The Council of the European Union is the principal decision making institution in the European Union (EU). It is often informally called the Council of Ministers or just the Council, the name used in the treaties; it is also called Consilium as a Latin-language compromise. Within the competencies of the Community pillar, it is the more powerful of the two legislative chambers, the other being the European Parliament. This Council should be distinguished from the European Council, which is an assembly of EU heads of state or government, and the Council of Europe, which is a non-EU organisation of 47 states.
The Council is composed of twenty-seven national ministers (one per state). However the exact membership depends upon the topic being discussed, for example; when discussing the agricultural policy the twenty-seven national agriculture ministers form the Council. The Union's law is limited to specific policy areas, however it does override national law. As the Union operates on supranational and intergovernmental platforms, in some areas the Council is superior to the Parliament, having only to consult to get assent from the body. In many areas, however, the Union uses the legislative process of codecision procedure, in which the two bodies are equal in power.
The Council does not have a single president in the traditional sense, but the role is rotated between each member state every 6 months (known as the "Presidency"), with the minister from that state then able to set the agenda. Another powerful position is the Secretary General who is also the representative of the Union's foreign policy.
The Council first appeared in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) as the "Special Council of Ministers", set up to counterbalance the High Authority (the supranational executive, now the Commission). The original Council had limited powers as issues relating only to coal and steel were in the Authority's domain, whereas the Council only had to give its consent to decisions outside coal and steel. As a whole, it only scrutinised the executive. In 1957, the Treaties of Rome established two new communities, and with them two new Councils: the Council of the European Atomic Energy Community and the Council of the European Economic Community. However due to objections over the supranational power of the Authority, their Councils had more executive powers with the new executive bodies being known as "Commissions".
In 1965 the Council was hit by the "empty chair crisis". Due to disagreements between French President Charles de Gaulle and the Commission's agriculture proposals, among other things, France boycotted all meetings of the Council bringing work to a halt until it was resolved the following year by the Luxembourg compromise. Although initiated by a gamble of then-President Walter Hallstein, who lost the Presidency after the crisis, it exposed flaws in the Council's workings.
With the Merger Treaty of 1967, the ECSC's Special Council of Ministers, and the communities, and their councils, were merged into a single Council of the European Communities. In 1993 the body became the Council of the European Union with the Maastricht Treaty, reflecting the wider change in name. That treaty strengthened the Council with the addition of more intergovernmental elements in the three pillars system. However, at the same time the Parliament and Commission had been strengthened inside the Community pillar curbing the ability of the Council to act independently.
The development of the Council has been characterised by the rise in power of the Parliament as, while the Council has not lost power, the Parliament has provided a greater and greater opposition to the Council's wishes. This has in some cases led to clashes between the two bodies with the Council's system of intergovernmentalism contradicting the developing parliamentary system and supranational principles.
Under this procedure, the Commission presents a proposal to Parliament and the Council. Following its first reading the Parliament may propose amendments. If the council accepts these amendments then the legislation is approved. If it does not then it adopts a "common position" and submits that new version to the Parliament. At its second reading, if the Parliament approves the text or does not act, the text is adopted, otherwise the Parliament may propose further amendments to the Council's proposal. It may be rejected out right by an absolute majority of MEPs. If the Council still does not approve the Parliament's position, then the text is taken to a "Conciliation Committee" composed of the Council members plus an equal number of MEPs. If a Committee manages to adopt a joint text, it has to still be approved by both the Council and Parliament or the proposal is abandoned.
However there are some older procedures still in use which give the Parliament less say than the Council over legislative bills. These are the consultation and assent procedures. The former means the Parliament is consulted by the Council, and it can ask for amendments, on legislation but it is unable to block it. The latter means the Council has to obtain the approval of the Parliament on legislation before it can become law, but the Parliament cannot make amendments. The procedure used also depends upon which type of institutional act is being used. The strongest act is a regulation, an act or law which is directly applicable in its entirety. Then there are directives which bind members to certain goals which they must achieve. They do this through their own laws and hence have room to manoeuvre in deciding upon them. A decision is an instrument which is focused at a particular person/group and is directly applicable. Institutions may also issue recommendations and opinions which are merely non-binding, declarations.
The Council votes in one of three ways; unanimity, simple majority or qualified majority. In most cases, the Council votes on issues by Qualified Majority Voting, meaning that there must be a minimum of 255 votes out of 345 (73.9 %) and a majority of member states (sometimes a two–third majority). A majority representing 62% of the EU's population may also be taken into account. Unanimity is nearly always used where foreign policy is concerned, and in a number of cases under Police and Judicial Co-operation.
At present, the EU is divided into three pillars, the European Community (EC) (the main and historic element), the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters (PJC). The latter two operate under a more intergovernmental fashion in that the Commission, Parliament and Courts have little input. It is also reflected in that the Council, rather than the Commission, has the right to legislative initiative on matters concerning those areas. Hence, the Council has a major role in these areas. It works to develop the CFSP, for example in creating military forces and signing international agreements for the whole EU. In the PJC, it seeks to ensure co-operation between national courts and police forces due to cross-border crime arising from free movement across internal borders. It also manages policy concerning external borders and immigration.
The legal instruments used by the Council for the CFSP are different from the legislative acts. Under the CFSP they consist of "common positions", "joint actions" and "common strategies". Common positions relate to defining a European foreign policy towards a particular third-country such as the isolation of Burma, a region such as the stabilisation efforts in the African Great Lakes, or a certain issue such as support for the International Criminal Court. A common position, once agreed, is binding on all EU states who must follow and defend the policy, which is regularly revised. A joint action refers to a co-ordinated action of the states to deploy resources in order to achieve an objective, for example for mine clearing or to combat the spread of small arms. Common strategies defined an objective and commits the EUs resources to that task for four years.
The role of the Presidency is administrative and political. On the administrative side it is responsible for procedures and organising the work of the Council during its term. This includes summoning the Council for meetings along with directing the work of COREPER and other committees and working groups. The political element is the role of successfully dealing with issues and mediating in the Council. In particular this includes setting the agenda of the council, hence giving the Presidency substantial influence in the work of the Council during its term. The Presidency also plays a major role in representing the Council within the EU and representing the EU internationally, for example at the United Nations.
Complementing these, the Political and Security Committee (PSC) brings together ambassadors to monitor international situations and define policies within the ESDP, particularly in crises
The European Council is similar to a configuration of the Council, it operates in the same way and shares the same Presidency system but is composed of the national leaders (heads of government or state). The body's purpose is to define the general "impetus" of the Union. The European Council deals with the major issues such as the appointment of the President of the European Commission who takes part in the body's meetings.
The General Secretariat of the Council provides the continuous infrastructure of the council, carrying out preparation for meetings, draft reports, translation, records, documents, agendas and assisting the presidency.
The Secretary General of the Council is head of the General Secretariat, currently Javier Solana. The post is a powerful position within the Union and its holder a notable figure; not simply because he or she holds that position, but because the same person is also the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and President of the European Defence Agency (along with leading the non–EU defence organisation, the Western European Union).
The Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) is a body composed of representatives from the states (ambassadors, civil servants etc.) who meet each week to prepare the work and tasks of the Council. It monitors and co-ordinates work and deals with the Parliament on co-decision legislation (along with leading the non–EU defence organisation, the Western European Union) It is divided into two groups of the representatives (Coreper II) and their deputies (Coreper I). Agriculture is dealt with separately by the Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA). The numerous working groups submit their reports to the Council through Coreper or SCA
Under the third pillar (Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters), there is little supranational influence. For example the Parliament has no say and the Commission does not have the right to initiate legislation in this field (whereas it has a monopoly in the Community). As a result, the Council is very powerful and when decisions are taken by qualified majority voting, the voting weights become decisive. This led to the creation of the G5, which has been expanded by Poland to the G6 in 2006. The G6 represent the 6 largest member states with a combined 49.3% of the total voting weight in the council. Therefore, the G6 comprise a lot of power in the Council, which leads to criticisms. However, they cannot pass legislation without the support of other countries.
Almost all members of the Council are members of a political party at national level, and most of these are members of a European level political party. However the Council is composed in order to represent the Union's states rather than political parties and decisions are generally made on these lines. The table below outlines the European party affiliations of the leaders of each country (those comprising the European Council), it should be noted that in many countries there are coalition governments and the ministers forming the various configurations may be of different parties.
By a decision of the European Council at Edinburgh in December 1992, the Council has its seat in Brussels but in April, June and October, it holds its meetings in Luxembourg.
Between 1952 and 1967 the ECSC Council held its Luxembourg meetings in the Cercle Municipal on Place d’Armes. Its secretariat moved on numerous occasions but between 1955 and 1967 it was housed in the Verlorenkost district of the city. In 1957 with the creation of two new Communities with their own Councils, discretion on location was given to the current President. In practice this was to be in the Castle of the Valley of the Duchess until the autumn of 1958, at which point it move to 2 Rue Ravensteinstraat in Brussels.
The 1965 agreement (finalised by the Edinburgh agreement and annexed to the treaties) on the location of the newly merged institutions, the Council was to be in Brussels but would meet in Luxembourg during April, June and October. The ECSC secretariat moved from Luxembourg to the merged body Council secretariat in the Ravenstein building of Brussels. In 1971 the Council and its secretariat moved into the Charlemagne building, next to the Commission's Berlaymont, but the Council rapidly ran out of space and administrative branch of the Secretariat moved to a building at 76 Rue Joseph II/Jozef II-straat and during the 1980s the language divisions moved out into the Nerviens, Frère Orban and Guimard buildings.
In 1995 the Council moved once more, into the Justus Lipsius building, across the road from Charlemagne. However, its staff was still increasing, so it continued to rent the Frère Orban building to house the Finnish and Swedish language divisions. Staff continued to increase and the Council rented, in addition to owning Justus Lipsius, the Kortenberg, Froissart, Espace Rolin and Woluwe Heights buildings; with acquiring the Lex building, the three afore mentioned buildings are not used by the Council services any more as from 2008; Résidence Palace building has been acquired and is currently being renovated; it will house the new press centre of the European Council, which uses the same facilities as the Council.
When the Council is meeting in Luxembourg, it meets in the Kirchberg Conference Centre and its offices are based at the European Centre on the plateau du Kirchberg. The Council has also met occasionally in Strasbourg, in various other cities and also outside the Union: for example in 1974 when it met in Tokyo and Washington while trade and energy talks were taking place. Under the Council's present rules of procedures the Council can, in extraordinary circumstances, hold one of its meetings outside Brussels and Luxembourg.
In terms of the Council's configuration, the fact there are different configurations is mentioned for the first time in treaties but only two are mentioned by name in the Constitution (others are agreed upon by the European Council), they are the General Affairs Council and Foreign Affairs Council, splitting the current General Affairs and External Relations Council. The latter will not be chaired by the Presidency, but by the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Presidency being conducted in groups of three for 18 months is enshrined in the Constitution. Furthermore the Council is required to meet in public. Ecofin's Eurozone component would be more formalised and elect its own separate President, "Mr Euro".