9 interesting facts about the European Parliament

Once upon a time in Western Europe, six countries decided to form an organization called the European Coal and Steel Community or the ECSC.

It was the beginning of the 1950s and Europe was still reeling from the trauma of World War II. To prevent another war, the founders of the ECSC sought to centralize the regulation of the two major industries involved in producing war ammunitions, coal and steel.

Thus, in 1951, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany signed a treaty in Paris estabilishing the ECSC, the very first seed that would blossom into the great European Union.

It was in the same period that the European Parliament was born. But in those days, it was called the Common Assembly, one of four initial institutions created to administer the ECSC. The three others were the High Authority which eventually became the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the Court of Justice.

Since its days as the Common Assembly, the European Parliament has grown in size and competence as more and more countries joined the European integration through the years.

As we prepare for the European Parliament elections taking place in May, let’s review some of the interesting facts about one of the most powerful institutions of the European Union.


1.    The European Parliament is the largest and only directly-elected international body in the world

With more than 700 members representing over 500 million citizens from 28 EU member states, no other international body in the world can beat the size of the European Parliament.

Since the first parliamentary elections of 1979, the European Parliament has also become the only international assembly with directly-elected members, both in the EU and in the whole world.

2.     But it started out as a mere consultative body with no significant powers

The European Parliament came from very humble beginnings. During its infant years, it functioned simply as a consultative body without any real power except to supervise the High Authority.

The first Common Assembly was composed of 78 appointees from the six member states of the ECSC. Its first president was Paul-Henri Spaak, former Prime Minister of Belgium.

Paul-Henri Spaak, first President of the Common Assembly

3.     It has undergone two name changes

In 1958, the Common Assembly changed its name to the European Parliamentary Assembly. However, it remained a consultative body of appointed members.

During this period, two other European organizations were formed in addition to the ECSC: the European Economic Community (ECC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

The European Parliamentary Assembly functioned for the three organizations, which all together came to be called the European Communties (EC).

In 1962, the Assembly finally assumed its current name, the European Parliament. But it didn’t see any significant increase in powers until the 1970s.

4.   First European Parliament elections held in June 1979

By the 1970s, the European Communities already had six administrative bodies. The European Council and the Court of Auditors were added to the already existing High Authority now called the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, and the Court of Justice.

But none of the members of these bodies were directly elected to the European Communities. The obvious lack of democratic mechanisms fuelled the need for parliamentary elections.

The 1967 Commission led by Belgian politician Jean Rey launched the campaign for European Parliament elections. The Act calling for elections every five years was adopted in 1976.

Finally in June 1979, the first European Parliament elections were held. By this time, Britain, Denmark, and Ireland had joined the European Communities. Four hundred ten Members of the European Parliament or MEPs were elected from nine countries.

French politician Simone Veil, the first President of the elected European Parliament

5.   The very first president of the elected European Parliament was a woman

In the entire history of the European Parliament, 30 people have served as president of the assembly. Only two of them were women, both from France.

Simone Veil of the Liberals and Democrats became the very first president of the elected European Parliament in 1979. Nicole Fontaine of the European People’s Party occupied the position from 1999 to 2002. 

6.    The European Parliament was at its largest from 2007 to 2009

In 2007, the European Parliament reached its highest number of 785 MEPs when Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Communities, which was already called the European Union by then.

The Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in December 2009, set a maximum number of 751 MEPs. No EU country can have more than 96 seats or less than 6 seats. 

The European Parliament is expected to shrink in size if and when Brexit finally happens. The departure of 73 MEPs from the United Kingdom is foreseen to reduce the number of parliamentary seats from 751 to 705.

7.   The 3 oldest political groups in the European Parliament: EPP, S&D, ALDE

The transnational political groups forming the Christian democrats, the socialists, and the liberals in the EU have been around since the early beginnings of the European Parliament.

In 1953, the centre-right Christian democrats and conservatives began organizing themselves as the Christian Democratic Group which would eventually become the European People’s Party (EPP).

The center-left social-democratic parties now making up the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) were first called the Socialist Group.

The liberals and democrats were initially formed under the Liberal Group now known as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

The European Parliament headquarters in Brussels

8.     The three official headquarters of the European Parliament

Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg are the three official cities of the European Parliament. But Strasbourg is considered the main seat.

MEPs hold their monthly plenary sessions in Strasbourg. Additional plenary sessions and meetings of parliamentary committees and political groups are held in Brussels. The European Parliament’s Secretariat is located in Luxembourg.

9.   The European Parliament is the official watchdog of the European Commission

From a consultative body with no significant powers, the European Parliament has flourished into a formidable EU institution.

Aside from having legislative powers in more than 80 different policy areas, the European Parliament can also approve or reject EU budget proposals.

Above all, as the only directly-elected institution of the EU, the European Parliament alone has the right of democratic control over the European Commission, as laid down in the EU constitution.

MEPs not only get to decide who will sit in the European Commission. They can also question and challenge the commissioners’ decisions and actions. And if it calls for it, they can issue a vote of censure to dismiss an entire functioning commission.