Guide to the plenary sessions of the European Parliament

European Parliament MEPs gather for one of their monthly plenary session in Strasbourg

A plenary sitting is the name given to a full session of the European Parliament, attended by all MEPs. This is in contrast to the meetings of particular committees, or of individual political groups.

Twelve plenary sittings take place in Strasbourg every year, generally once a month with the exception of August, which is replaced by a secondary plenary sitting in September or October.

Plenary sittings last from Monday evening until Thursday afternoon.

There are also a small number of "mini-plenary" sittings that take place in Brussels each year on a Wednesday afternoon and the subsequent Thursday morning.

Every sitting starts with an official opening by the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. This gives MEPs the chance to formally approve the agenda for the week and make any amendments. It is also the occasion for points of order and general announcements to be made.

The session is then taken up with five main types of business:

What do MEPs do in plenary?

  • Legislative business
  • Topical debates
  • Questions to the Commission
  • Human rights debates
  • Voting sessions

Legislative Business

The most important role of the plenary sitting is the chance for MEPs to approve, reject or amend laws. Since the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty the European Parliament is now a co-legislator with the Council of Ministers on the majority of EU laws.

For the remainder of EU legislation, the European Parliament has a formal consultative role.

Debates on laws usually open with a speech by the rapporteur on a particular piece of legislation. This is the MEP appointed by the relevant committee to draw up the Parliament's position on a proposed law. A vote will have already been taken in committee, before going to the full parliament.

After the opening statement by the rapporteur, the floor will be taken by spokespeople for other relevant committees. This is followed by spokespeople for the party groups, the relevant Commissioner (for it is the Commission that proposes legislation), and a representative the Council of Ministers, especially when there has been dispute between the Parliament and Council.

The Council representative will generally be the European Affairs Minister from the country holding the rotating presidency of the EU.

Forthcoming EU presidencies

  • Ireland Jan - Jun 2013
  • Lithuania Jul - Dec 2013
  • Greece Jan - Jun 2014
  • Italy - Jul - Dec 2014
  • Latvia Jan - Jun 2015
  • Luxembourg Jul - Dec 2015
  • Netherlands Jan - Jun 2016
  • Slovakia Jul - Dec 2016

Votes in Parliament do not take place at the same time as the debate, but rather in the daily voting sessions which can be on a separate day. Very occasionally the voting session can take place in a different plenary session to the one that the debate was held in.

General debates

These are usually in the form of a statement by the Council and/or Commission, followed by a debate by MEPs.

Most result in a resolution being tabled, setting out the Parliament's view on a particular issue. These resolutions are voted on at one of the daily voting sessions in the current or forthcoming plenary session.

Question Time

Questions to the Commission take place on a Tuesday, with each month's session focusing on a particular topic, such as employment or the environment. Usually up to three Commissioners will be nominated to respond to questions.

There is also a monthly question time session to the president of the Commission or - increasingly - to a European head of government. The format, which can vary, is to give half the speaking time to group leaders and half the speaking time to backbench MEPs.

There are also opportunities during the plenary session for a specific question to be tabled on a particular topic. These are treated much the same as general debates, with a response from the Commission and contributions by various MEPs.

MEP voting in Strasbourg Electronic voting is used for many key decisions

Voting Session

These take place before lunch on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of plenary weeks and usually last one hour.

MEPs vote on both legislation and resolutions. Legislation may have been debated in the current plenary session or a previous plenary session. Less controversial proposals may have had no debate in plenary, coming direct from the relevant committee.

Votes are taken on every amendment, and MEPs may submit oral amendments at the last minute.

Voting is either undertaken on a show of hands or, when the result of a show of hands is unclear or it has been requested by a political group, by electronic vote with or without a roll-call.

Following the vote there is a chance for MEPs to explain why they voted in a particular way.

Human Rights Debates

These take place during the full monthly Strasbourg sessions, and occur as the last item of business of the week on the Thursday afternoon.

Three areas of alleged human rights abuses are debated, followed by a vote on resolutions expressing concern by the MEPs.

The European Parliament's disclaimer on the use of simultaneous interpretations can be found here.