Parliaments

European Parliament: jargon buster

Cyclist going past slogans on the European Parliament building in Strasbourg Image copyright AP

The European Parliament, like all political institutions, has its own specific language.

Alongside the 24 official EU languages that are used in the chamber, the body also has its own particular set of terms that can sometimes baffle the outsider.

Here's a rundown of some of the most commonly-used terms and key positions needed to make sense of what's going on in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Catch-the-eye

This is the stage at the end of plenary debates when those MEPs who didn't make it onto the normal list of speakers can make short interventions by raising their hand to "catch" the President's eye.

Speeches are normally limited to a minute in length, with priority normally given to those who weren't present during the main part of the debate.

However, this stage can be scrapped at the last minute by the acting President if the debate is overrunning, often prompting protestations from those who have remained in the chamber to speak.

During a May 2015 plenary debate, one Romanian MEP was so incensed at not being called that he marched up to the front of the hemicycle to protest to the acting President, eventually leading to him being asked to leave the chamber completely.

Image copyright European Parliament

Conference of Presidents

The somewhat drably named "conference" is in fact simply the name for the Parliament's main political governing body, made up of the Parliament President along with the leaders of the various political groups.

There is also a space at the table for a representative of the Parliament's non-affiliated members, although he or she does not have the right to vote.

Its main power derives from the fact that it determines the parliament's agenda for plenary sittings, and thus has control over which topics get debated and when votes are held.

If agreement on a schedule cannot be reached by consensus, the leaders get a weighted vote based on the number of MEPs in their group.

Formal sittings

The Parliament receives a number of high-profile visitors to speak during plenary sittings, including heads of state from both EU and non-EU countries, as well as various spiritual and religious leaders.

Normally, a special lecturn is placed in the middle of the hemicycle, from which the speaker can address the entire chamber.

Formal sittings normally just consist of the speech, with MEPs not allowed to intervene or make points of order.

Image copyright European Parliament
Image caption Malala Yousafzai gave a formal address to Parliament in 2013 after being awarded its human rights award

"Own-initiative" reports

These are effectively non-binding resolutions that are used to state the Parliament's position on different EU policy areas, or to ask the Commission to come up with a new law.

The Parliament itself does not have the power to initiate EU legislation, which can only be done by the European Commission.

Thus, these reports are seen as a way for MEPs to put pressure on the Commission to act in a certain area, or to shape the direction of future legislation which is pending but has not yet been fully announced.

Although there is no guarantee that the reports calling for new laws will have any effect, reports in the past have had an influence in bringing about EU-wide bans on importing baby seal skins and trans-frontier TV broadcasting.

Authorisation for writing an own-initiative report has to be signed off by the President, on the recommendation of one of the Parliament's committees.

The number of such reports is restricted so as not to take up too much time debating them in plenary.

Plenary sittings

The "full" sittings of the Parliament are the chance for MEPs to debate major issues of the day as a body, as well as hold final votes on resolutions and legislation.

There are 12 "full" plenary sittings every year, normally scheduled from Monday afternoon until Thursday lunchtime, as well as a number of day-long "mini plenary" sittings held in Brussels.

The fact that the full sessions are held in Strasbourg whilst the rest of the Parliament's business is done in Brussels has long been a source of contention to many both inside and outside the body.

Many say they object to the expense involved in moving MEPs and their staff to the French city once a month, whilst others object on environmental grounds.

A campaign to give the Parliament a "single seat" has the support of a number of MEPs.

Political groups

Being a transnational assembly, MEPs sit in political groups that cross national borders.

A total of seven groups were initially formed after the May 2014 European Parliament elections this increased to eight in June 2015, with the creation of the Europe of Nations and Freedom bloc of anti-EU nationalist parties.

Political groups provide a way to provide some practical coherence to the massive number of individual parties, currently standing at 191, that sit in the Parliament.

Generally speaking, the groups operate in similar ways to national parties, with common positions on policy issues and at votes.

Group cohesion is quite strong, with most members voting in line with their group most of the time, perhaps largely because it sometimes takes a fair amount of negotiation and compromise to agree the position in the first place.

Unlike national parliaments, there is of course no governing party sitting in the Parliament that can demand support for its position.

However, "whipping" of votes is generally lower than would be expected from national political parties, and voting can often divide on national, as well as political, grounds.

Parliament President

The President of the Parliament chairs plenary sessions and leads the Conference of Presidents.

Unlike the speakers of many national parliaments, the President does not cease to represent their political party on taking office, and can make distinctly political points during speeches at plenary debates.

They are elected for two-and-a-half year terms, which can be renewed. The political groups can nominate their own candidates, as can separate groups of 40 MEPs.

Elections take place in rounds, until a nominee has secured a majority.

Like the speaker in Westminster, the President is elected by a secret ballot, meaning the voting preferences of individual MEPs are not published.

Image copyright European Parliament
Image caption Current President Martin Schulz also once ran to be president of the European Commission

Rapporteurs

The French term "Rapporteur" is used to describe those MEPs who are put in charge of compiling a committee's response to EU legislation.

The term is not used in the British or American traditions, although it is used by organisations such as the United Nations for investigators who are responsible for reporting back on particular areas of inquiry, particularly human rights cases.

The final document, which requires approval from the committee and therefore must be able to command a majority, contains a recommendation for whether the proposals should be rejected or approved, along with amendments.

The rapporteurs also consult on the proposals with experts both inside and outside the EU institutions, and present the committee's report in plenary, where it ultimately has to be put to a vote.

Political groups have also developed the practice of appointing "shadow" rapporteurs to monitor to compilation of reports.

Resolutions

As well as voting on EU legislation, MEPs can also adopt non-binding resolutions to set out their views on particular matters.

These will often call on the Commission, or perhaps national governments, to take a particular course of action, although they do not carry any legal weight.

The European Parliament has called several times for Turkey to recognise the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as an act of genocide, prompting criticism from Turkish ministers.

Turkey rejects the term, arguing that although atrocities were committed, there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Christian Armenian people.

Image copyright Guardian / Getty Images

After the latest vote, in April 2015, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying the resolution would "go in one ear and out the other".

Sometimes, resolutions can attract significant public attention just due to a clause within the resolution.

An example of this occurred in October 2015, when a resolution on the activity of spying agencies within the EU hit the headlines after MEPs narrowly approved a clause calling on EU member states to drop all charges against whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Trialogue talks

'Trialogues' are informal talks that take place between MEPs, representatives of national governments and representatives of the European Commission to thrash out differences over EU legislation.

They provide a way for these "co-legislators" to talk through differences, so as to make it easier to come up with a text (or amendments) that are likely to be approved in formal votes.

They have become a key part of the way the EU makes legislation, although they are not specifically provided for by the EU treaties.

However, they are also controversial to some because of the fact that the talks are private, with no public record of who attended or what was said.

Critics have argued that this makes the EU lawmaking process less transparent and accountable.

Vice-presidents

Parliament has 14 vice-presidents, who are elected at the same time and serve the same term of office as the President.

The role is not particularly political, their main role is to chair plenary debates in the absence of the President.

They are effectively divided up between the political groups on the basis of their numerical strength, meaning the elections themselves usually lack any real surprises.

One notable exception came in 2009, when UK Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott was expelled from the party after staging a bid to challenge the ECR group's official candidate Michal Tomasz Kaminski.

Voting sessions

Image copyright European Parliament
Image caption Voting sessions in the Parliament, often rapid and rather confusing, can appear almost impenetrable to the outsider.

Voting in the European Parliament is very different from at Westminster or indeed in any of the UK's political institutions.

Voting sessions, normally lasting around an hour, take place on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the four-day Strasbourg plenary sittings, as well as in the middle of the one-day "mini-plenary" sittings.

MEPs put both resolutions and legislation to the votes, plus separate votes on amendments which can sometimes run into the hundreds.

Perhaps most confusingly of all, votes on legislation often take place the day after the relevant debate. So-called "follow-up" resolutions on urgent debates can sometimes take place weeks after the mater was initially discussed.

Voting is normally done on a show of hands, in the event of a close vote, electronic voting is used to provide an exact tally.

These "roll-call" votes are also requested by political groups for high-profile or controversial votes, to force MEPs in other groups to leave a written, publicly-available record of where they stood on the matter.