First things first. What you should know about the plenary debates of the EU

To understand the available data on the plenary sessions, some background is required about the workings of the political assemblies, the policy-making and the parliamentary course of action.

Political assemblies

In the European Parliament, several political formations co-exist. The party groups, or simply called parties, represent the main ideological divisions, such as Liberals, Greens, and Christian Democrats. Apart from that, there are committees, which operate on the content level and cover the main domains of European policy-making, which range from Agriculture and Rural Development to Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. Also, albeit less relevant to the parliamentary debates, there are delegations, which are mandated to monitor social situations in nations worldwide.  Finally, members of parliament can be in the board of the European Parliament. Within each of these institutions, there is a variety of roles that a member can fulfil, such as that of chair, vice-chair, substitute or treasurer. In the European Parliament, the role of chair is referred to as “president”. One member of parliament can fulfil roles in (nearly) any combination of these political organs, or even in none. Also, it is commonplace for politicians to switch affiliations after a term of office.


The policy-making initiatives start well outside the benches of the European Parliament, in the European Commission (EC). This organ consists of one representative of the national parliament of every member state. European Commission members can never be members of parliament.  The EC creates proposals for new laws or amendments to existing ones. The juridical department of the EU then assigns this proposal to the committee that covers the domain to which the law applies. In case of doubt, two committees can be made responsible. The committee is assigned the task to draft a formulation, and the main role in this is for the rapporteur. Since this is such an influential and desirable position, it is attributed on the level of the party groups.  By means of a credit system the parties try to gather the reports they are interested in. The parties that do not deliver the rapporteur in a specific issue promote one of their members to be the shadow rapporteur, who digs into the matter and impersonates the party’s stance. When the rapporteur has made a formulation with which the rest of the committee agrees, it passes on to plenary in the form of a report. Prior to a debate, the members read the report and propose amendments, usually on behalf of their party.

Parliamentary course of action

The plenary sessions give the parliamentary members the opportunity to express themselves on the matter under debate. The speaking slots are assigned in a controlled order. After the introduction by the president of the European Parliament, the first one to speak out in a legislative debate is the rapporteur, followed by a member of the European Commission. Then, the parties get their turns, from the largest to the smallest party, repeatedly. Within a party’s slot, the shadow rapporteur is generally the first speaker. Finally, after the parties, there is speaking time for members of parliament that are not affiliated with any party. In the upcoming vote scheduled, it is decided on every discussed aspect of the law proposal. At this point, members are free to vote according to their own opinion, even the ones belonging to the committee that drafted the proposal. Likewise, it has even happened that a rapporteur voted against ‘his’ (‘her’) report. The parliament’s consensus does not conclude the matter. The resulting report passes on to the Council, a body of national ministers from each member state, which can propose changes; and, in case it does, back to plenary for a follow-up debate. This process iterates, up to three times, until agreement is reached.

european parliament voting

Law-making is not the only activity in the plenary sessions. Besides ‘regular’ debates, which deal with (global or European) matters that effect Europe and that are accompanied by a vote, there are non-legislative debates. These debates deal with any global issue that asks for action or a statement, which is formulated as a resolution. Matters that elicit such debates include, for instance, last year’s internet hotline for complaints against Eastern Europe immigrant workers in the Netherlands and, recently, the situation in Ukraine. Also, there are statements held by the Council, the European Commission, or by a head of state. Finally, there are question time sessions, where members of parliament can ask questions to other EU bodies such as the Council and the European Commission as a form of parliamentary scrutiny.

…and what this means for Talk of Europe

The characteristics brought up have important consequences on what to expect from and how to treat the data. The first thing to keep in mind is that even the actual plenary debates are not typical debates. Parties form their stance towards the formulations under vote before the debate. A domain expert consulted in this project confirmed that in practice, the debates do not influence voting behaviour. This is also reflected in the form of the discussion: speakers request slots and write their speech beforehand.  Rarely do they improvise on the spot to refer to a preceding speech.  Only since the current mandate are speakers allowed, to a limited extent, to interrupt the debate to ask a question. Second, the plenaries do not reflect the complete legislative process of the EU. They are preceded by preparatory discussions in a committee, where the report is formulated; and they alternate with discussions in the Council. The work in the committees is publicly available in the form of summaries only. Incorporating this information might be a future point of action in the project. However, the course of action of the Council is not that transparent. Finally, the outings of members of parliament do not always reflect their personal opinion. Especially the rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs function as spokespersons of their committee and fraction, respectively. Other speakers are free to express their viewpoint as long as it does not strongly violate that of the party they belong to.

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