Conference of Presidents

The Conference of Presidents is the most important of the governing bodies of the European Parliament. Chaired by the President of the Parliament, it brings together the leaders of the Parliament’s political groups to propose the business of its plenary sessions, organise committee work, decide on major in-house and inter-institutional initiatives, and oversee relations with third parliaments. Examples of its work include adopting measures to reform the conduct of business in the Parliament (in 2007-09) and the negotiation of framework agreements between the European Commission and Parliament (every five years). Some of the Conference’s power derives from responsibilities attributed to it by the rules of procedure of the Parliament; the remainder comes from the political reality that a majority established (by weighted voting) among political group leaders in the Conference normally presages a similar majority in plenary, if the Conference needs to take the matter to the floor for confirmation.

The Conference of Presidents usually meets twice a month, on the Thursday mornings before and during the Strasbourg plenary sessions, in camera. The leaders of political groups are accompanied to the meeting by their secretaries-general, who convene several times beforehand to prepare proceedings. By setting the agenda of the Conference and proposing compromise solutions on the issues it discusses, an active President can become a key point of brokerage in the decision-making process. The meeting occurs behind closed doors so that the group leaders can make deals and be defeated in votes without public embarrassment. The fact that each group leader’s votes are weighed in accordance with the number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that he or she represents means that if the largest two groups – the centre-right EPP Group and the Group of Socialists and Democrats – agree on an issue, they will always get their way. The smaller groups thus have a vested interest in trying to prevent any such alignment developing on a consistent basis, in order to safeguard their potential influence.

The Parliament’s Bureau, comprised of the institution’s President and 14 Vice-Presidents, also meets twice a month, in camera. Chaired by the President, it proposes the Parliament’s annual budget, allocates its administrative resources and makes staff appointments at director level (AD14) and above. Good examples of recent Bureau work are the adoption, after appropriate guidance from the Conference of Presidents, of arrangements for members’ allowances and pensions, and the purchase of all the buildings in which the Parliament meets, both in Brussels and Strasbourg. Vice-Presidents are less amenable to voting along political group lines and outcomes in the Bureau tend therefore to be less predictable than in the Conference of Presidents. The Bureau is assisted by a College of Quaestors, whose six members are elected by the plenary to safeguard the interests of individual members, and to which the Bureau devolves responsibility for a number of practical matters affecting individual members, such as the sponsoring of exhibitions on the Parliament’s premises, the operation of its car pool or the enforcement of its smoking ban.

Originally, in the 1950s, in a formula modelled on practice in the French National Assembly, the Conference of Presidents brought together the chairmen of political groups, the Vice-Presidents of Parliament and the chairmen of committees, all in one body. However, the increase in the size and complexity of the institution meant that, over time, these three latter groups of individuals, with their distinctive roles, needed to meet separately. So, in addition to the Conference of Presidents and the Bureau, there is now also a ‘Conference of Committee Chairs’, which meets monthly in Strasbourg. Its primary task is to attempt to resolve conflicts of competence between committees and to make proposals to the Conference of Presidents on the sequencing of plenary business and the authorisation of own-initiative reports. The committee chairmen elect their own chairman. A comparable body has also been created for the chairmen of inter-parliamentary delegations.

A practical illustration of the interplay between these various bodies is provided by the handling in the Parliament of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue in 2008. At the President’s suggestion, the Conference of Presidents decided to invite a series of high-profile guest speakers to address the plenary during the year and instructed the committees and delegations to develop a range of activities on intercultural themes. The Bureau voted the necessary funding, at the Conference of Presidents’ request. The conferences of committee and delegation chairmen coordinated initiatives in their individual committees and delegations, reporting back to the Conference of Presidents periodically.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry


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