Candidates for the European parliament are vying to join an institution that has steadily expanded its powers over the years – and one that is poised to grow stronger still with the potential passage of the Lisbon reform treaty.

Of the three main Brussels institutions, the parliament ranks as the most democratic after it introduced direct elections for its members 30 years ago. Yet it has suffered from a reputation as an ineffective talking shop.

The parliament has less power than the European Commission and council of ministers, representing member governments. Unlike the Commission, for example, it lacks the power to initiate legislation.

Still, a series of treaties has helped MEPs accumulate greater legislative power in areas such as environmental policy and consumer protection. That was evident when MEPs helped to shape a landmark environmental package in December, as well as recent legislation to cut mobile phone roaming fees.

“They are more and more often making a case on policy issues that they have real legislative powers,” said Sara Hagemann, analyst at the European Policy Centre.

More than any other European institution, the parliament would benefit from the passage of the Lisbon treaty, which is expected to be put to Irish voters again in October.

If approved, Lisbon would instantly extend parliament’s authority over agriculture – the biggest chunk of the EU budget – as well as fisheries, justice and the European space programme. Until now, MEPs have been limited to a consultative role in such areas.

Even without Lisbon, Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal group of MEPs in the parliament, argues that the parliament was already eclipsing its rival institutions. In his view, under José Manuel Barroso, president, the Commission has been weak and the council of ministers has become fragmented. That, according to Mr Watson, has made the parliament the essential place to broker legislative deals.

“I think parliament is the most important European institution. I don’t know if parliament realises that yet,” he said, likening it to an adolescent still testing its strength.

Such ambitions will be challenged by turnout at this week’s elections – it will be hard for MEPs to claim such an elevated role if only a fraction of EU citizens bothers to vote for them.

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