Your MEPs – Do you know what they do?

Given that MEPs spend much of their time working in Brussels and Strasbourg, they don't always make the headlines at home.

And yet, the record shows, Members of the European Parliament are amongst the most hard working politicians anywhere; for example, the current crop of the 13 Irish MEPs have a stunning attendance record – around 90% and, in some cases, higher.

And, as to the alleged champagne lifestyle – well, the European Parliament, with its 785 deputies and nearly 5,000 staff costs each EU citizen the princely sum of € 3 per year. To put this in perspective, the budget of the entire European Union costs each citizen € 235 per year – or 1% of gross national income across the 27 member states, a tiny proportion of what we all pay in taxes.

But is the European Parliament much more than a talking shop? Well, yes, it is – increasingly so. Together with the Council of Ministers, the representatives of national governments, the Parliament has the power to amend, approve or reject legislation proposed by the executive arm of the EU, the European Commission.

Countless measures that affect the lives of all of us have been debated and shaped in the European Parliament – from putting a ceiling on mobile roaming charges to introducing strict controls on the use of chemicals to setting up the European Gender Institute that works for equality for women.

The defence of fundamental human rights has always been at the top of the Parliament's agenda – it was a European Parliament investigation into CIA activities that brought to the fore the practices of extraordinary rendition and illegal detention of terrorist suspects.

The Parliament also exercises control over significant chunks of the EU budget and, crucially, it supervises the work of the Commission. It must approve all appointments of commissioners and it can exercise a power of veto – as it did in 2004.

And, it can censure the entire Commission, a measure of last resort that has yet to occur, although in 1999 the prospect of Parliament passing a vote of no confidence in the Santer Commission over fraud allegations led to it resigning.

The European Parliament has been elected on the basis of direct, universal suffrage since 1979. MEPs organise themselves on the basis of political affiliations, rather than along national lines. Currently, the biggest groups are the centre-right European Peoples' Party – European Democrats with 285 members, amongst them Fine Gael deputies, and the European Socialist Party with 215 MEPs, where Irish Labour members sit.

There are 106 European Liberals, including now Fianna Fail MEPs, 42 Greens, 41 United Left, 40 MEPs in the Europe of the Nations group, 24 Independent/Democrats of a broadly Eurosceptic hue and some 30 non-aligned MEPs.

The next European elections are due to be held in early June (June 5th in Ireland) and Irish people are amongst those most interested in the poll with unemployment, economic growth and crime at the top of their concerns.

The official seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg, symbolically straddling the Franco-German border, although these days most sessions and the work of the 20 standing committees take place in Brussels.

As befits the largest trans-national representative assembly in the world, the European Parliament conducts its business in all 23 official EU languages, Irish included as of 2007.

And it's no surprise therefore, that the Parliament is also the largest employer of translators and interpreters anywhere in the world – well over 1,000.

To find out more about the work of the European Parliament logon here.

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