
Rule 44 Non-legislative reports
1. Where a committee draws up a non-legislative report, it shall appoint a rapporteur from among its members or permanent substitutes.
2. The rapporteur shall be responsible for preparing the committee's report and for presenting it to Parliament on behalf of the committee.
3. The committee's report shall comprise:
a) a motion for a resolution;
b) an explanatory statement including a financial statement which establishes the magnitude of any financial impact of the report and its compatibility with the financial perspective;
c) the texts of any motions for resolutions to be included under Rule 113(4).
The EP may want to express its opinion and request legislative proposals on certain issues, but the Rules of Procedure impose the judicious use report on the EP’s own initiative by the requirement that such a report has to be authorised by the Conference of Presidents.
The official explanations add: The Conference of Presidents shall take a decision on requests for authorisation to draw up reports submitted pursuant to paragraph 1 on the basis of implementing provisions which it shall itself lay down. If a committee's competence to draw up a report for which it has requested authorisation is challenged, the Conference of Presidents shall take a decision within six weeks on the basis of a recommendation from the Conference of Committee Chairs, or, if no such recommendation is forthcoming, from its chair. If the Conference of Presidents fails to take a decision within that period, the recommendation shall be declared to have been approved.
Rule 45 on own-initiative reports:
Rule 45 Own-initiative reports
1. A committee intending to draw up a report and to submit a motion for a resolution to Parliament on a subject within its competence on which neither a consultation nor a request for an opinion has been referred to it pursuant to Rule 179(1) may do so only with the authorisation of the Conference of Presidents. Where such authorisation is withheld the reason must always be stated.
2. Motions for resolutions contained in own-initiative reports shall be examined by Parliament pursuant to the short presentation procedure set out in Rule 131a. Amendments to such motions for resolutions shall not be admissible for consideration in plenary unless tabled by the rapporteur to take account of new information, but alternative motions for resolutions may be tabled in accordance with Rule 151(4). This paragraph shall not apply where the subject of the report qualifies for a key debate in plenary, where the report is drawn up pursuant to the right of initiative referred to in Rule 38a or 39, or where the report can be considered a strategic report according to the criteria set out by the Conference of Presidents. [Cf. Annex XVIc]
3. Where the subject of the report comes under the right of initiative referred to in Rule 38a, authorisation may be withheld only on the grounds that the conditions set out in the Treaties are not met.
4. In the cases referred to in Rule 38a and Rule 39, the Conference of Presidents shall take a decision within two months.
Opinions of committees
Reports to be drafted have to be assigned to a responsible committee, but the issues often have implications for other policy areas (and committees). Therefore it is standard parliamentary practice to request opinions from other committees with regard to their remit:
Rule 46 Opinions of committees
1. Should the committee to which a question was first referred wish to hear the views of another committee, or should another committee wish to make known its views on the report of the committee to which a question was first referred, such committees may ask the President that, in accordance with Rule 179(3), one committee be named as the committee responsible and the other as the committee asked for an opinion.
2. In the case of documents of a legislative nature within the meaning of Rule 40(1), the opinion shall consist of draft amendments to the text referred to the committee accompanied, if appropriate, by short justifications. Such justifications shall be the responsibility of the rapporteur for the opinion and shall not be put to the vote. If necessary the committee may submit a short written justification for the opinion taken as a whole.
In the case of non-legislative texts, the opinion shall consist of suggestions for parts of the motion for a resolution submitted by the committee responsible.
The committee responsible shall put these draft amendments or suggestions to the vote.
The opinions shall deal solely with those matters that fall under the areas of responsibility of the committee giving an opinion.
3. The committee responsible shall fix a deadline within which the committee asked for an opinion must deliver it if it is to be taken into account in the committee responsible. Any changes to the announced timetable shall be immediately communicated by the committee responsible to the committee(s) asked for an opinion. The committee responsible shall not reach its final conclusions before that time limit has expired.
4. All adopted opinions shall be annexed to the report of the committee responsible.
5. Only the committee responsible may table amendments in Parliament.
6. The chair and rapporteur of the committee asked for an opinion shall be invited to take part in an advisory capacity in meetings of the committee responsible, insofar as these relate to the matter of common concern.
Borderline cases where a matter falls more or less equally within the remit of more than one committee require rules for cooperation in order to ensure consistency in the reports brought to the floor (and the output of the European Parliament).
The official explanations add: The wording of this Rule does not lay down any limits to its scope. Requests for application of the procedure with associated committees concerning non- legislative reports based on Rules 45(1) and 112(1) and (2) are admissible.
Rule 47 on associated committees:
Rule 47 Procedure with associated committees
Where a question of competence has been referred to the Conference of Presidents pursuant to Rules 179(2) or 45, and the Conference of Presidents, on the basis of Annex VI, considers that the matter falls almost equally within the competence of two or more committees, or that different parts of the matter fall under the competence of two or more committees, Rule 46 shall apply with the following additional provisions:
- the timetable shall be jointly agreed by the committees concerned;
- the rapporteur and the rapporteurs for opinions shall keep each other informed and shall endeavour to agree on the texts they propose to their committees and on their position regarding amendments;
- the chairs, rapporteur and rapporteurs for opinions concerned shall endeavour to jointly identify areas of the text falling within their exclusive or joint competences and agree on the precise arrangements for their cooperation;
- the committee responsible shall accept without a vote amendments from an associated committee where they concern matters which the chair of the committee responsible considers, on the basis of Annex VI, after consulting the chair of the associated committee, to fall under the exclusive competence of the associated committee and which do not contradict other elements of the report. The chair of the committee responsible shall take account of any agreement reached under the third indent;
- in the event of a conciliation procedure taking place on the proposal, Parliament's delegation shall include the rapporteur of any associated committee.
Even if the explanatory statement is the responsibility of the rapporteur, he or she has to respect the rule that it has to accord with the approved draft resolution. At least the total committee vote is recorded as well as a summary of the minority opinion. In some cases a report may not be forthcoming; the committee can appoint a new rapporteur or propose a plenary debate on the basis of an oral report:
Rule 48 Drafting of reports
1. The explanatory statement shall be the responsibility of the rapporteur and shall not be put to the vote. It must, however, accord with the text of the motion for a resolution as adopted and any amendments proposed by the committee. If it fails to do so, the chair of the committee may delete the explanatory statement.
2. The report shall state the result of the vote taken on the report as a whole. In addition, if at least one-third of the members present so request when the vote is taken, the report shall indicate how each member voted.
3. Where the committee's opinion is not unanimous the report shall also give a summary of the minority opinion. Minority opinions shall be expressed when the vote on the text as a whole is taken, and may, at the request of their authors, be the subject of a written declaration not exceeding 200 words in length, annexed to the explanatory statement.
The chair shall settle any disputes which may arise as a result of the application of these provisions.
4. On a proposal from its bureau, a committee may set a deadline within which the rapporteur shall submit the draft report. This deadline may be extended or a new rapporteur appointed.
5. Once the deadline has expired, the committee may instruct its chair to ask for the matter referred to it to be placed on the agenda of one of the next sittings of Parliament. The debates may then be conducted on the basis of an oral report by the committee concerned.
The committees are central to the functioning of the European Parliament, and the common rules sampled above cover just a part of nearly forty index references to EP committees in the Rules of Procedure.