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Introduction

Understanding the European Parliament's delegations

The European Parliament's delegations are official groups of MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) that maintain and deepen relations with the parliaments of non-EU countries, regions and organisations.

In this way, delegations serve as Parliament's primary link to other legislatures, at home and abroad.

Working in cooperation with Parliament's committees and with MEPs supporting democracy and human rights beyond the EU's borders, delegations reinforce the positions of the European Parliament.

By exercising parliamentary diplomacy through regular discussions, delegations also promote the EU in general and encourage their partners to respect the EU's values and interests.

Interparliamentary meetings

Delegations organise interparliamentary meetings with elected representatives from outside the EU. This gives the partners the chance to discuss issues face-to-face.

These meetings are generally held once or twice a year and last for a few hours or days.

They take place in alternating venues: for one meeting, MEPs will travel to another parliament outside the EU; and for the next, the EU delegation will host its guests in the European Parliament.

When MEPs travel outside the EU for these meetings, they also try to meet with people outside the host parliament and visit EU-funded projects.

Discussions in Brussels and Strasbourg

Delegations also hold meetings in Brussels and Strasbourg, alone or with other delegations or committees.

These brief meetings allow delegations to plan their interparliamentary encounters and to discuss the situation in their partners' countries.

Delegations often invite outside guests to make presentations and exchange views with MEPs. Many speakers work for other EU institutions - most often the European Commission or the EU's diplomatic service - or for embassies or universities.

The delegations also sometimes invite guests whose voices might otherwise not be heard: members of the political opposition or members of civil society, for example.

The 44 standing delegations

The European Parliament currently has 44 'standing' - in other words, permanent - delegations.

This number was established by a decision 'on the number of interparliamentary delegations, delegations to joint parliamentary committees and delegations to parliamentary cooperation committees and to multilateral parliamentary assemblies'.

This decision, adopted in April 2019, listed the delegations that would operate during the ninth parliamentary term (2019-2024) and grouped them into regions.

From one term to another, the distribution of delegations may differ significantly. For example, in the seventh parliamentary term (2009-2014), a single delegation worked with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Since mid-2014, four separate delegations have covered these countries.

At any time, Parliament may also decide to send official groups of MEPs to non-EU countries in response to political developments, or to take part in conferences or other events.

Composition

All the delegations have the same structure: they have one chair and two vice-chairs, who are elected by the delegation's members.

All delegation members are nominated by Parliament's political groups, with the total composition of each delegation reflecting Parliament's overall political balance.

Every single MEP is a member of a standing delegation. Some belong to more than one.

The largest delegations are usually those that participate in parliamentary assemblies, where several parliaments convene.

For example, there are 78 MEPs in the European Parliament's delegation to the semi-annual forum that brings together all the parliaments of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States.

However, such a large delegation is unusual. Most of Parliament's delegations comprise 20 members or fewer. The smallest have just 8 members.

Rules

The delegations must follow strict rules that are laid out in several documents and decisions.

Two of Parliament's official Rules of Procedure focus on delegations. In addition, many of the rules for committees also apply to delegations.

The European Parliament's most recent decision on the number of delegations also spelled out some procedures. The ways in which committees and delegations should coordinate, including when travelling, are detailed in the decision.

The most extensive rules for delegations are contained in an official document called the 'Implementing provisions governing the work of delegations and missions outside the European Union'.

This text lays out the general aim of Parliament's delegations: 'maintaining and enhancing contacts with parliaments of States that are traditionally partners of the European Union and [...] promoting [...] the values on which the European Union is founded.'

The provisions also describe how Parliament's delegations should respect Parliament's positions and standards.

Other articles explain which MEPs can join a delegation's trips outside the EU. In order to keep costs down, the number of participants is strictly controlled, with all trips requiring prior authorisation.

Relationship with committees

The European Parliament has three full committees and two subcommittees focusing on activities outside the EU ('external action'). These committees have a privileged relationship with the delegations.

Committees and delegations keep one another informed of their meetings and discussions, and invite each other's members to join their proceedings and assignments, including when they travel outside the EU.

Of the various committees, the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) plays the most critical role for the delegations. This committee coordinates and provides political oversight to the delegations - not only for standing delegations, but for all MEPs travelling on official Parliament business to countries outside the EU.

The Committee for International Trade (INTA) liaises with all delegations when the agenda touches on international economic and trade issues. The delegation focusing on the CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement is particularly closely connected to INTA.

Finally, the Committee on Development (DEVE) coordinates delegations that address development issues. The delegation to the ACP Group of States is one of many delegations that work with DEVE.

Before any delegation meets with elected representatives from outside the EU, committees suggest political topics that the delegation could or should address. After the meeting, the chair of the delegation reports back to AFET.

Focusing on democracy and human rights

Many delegations also involve the European Parliament's Democracy and Elections Coordination Group (DEG) in their work. This body, headed by the Chairs of the AFET and DEVE committees, oversees Parliament's efforts to reinforce democracy and human rights beyond the EU.

One of the group's principal activities is organising election observation missions.

Between 10 and 12 times a year, MEPs travel to non-EU countries to observe voting processes. Their experience as elected representatives adds political credibility to their evaluations.

Other projects overseen by the DEG aim to help parliaments in non-EU countries grow stronger and achieve their full potential.

'Friendship' and other unofficial groups

MEPs occasionally form unofficial groups to discuss relations with non-EU countries.

These 'friendship groups', sometimes sponsored by lobbyists or foreign governments, are not official European Parliament organisations.

If these groups travel abroad, they have no official status, and the local EU offices therefore do not provide them with the assistance they offer to standing delegations. These groups do not coordinate with committees and cannot speak on behalf of Parliament.

MEPs who participate in these groups are obliged to be transparent about their status and to avoid interfering with the work of Parliament's official bodies.

EP delegations, actors with a global reach © European Parliament

Presentation and responsibilities

Delegations shall maintain and develop Parliament's international contacts and contribute to enhancing the role and visibility of the European Union in the world.

Accordingly, delegation activities shall, on the one hand, be aimed at maintaining and enhancing contacts with parliaments of States that are traditionally partners of the European Union and, on the other hand, contribute to promoting in third countries the values on which the European Union is founded, namely the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law (Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union).

Parliament's international contacts shall be governed by the principles of public international law.

Parliament's international contacts shall be aimed at fostering, wherever possible and appropriate, the parliamentary dimension of international relations.

(Article 3, principles governing delegation activities adopted by the Conference of Presidents on 29 October 2015)