European Council

European Council

European Council, institution of the European Union (EU) responsible for defining the EU's general political direction and priorities. It is composed of an elected president (who serves a two-and-a-half-year term), the heads of government of the EU nations, and the president of the European Commission; the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part in its work, and the government heads and Commission president may be assisted by government ministers and a Commission member, respectively, in specialized discussions. It meets at least twice every six months.

Meetings of the European Council have from its beginnings often emphasized political as well as economic cooperation among EU nations; for example, the impetus for the move to have the members of the European Parliament elected directly by universal suffrage came out of an agreement reached at the first meeting of the European Council in 1974. The council was given legal definition by the Single European Act (1987) and became an official instituion of the EU with the ratification (2009) of the Lisbon Treaty.

The European Council (referred to as a European Summit) is the highest political body of the European Union. It comprises the heads of state or government of the Union's member states along with the President of the European Commission. Its meeting is chaired by the member from the member state currently holding Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

While the Council has no formal executive or legislative powers, it is an institution that deals with major issues and any decisions made are "a major impetus in defining the general political guidelines of the European Union". The Council meets at least twice a year; usually in the Justus Lipsius building, the quarters of the Council of the European Union (Consilium) of Brussels.


The first Councils were held in February and July 1961 (in Paris and Bonn respectively). They were informal summits of the leaders of the European Community and were started due to then-French President Charles de Gaulle's resentment at the domination of supranational institutions (e.g. the European Commission) over the integration process. The first influential summit was held in 1969 after a series of irregular summits. The Hague summit of 1969 reached an agreement on the admittance of the United Kingdom into the Community and initiated foreign policy cooperation (the European Political Cooperation) taking integration beyond economics.

The summits were only formalised in 1974, at the December summit in Paris, following a proposal from then-French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. It was felt that more intergovernmental input was needed following the "empty chair crisis" and economic problems. The inaugural Council, as it had become, was held in Dublin on 1975-03-10/1975-03-11 during Ireland's first Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In 1987 it was included in the treaties for the first time (the Single European Act) and had a defined role for the first time in the Maastricht Treaty. At first only two meetings per year were required, now there are on average four European Councils each year (two per presidency). The seat of the Council was formalised in 2002, basing it in Brussels (see Seat). In addition to usual councils, there are the occasional extraordinary councils, for example in 2001 the European Council gathered to lead the EUs response to those events.

The meetings of the Council are seen by some as turning points in the history of the European Union. For example:

Powers and functions

The European Council isn't an official institution of the EU, although it is mentioned in the treaties as a body which "shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development". Essentially it defines the EU's policy agenda and has thus been considered to be the motor of European integration. It does this without any formal powers, only the influence it has being composed of national leaders. Beyond the need to provide "impetus", the Council has developed further roles; to "settle issues outstanding from discussions at a lower level", to lead in foreign policy - acting externally as a "collective Head of State", "formal ratification of important documents" and "involvement in the negotiation of the treaty changes".

Because it's composed of national leaders, the body brings together the executive power of the member states, having a great deal of influence outside the European Community: for example over foreign policy and police & justice. It also exercises the more executive powers of the Council of the European Union (the European Council could be described as a configuration of that body) such as the appointment of the President of the European Commission. Hence with powers over the supranational executive of the EU, in addition to its other powers, the European Council has been described by some as the Union's "supreme political authority".

However, the body has been criticised by some for a lack of leadership, in part stemming from the weak structure of the body, meeting only 4 times a year for 2 days with no staff and no legislative decisions made.


Officially the members of the Council consist of the heads of state or government of the Union, plus the Commission President (non-voting). When meetings take place, the national foreign minister usually attends with the leaders. The Commission President likewise is also accompanied by another member of the Commission. These are the members seen in the "family photo" taken at each Council.

Meetings can also include national ministers, including foreign ministers, other leading national positions (French Prime Minister), Commissioners as required. The Secretary General of the Council (and his/her deputy) is also a regular attendee. The position has become highly important due to its regular role in organising the meetings while also acting as the Union's High Representative. The President of the European Parliament usually attends to give an opening speech outlining the European Parliament's position before talks begin.

However the negotiations usually involve a large number of other people working behind the scenes. Most of those people however are not allowed into the conference room, except for two delegates per state to relay messages. At the push of a button members can also call for advice from a Permanent Representative via the "Antici Group" in an adjacent room. The group is composed of diplomats and assistants who convey information and requests. Translators are also required for meetings as members are permitted to speak in their own languages.

As the composition is not precisely defined, some states where there is a considerably split of executive power can find it difficult deciding who attends the meetings. While and MEP, Alexander Stubb argued that there was no need for the President of Finland to attend Council meetings with or instead of the Prime Minister of Finland (who was head of European foreign policy). In 2008, having become Finnish Foreign Minister, Stubb was forced out of the Finnish delegation to the emergency council meeting on the Georgian crisis because the President wanted to attend the high profile summit as well as the Prime Minister (only two people from each country can attend the meetings). This was despite Stubb being head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe at the time which was heavily involved in the crisis. Problems also occurred in Poland where the President of Poland and the Prime Minister of Poland were of different parties and had a different foreign policy response to the crisis.


The role of President-in-Office of the assembled European Council is performed by the head of government or head of state of the member state currently holding the Council Presidency. This presidency rotates every six months, with every three presidencies co-operating on a common programme in triplets, meaning there is also a new president of the European Council every six months. The agenda of the meetings are defined by the Presidency, hence it may be misused by the country holding the Presidency by pushing their national interests up the agenda. The presiding country may also have additional negotiators at the table.

The role as President-in-Office is in no sense equivalent to an office of a head of state, merely a primus inter pares (first among equals) role with other European heads of government. The President-in-Office is primarily responsible for preparing and chairing Council meetings, and has no executive powers. It does however offer external representation of the council and the Union and reports to the European Parliament after Council meetings and at the beginning and end of the Presidency.

Council Members

Representing Member Title Political party Member since Photo
Austria Chancellor PES
National: SPÖ
Belgium Prime Minister EPP
National: CD&V
Bulgaria Prime Minister PES
National: BSP
Cyprus President PEL
National: AKEL
Czech Republic Mirek Topolanek Prime Minister MER
National: ODS
Denmark Prime Minister ELDR
National: Venstre
Estonia Prime Minister ELDR
National: Reformierakond
Finland Prime Minister ELDR
National: Keskusta
President EPP
National: UMP
Germany Chancellor EPP
National: CDU
Greece Prime Minister EPP
National: ND
Hungary Prime Minister PES
National: MSZP
Ireland Taoiseach AEN
National: FF
Italy Prime Minister EPP
National: PdL
Latvia Prime Minister ELDR
National: LC
Lithuania Prime Minister PES
National: LSDP
Luxembourg Prime Minister EPP
National: CSV
Malta Prime Minister EPP
National: PN
Netherlands Prime Minister EPP
National: CDA
Poland Donald Tusk Prime minister EPP
National: PO
Portugal Prime Minister PES
National: PS
Romania Prime Minister ELDR
National: PNL
Slovakia Prime Minister PES
National: Smer
Slovenia Prime Minister EPP
National: SDS
Spain Prime Minister PES
National: PSOE
Sweden Prime Minister EPP
National: Moderaterna
United Kingdom Prime Minister PES
National: Labour
Commission President EPP
National: PSD
Source for positions

Seat and meetings

Meetings of the council usually take place four times a year (two per Presidency) in Brussels and last for two days, although this can sometimes be longer if contentious issues are on the agenda. Up until 2002, the venue of the council meeting rotated between member states, as its location was decided by the country holding the rotating presidency. However, the 22nd declaration attached to the Treaty of Nice stated that; "As from 2002, one European Council meeting per Presidency will be held in Brussels. When the Union comprises 18 members, all European Council meetings will be held in Brussels."

So between 2002 and 2004 half the councils were held in Brussels, and from the 2004 enlargement, all were. The European Council uses the same building as the Council of the European Union (the Justus Lipsius building). However some extraordinary councils still take place outside of the city in the member holding the Presidency; (Rome, 2003 or Hampton Court Palace in 2005). The European Council is due to move with the Council of the European Union to a new building, Résidence Palace, next to the existing building.

The choice of a single seat was due to a number of factors, such as the experience of the Belgian police in dealing with protesters (a protester in Gothenburg was shot by police) as well as Brussels having fixed facilities for the Council and journalists at every meeting. By having a permanent seat (that's the same as the Council), particularly since enlargement, it was expected the Council would integrate further into the Community framework, rather than continuing under heavy national influence, developing as a governmental body (some have argued it is already the de facto EU government).

In 2007 the new situation became a source of contention with the European Council wanting to sign the Lisbon Treaty in Lisbon. However the Belgian government, keen not to set a precedent, insisted that the actual meeting take place in Brussels as usual. This would mean that after the signing, photo suit and formal dinner the entire summit would transfer from Lisbon to Brussels to continue with normal business. The idea of such an eventuality, mirrored with the "travelling circus" of the European Parliament, garnered protests from environmental groups describing the hypocrisy of demanding lower carbon emissions while flying across Europe for the same summit for political reasons.

Future of the European Council

There would be a number of changes to the European Council under the proposed Treaty of Lisbon, which largely retains the reforms outlined in the rejected Constitutional Treaty.

The treaty would make the European Council a formal institution, separate from the Council of the European Union (now the Council of Ministers). While the Council of Ministers would continue with the rotating presidency, the European Council would have a single, fixed, President of the European Council with a renewable two-and-a-half year mandate. The position would stay a non-executive, administrative role. It would have an important role in organising work and meetings, providing external representation (including working with the CFSP) and being able to call extraordinary meetings beyond the four that are now formally required to take place.

The role of the council is clearly separate from the Council, and primarily follows previous definitions. In separating from the Council of Ministers, the European Council gains no legislative power. It does however gain a greater say over police and justice planning, foreign policy and constitutional matters, including: the composition of the Parliament and Commission; matters relating to the rotating presidency; the suspension of membership rights; changing the voting systems in the treaties bridging clauses; and nominating the President of the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The High Representative, along with the new post of President, are the only formal changes in composition. Further more, under the "emergency break" procedure, a state may refer contenious legislation from the Council of Ministers to the European Council if it is outvoted in the Council, although it may still be outvoted in the European Council.

Although there may be some informal changes; currently the President of Finland informally takes part in the European Council as s/he is responsible for the Finland's foreign policy outside the EU. This is alongside the Prime Minister who deals with policy within the EU. Under the new treaty the Council becomes a formal EU institution and deals with foreign policy (making it EU policy). Hence, some see the President's attendance would no longer be justified.

There has been speculation on who would be the first (full time) President of the European Council, being dubbed as the President of the European Union. Currently the most common name is former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. This was backed up further when, in June 2007, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was the first leader to propose that Blair be the first president. However in August 2007, there has been specuation that Bertie Ahern, the former Irish Taoiseach, could also be a contender. Lastly Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was proposed to this function by the Bulgarian governance .


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