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The Council of the European Union

Council of the EU (Brussels), MAEE, F. de La Mure Council of the EU (Brussels) MAEE, F. de La Mure

The Council of the European Union was established in 1957 and is the principal decision-making body of the European Union. It represents European Union Member States.

How does the Council of the European Union work?

Which ministers attend which meeting depends on what subjects are on the Council's agenda. If, for example, the Council is to discuss environmental issues, the meeting will be attended by the Environment Minister from each EU country and it will be known as the "Environment Council". There are altogether nine different Council configurations:

  • General Affairs and External Relations
  • Economic and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN)
  • Justice and Home Affairs (JHA)
  • Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs
  • Competitiveness
  • Transport, Telecommunications and Energy
  • Agriculture and Fisheries
  • Environment
  • Education, Youth and Culture.

Each minister attending Council meetings is empowered to commit his/her government. In other words, the minister's commitment is the commitment of the whole government. In addition, each minister in the Council is accountable to his/her national parliament and to the citizens represented by that parliament, thus ensuring the democratic legitimacy of the Council's decisions.

The Presidency of the Council of the European Union rotates every six months among EU Member States. The Presidency is assisted by the General Secretariat, which prepares and ensures the smooth functioning of the Council's work. Javier Solana currently holds the position of Secretary-General of the Council and is also High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

To prepare the work of the Council, the "permanent representatives" (ambassadors to the European Union who defend the interests of Member States) meet within the Permanent Representatives Committee or Coreper which works in two configurations - Coreper I and Coreper II - depending on the subjects discussed, excepting most agricultural issues which are dealt with by the Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA). Coreper meetings are prepared by some 200 working parties made up of officials from national administrations.

The Political and Security Committee (PSC/COPS) defines Common Foreign and Security Policy by giving opinions to the Council. It also exercises political control and strategic direction of crisis management operations, under the authority of the Council.

Council decisions are taken by vote. The more populated a country, the more votes it has, although the number of votes is weighted in favor of the less populated countries.

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In most areas, Council decisions are adopted by Qualified majority (QM) voting. QM voting corresponds to the number of votes required for a decision to be adopted in the Council, with each country being allocated a number of votes proportionate to its demographic weight. In a number of areas such as common foreign and security policy, taxation, asylum and immigration policy, Council decisions require unanimous voting.

What does the Council of the European Union do?

There are two main avenues for the work of the Council:
On the one hand, the Council addresses issues over which Member States have decided to pool their sovereignty and delegate decision-making powers to the EU institutions. These issues relate to the "Community" domain which covers:

  • Legislation: EU legislation is adopted by the Council. It legislates jointly with the European Parliament in many areas on the basis of legislative proposals from the Commission.
  • Economic policies: the Council co-ordinates the economic policy orientations of the Member States. This co-ordination is implemented by the economics and finance ministers who gather within the Economic and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN) Council.
  • International agreements: the Council concludes international agreements between the EU and one or more non-EU (third) countries or international organisations. These agreements cover trade, co-operation and development or specific subjects such as textiles, fisheries, transport, and so on.
  • The EU budget: the Community's budget is approved by the Council together with the European Parliament.
  • On the other hand, the Member States may decide to co-ordinate their action without delegating their powers. This is known as "intergovernmental co-operation" and covers:
  • Common Foreign and Security Policy: the Council defines the EU's common foreign and security policy (CFSP). The Member States retain their national sovereignty in these areas but take full advantage of consultation in the Council. For example, in order to enable the EU to respond more effectively to international crises, the Council succeeded in creating a European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) to co-ordinate national armed forces in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.
  • Police and judicial co-operation: the Council co-ordinates co-operation in criminal matters between judicial bodies and national police forces. Judicial co-operation guarantees equality of treatment and the free movement of European citizens from one State to another. In parallel with police co-operation, judicial co-operation helps combat cross-border crime and terrorist threats.

  • Updated: 25.06.2008
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