By Piotr Maciej Kaczyński*
For many years, the size of parliamentary committees has reflected the political choices of the Parliament. The bigger the committee – the more relevant the committee, this is the common understanding. The size of the committees stems from two sources. First is their popularity with elected Members (MEPs). This, for example, explains the popularity of the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET), as many MEPs come to the Parliament with international expertise. Second is the political preferences. The issue of the size of committees is dealt with by the Conference of Presidents, and is prepared by the leadership of political groups.
This is why we can take the evolution of the size of committees as a proxy for a change in maturity of the European Parliament: it is the political component (MEPs preference, political groups), not the administrative one, that deals with the matter. A growing maturity means that, over time, the legislative committees (as opposed to the exclusively deliberative committees) gain in size: their increased size reflects popularity of the committee and the political importance of the legislative work of the committee.
To measure those two elements, we look at the composition of three successive Parliaments, 2009-2014, 2014-2019, and the new chamber of 2019-2024 (before Brexit). During all three terms the Union is ruled by the Treaty of Lisbon, hence their competences are nominally roughly the same. Also, the overall size of the Parliament was relatively similar (732-766 during the 2009-2014 term, and 751 since 2014).
Between 2009 and 2019 there is an important evolution in the size of the committees whose “legislative” function matches the policy priorities of the Union: the economic and migration crises as well as the ongoing technological, energy and climate challenges. However, the changes of July 2019 are revolutionary, as the long-standing biggest committee in the Parliament, AFET is losing its status as the largest committee.
Size of Committees of the European Parliament, 2009-2024
|Size of EP Committees||2009||2014||2019
(change in ranking)
|OLP files 2014-2019 |
|ENVI (1)||64||69||76 (+1)||41 (Top3)|
|ITRE (2)||55||67||72 (+1)||27|
|AFET (3)||76||71||71 (-2)||0|
|LIBE (4)||55||60||68 (+1)||47 (Top1)|
|ECON (5)||48||61||60 (-1)||44 (Top2)|
|IMCO (9)||39||40||45 (+1)||28|
|REGI (10)||49||43||43 (-1)||10|
This table should be understood in the following way: the top five committees are considered the key, most important committees of the Parliament. This is where the crises and policies are dealt with, where the heated political debates take place and solutions are discussed. The ENVI committee deals with topics related to environment, climate change and health, including pharmaceuticals. The ITRE committee deals not only with industry, but also with energy and research. The LIBE committee has issues like the following to address: civil liberties in social media, migrations, borders and security. The ECON deals with Eurozone problems, banks, financial services, taxation and competition policy. Those are the matters topical with the general interest, as well as the topics that usually dominate the European Council, together with foreign affairs, the domain of AFET.
Clearly in 2019 the economic problems are not as relevant as they used to be in 2014 or 2009, as the ECON’s previous rise has been halted. The LIBE issues, however, became the most popular over the last legislature.
The committees ranked 6-12 are largely considered technical, for they have their strong regulatory competence (e.g. TRAN, transport and tourism, and EMPL, employment and social matters), but the issues are not always relevant for the entire Parliament. The same could be said of CULT (culture), PECH (fisheries), AFCO (constitutionals matters), DEVE (development) and JURI (legal questions). They all deal with a specific policy.
The last three committees, CONT (budgetary control), FEMM (women’s rights), PETI (petitions) are not particularly interesting from the policy perspective. The critics of FEMM even argue that to have this committee in the European Parliament is a signal that the EP would like to discriminate against female MEPs by promoting female participation in this committee with limited legislative role. In 2019 the FEMM committee has only 3 male Members, and this number could be even lower if the FEMM committee was not “neutralised”, meaning that membership of the FEMM committee can be combined with a membership in another, “more important”, committee.
In fact, there are five neutralised committees: FEMM, CONT, PETI, AFCO and PECH. The political leadership of the Parliament worries that there would be not enough willing Members to serve on those committees if those committees were not “neutralised”.
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Conclusion: High Policies in the Parliament
The analysis of the size of the five most “political” committees is quite striking. The only committee of a relatively more deliberative character, AFET, is losing considerably vis-à-vis other four leading committees. The significance of climate change, energy, migration and digital matters, as well as the economic situation will dominate the political landscape of the European Union in the foreseeable future. In those areas the Parliament is not only a “talking shop”, but a real-time influencer as an institution responsible for the adoption of laws and budgeting policies alongside Member States in the Council.
For AFET to regain its leading size, its fate seems linked to the state of the EU external and foreign policy. The policy is largely scattered from trade and developmental assistance (separate committees) to the topics of external security and human rights (AFET’s sub-committees). That being said, the topics of war and peace, values and interests in foreign lands, as well as future relations with third countries, need a proper address in the European Union. However, in the current structure, the Parliament’s political oversight over the High Representative and the European External Action Service (EEAS) is rather limited and the Parliament seems distant from the daily work of EEAS.
The final comment relates to the future development of Union policies. Following Brexit not only the British MEPs will depart from the Strasbourg chamber, but the Union will continue to evolve with its policy priorities. The increased focus on migration, digital issues, climate crisis and energy transformation may mean a potential break off of LIBE into two committees (migration/asylum/borders/security and fundamental rights, separately), while the gradual development of a “social Europe” may mean an increased role for the 6th committee, EMPL (employment and social matters).
Background: Maturity of the Parliament’s Committees
The Council’s perspective is whether the new European Parliament will be a reliable partner for the Council of Ministers. In other words, whether the Parliament is mature enough to take the responsibility for the direction of European policies. From the Parliament’s perspective the question is how its internal organization will match the political objectives of the institution.
There are 20 standing committees of the European Parliament. The number of committees has been shifting over the years, but the number of committees and their competences as they are today have been stable since 2004. As the competences between the committees have not shifted since then, another process, more subtle, has been developing.
This process of growing institutional political maturity of the European Parliament, is linked with two further elements. First, is the influx of new competences to the entire Parliament. This influx of competences has affected certain committees more than others. Second, there are various roles of the European Parliament: the political control over the Commission, the political dialogue with other institutions, there is the deliberative role as the centre for debate on European-wide issues as well as international matters; there is the budgetary function as well as the discharge power attributed with the Parliament; last, but not least importantly, there is the law-making role of the house. Different committees have a leading role depending on their competence, and this competence can be addressed in a political way, and sometimes in the law-making procedures.
Those two primary functions, deliberative and law-making, have been central in the history of evolution of the European Parliament. With time, the European Parliament’s law-making powers expanded, especially with the Treaty of Maastricht (1993) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2009). As certain committees were considered the most relevant for their crucial political status, they tend to fade with time if they are not equipped with new legal instruments.
*Piotr Maciej Kaczyński is an independent expert on EU institutional matters previously having worked for CEPS, in the European Parliament and training civil servants with EIPA. Speaker at events and writer for think tanks and European media, he is a frequent contributor to Euractiv.com and Onet.pl. He has trained over 1,000 EU civil servants. Member of Team Europe of the European Commission Representation in Warsaw.
 Source: Activity Report. Developments and Trends of the Ordinary Legislative Procedure (OLP), 1 July 2014- 1 July 2019 (8th parliamentary term), European Parliament.