In the Council of the European Union, government ministers from each EU country meet to discuss, amend, adopt laws, and coordinate policies. It is also known informally as the EU Council.
The Council of the European Union defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities. It is NOT one of the EU’s legislating institutions, so it does not negotiate or adopt EU laws.
Instead, it sets the EU’s policy agenda, traditionally by adopting “conclusions” during European Council meetings which identify issues of concern and actions to take.
The ministers have the authority to commit their governments to the actions agreed on in the meetings. Together with the European Parliament, the Council is the main decision-making body of the EU.
The Council of the European Union should not be confused with:
- European Council: quarterly summits, where EU leaders meet to set the broad direction of EU policymaking
- Council of Europe: not an EU body at all
What does the Council do?
- negotiates and adopts EU laws, together with the European Parliament, based on proposals from the European Commission
- coordinates EU countries’ policies
- develops the EU’s foreign & security policy, based on European Council guidelines
- concludes agreements between the EU and other countries or international organizations
- adopts the annual EU budget – jointly with the European Parliament
How is the Council of the European Union structured?
The members of the European Council are the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states, the European Council President, and the President of the European Commission.
The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part in European Council meetings when foreign affairs issues are discussed.
There are no fixed members of the EU Council.
Instead, the Council meets in 10 different configurations, each corresponding to the policy area being discussed.
Depending on the configuration, each country sends their minister responsible for that policy area.
For example, when the Council meeting on economic and financial affairs (the “Ecofin Council”) is held, it is attended by each country’s finance minister.
Who chairs the meetings?
The Foreign Affairs Council has a permanent chairperson, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
All other Council meetings are chaired by the relevant minister of the country holding the rotating EU presidency.
For example, any Environment Council meeting in the period when Estonia holds the presidency will be chaired by the Estonian environment minister.
Overall consistency is ensured by the General Affairs Council – which is supported by the Permanent Representatives Committee.
This is composed of EU countries’ Permanent Representatives to the EU, who are, in effect, national ambassadors to the EU.
Eurozone countries coordinate their economic policy through the Eurogroup, which consists of their economy and finance ministers.
It meets the day before Economic & Financial Affairs Council meetings.
Agreements reached in Eurogroup gatherings are formally decided upon in the Council the next day, with only ministers of Eurozone countries voting on those issues.
How does the Council of the European Union work?
The European Council mostly takes its decisions by consensus.
If a vote is taken, neither the European Council President nor the Commission President takes part.
All discussions & votes take place in public.
To be passed, decisions usually require a qualified majority:
- 55% of countries (with 27 current members, this means 15 countries)
- representing at least 65 % of the total EU population
To block a decision, at least 4 countries are needed (representing at least 35% of the total EU population)
In certain specific cases outlined in the EU treaties, it decides by unanimity or by qualified majority.
- Sensitive topics like foreign policy and taxation require a unanimous vote (all countries in favor).
- A simple majority is required for procedural & administrative issues.
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