The European Parliament (Europarl or EP) is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union (EU). Together with the Council of the European Union (the Council), it forms the bicameral legislative branch of the Union's institutions and has been described as one of the most powerful legislatures in the world. The Parliament and Council form the highest legislative body within the Union. However their powers as such are limited to the competencies conferred upon the European Community by member states. Hence the institution has little control over policy areas held by the states and within the other two of the three pillars of the European Union. The Parliament is composed of 736 MEPs (Member of the European Parliament), who serve the second largest democratic electorate in the world (after India) and the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world (375 million eligible voters in 2009).
It has been directly elected every five years by universal suffrage since 1979. Although the European Parliament has legislative power that such bodies as those above do not possess, it does not have legislative initiative, as most national EU parliaments do However, it does have de facto capacity for legislative initiative (see Powers and functions below). While it is the "first institution" of the European Union (mentioned first in the treaties, having ceremonial precedence over all authority at European level), the Council has greater powers over legislation than the Parliament where codecision procedure (equal rights of amendment and rejection) does not apply. It has, however, had control over the EU budget (minus agriculture) since the 1970s and has a veto over the appointment of the European Commission.
The European Parliament has two meeting places, namely the Louise Weiss building in Strasbourg, France, which serves for twelve four-day plenary sessions per year and is the official seat, and the Espace Léopold (Dutch: Leopoldruimte) complex in Brussels, Belgium, the larger of the two, which serves for committee meetings, political groups and complementary plenary sessions. The cost of having all MEPs and their staff moving several times a year from one place to another is of concern to some. The Secretariat of the European Parliament, the Parliament's administrative body, is based in Luxembourg.
The President of the European Parliament (its speaker) is currently Jerzy Buzek (EPP), elected in July 2009. He presides over a multi-party chamber, the two largest groups being the European People's Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). The last Union-wide elections were the 2009 Parliamentary Elections.
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