The Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers) is the principal decision-making body of the EU and is comprised of one Cabinet Minister from each Member State. The Ministers vary depending on the issue being discussed – for example, on matters involving justice, the various Ministers of Justice from the Member States meet.
Each minister in the Council is empowered to commit his or her government. Moreover, each minister in the Council is answerable to the elected national authorities. This ensures the democratic legitimacy of the Council’s decisions.
The Council has a rotating presidency with a six month term. The Prime Minister of that Member State and his or her Ministers therefore set the agenda for those six months, scheduling the content and number of meetings for the different Ministers.
The Council is the second prong of the legislature together with the European Parliament. While it is still the main decision-making body within the EU system, its power in relation to the Parliament has been altered significantly over the years, with the Parliament being given more and more responsibility.
The Council has five key responsibilities:
Legislation: EU legislation is adopted either by the Council alone or, in the majority of cases, jointly by the Council and Parliament. As a general rule, the Council only acts on a proposal from the Commission, and the Commission normally has responsibility for ensuring that EU legislation, once adopted, is correctly applied.
Coordinating the policies of Member States: (an example: economic policy) All EU Member States are part of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) even though not all belong to the euro area. Under EMU, EU economic policy is based on close coordination of national economic policies. This coordination is carried out by the economics and finance ministers who collectively form the Economic and Financial Affairs (Ecofin) Council.
Common foreign and security policy (CFSP): The definition and implementation of the EU’s foreign and security policy is the exclusive competence of the European Council and the Council acting unanimously. It is put into effect by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy together with the Member States, meeting in the Foreign Affairs Council.
Concluding international agreements: Each year, the Council concludes (i.e. officially signs) a number of agreements between the European Union and non-EU countries, as well as with international organisations. These agreements may cover broad areas such as trade, cooperation and development, or they may deal with specific subjects such as textiles, fisheries, science and technology, transport, etc. Such agreements are subject to the assent of the European Parliament in areas where it has co-decision powers.
Approving the EU budget: The EU’s annual budget is decided jointly by the Council and the European Parliament. If the two institutions do not agree, then conciliation procedures are followed until a budget is approved.
How the Council works
All Council discussions and votes on legislative acts take place in public. Such meetings can be watched live via the Council’s website. Not accessible to the public are, however, the meetings of the Council’s working groups, in which the details of new legislation are negotiated.
Overall consistency in the work of the different Council configurations is ensured by the General Affairs Council, which monitors the effective follow-up of European Council meetings. It is supported by the Permanent Representatives Committee (‘Coreper’ — from the French: ‘Comité des Représentants Permanents’). Coreper is composed of the Member States governments’ Permanent Representatives to the European Union. In Brussels, each EU Member State has a team (‘Permanent Representation’) that represents it and defends its national interests at EU level. The Head of each Representation is, in effect, his or her country’s ambassador to the EU. These ambassadors meet weekly within the Coreper.
The role of Coreper is to prepare the work of the Council, with the exception of agricultural issues which are handled by the Special Committee on Agriculture. Coreper is assisted by a number of working groups made up of officials from the national administrations.
Decisions in the Council are taken by vote. At present, the Council decides by qualified-majority voting, except where the treaties require a different procedure, e.g. a unanimous vote in the fields of taxation and foreign policy. Under qualified-majority voting, the larger the population the more votes a Member State has, although this system is adjusted to give proportionally more weight to less-populous countries.
In 2014, the current qualified-majority voting method will be replaced by a new one — double majority voting. To be passed by the Council, proposed EU laws will then require a majority not only of the EU’s member countries (55 %) but also of the EU population (65 %). This will reflect the legitimacy of the EU as a union of both peoples and nations. It will make EU lawmaking both more transparent and more effective. And it will be accompanied by a new mechanism whereby at least four Member States representing at least 35 0% of the EU population can block a decision. Where this mechanism is used, the Council is required to do everything in its power to reach a satisfactory solution within a reasonable time period.
Votes per country in the Council:
Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom: 29
Spain, Poland: 27
Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal: 12
Bulgaria, Austria, Sweden: 10
Denmark, Ireland, Croatia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Finland: 7
Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia: 4
Number of votes required for qualified majority: 260
General Secretariat of the Council
The General Secretariat assists both the European Council and its President, and the Council and its rotating Presidencies. It is headed by a Secretary-General appointed by the Council.
If some Member States want to cooperate more closely in policy areas that are not the exclusive competence of the EU but they are unable to get the agreement of all the other Member States, then the ‘enhanced cooperation’ mechanism allows them to work together. It permits at least nine Member States to use the EU institutions to achieve closer cooperation. However, there are conditions: this cooperation must further the objectives of the Union and it must be open to all other Member States if they wish to join.
The procedure is being used by a number of countries for divorce law, enabling them to find a common solution for couples from different EU countries wishing to divorce within the EU. It is also in place for a unitary patenting system that involves most — but not all — EU Member States.