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The Council of the European Union is the principal decision-making institution of 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 bodies, the other being the European Parliamentmarker. This Council should not be confused with the European Council (an assembly of EU heads of state or government) nor confused with the Council of Europe (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 Council does not have a single president in the traditional sense, but the role is rotated between each member state every six 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 may initiate new European Union law in specific policy areas that the member states have delegated to it, thus it is possible that it may replace existing national law. Its decisions are made by qualified majority voting in some areas, unanimity in others. 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.

History

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 High Authority (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 (EAEC) and the Council of the European Economic Community (EEC). 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 Council of the EAEC (together with their other independent institutions) were merged into the Council of the EEC which would act as 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.

Powers and functions

The primary purpose of the Council is to act as one of the two chambers of the Union's legislative branch, the other chamber being the European Parliamentmarker. However the Council only has legislative initiative in the latter two of the three pillars of the EU. It also holds, jointly with the Parliament, the budgetary power of the Union and has greater control than the Parliament over the intergovernmental areas of the EU. Finally, it formally holds the executive power of the EU which it confers upon the European Commissionmarker.

Legislative procedure

The Union's legislative authority is divided between the Council and Parliament, as the relationships and powers of these institutions have developed, various legislative procedures have been created for adopting laws. The most common is the codecision procedure, which is used in forty–three policy areas and works on the principle that consent from both the Council and Parliament are required before a law may be adopted.

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 or 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.

Intergovernmentalism

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 Burmamarker, a region such as the stabilisation efforts in the African Great Lakesmarker, 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.

Budgetary authority

Furthermore, the legislative branch officially holds the Union's budgetary authority. The EU's budget (which is around 116.4 billion euro) is divided into compulsory and non-compulsory spending. Compulsory spending is that resulting from EU treaties (including agriculture) and international agreements, the rest is non-compulsory. While the Council has the last word on compulsory spending, the Parliament has the last word on non-compulsory spending. The institutions draw up budget estimates and the Commission consolidates them into a draft budget. Both the Council and the Parliament can amend the budget, both have to agree for the budget to become law. In addition to the budget, the Council coordinates the economic policy of members.

Delegated authority

The Council officially holds the executive power of the Union, conferring it upon the Commission and able to withdraw it by Article 202 of the Single European Act; "The Council confers on the Commission powers for the implementation of the rules it lays down. It may impose certain requirements in respect of the exercise of those powers. In specific cases, it may reserve the right to exercise implementing powers directly." Furthermore, some of the Council's more high-level powers, such as the appointment of the Commission President, are implemented by the European Council rather than a configuration of the Council of the European Union.

Organisation

Presidency

The Presidency of the Council is not a single post, but is held by a member state's government (currently Sweden). Every six months the presidency rotates between the states, in an order predefined by the Councils members, allowing each state to preside over the body. From 2007, every three-member states cooperate for their combined eighteen months on a common agenda, although only one formally holds the presidency for the normal six-month period. For example the President for the second half of 2007, Portugal, was the second in a trio of states alongside Germany and Sloveniamarker with whom Portugal had been co-operating. The Council meets in various configurations (as outlined below) so its membership changes depending upon the issue. The person chairing the Council will always be the member from the state holding the Presidency (same applies for the European Council). A delegate from the following Presidency also assists the presiding member and may take over work if requested.

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.

Configurations

Legally speaking, the Council is a single entity, but it is in practice divided into several different council configurations (or ‘(con)formations’). Article 16(6) of the Treaty on European Union provides:

Each council configuration deals with a different functional area, for example agriculture and fisheries. In this formation, the council is composed of ministers from each state government who are responsible for this area: the agriculture and fisheries ministers. The chair of this council is held by the member from the state holding the presidency (see section above). In contrast, the Economic and Financial Affairs council is composed of national finance ministers, however there are still one per state and the chair is still held by the member coming from the presiding country. They meet irregularly throughout the year except for the three major configurations (top three below) which meet once a month. There are currently nine formations:
The main meeting room of the Council
  • Economic and Financial Affairs (Ecofin): Composed of economics and finance ministers of the member states. It includes budgetary and eurozone matters via an informal group composed only of eurozone member ministers.
  • Agriculture and Fisheries: One of the oldest configurations, this brings together once a month the ministers for agriculture and fisheries, and the commissioners responsible for agriculture, fisheries, food safety, veterinary questions and public health matters.
  • Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA): This configuration brings together Justice ministers and Interior Ministers of the Member States. Includes civil protection.
  • Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO): Composed of employment, social protection, consumer protection, health and equal opportunities ministers.
  • Competitiveness: Created in June 2002 through the merging of three previous configurations (Internal Market, Industry and Research). Depending on the items on the agenda, this formation is composed of ministers responsible for areas such as European affairs, industry, tourism and scientific research.
  • Transport, Telecommunications and Energy: Created in June 2002, through the merging of three policies under one configuration, and with a composition varying according to the specific items on its agenda. This formation meets approximately once every two months.
  • Environment: Composed of environment ministers, who meet about four times a year.
  • Education, Youth and Culture (EYC): Composed of education, culture, youth and communications ministers, who meet around three or four times a year. Includes audiovisual issues.


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.

Civil Service

Secretary General Javier Solana
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.

Voting system

The Council is composed of national ministers for the relevant topic of discussion, with each minister representing their national government. Under qualified majority voting different states have different voting weights based on population. For example, a vote by Germany or France has weight 29 out of the total weight 345, whereas a vote by Cyprus or Latvia has only weight four. The complete list of voting weights is shown below:


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 six 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.

Political parties

The states of the European Union by the European party affiliations of their leaders, as of 6 October 2009
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.

Comparisons

The Council and the German Bundesrat, are both composed by representatives of the states governments
Although common in executive intergovernmental systems, as a legislature the Council has few institutions of comparison. The composition of the council can only be compared with the quite unique and unusual composition of the German upper house, the Bundesratmarker. Membership of the Bundesrat is limited to members of the governments of the states of Germany and can be recalled by those governments in the same manner as the EU's Council. They retain their state role while sitting in the Bundesrat and if their term ends when they are recalled by their state governments (who are solely responsible for their appointment) or they cease to sit in their state government. Elections are not coordinated among states, so government can come and go at any time, and the assembly can not be dissolved. Those members vote in their state blocks and can not cast fractioned votes, hence they do not act as individual members but as representatives of their state governments to that government's agreed line. The states have unequal voting powers, and decisions are taken by an absolute majority. Likewise, the presidency rotates equally between members, though each year rather than every six months like in the EU Council. However, unlike the EU's Council, the Bundesrat does not vary its composition depending on the topic being discussed.

Seat

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 Duchessmarker until the autumn of 1958, at which point it moved 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 buildingmarker, next to the Commission's Berlaymontmarker, 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 buildingmarker, 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. Since acquiring the Lex buildingmarker, the three aforementioned buildings are not used by the Council services any more as of 2008. Résidence Palacemarker 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.

Public access

Within the Council's debates, delegates may speak in any of the 23 official EU languages. Official documents are also translated into Catalan/Valencian, Basque, and Galician. Minutes and voting records are made available when the Council is acting as a legislator (published in the Official Journal of the European Union) and in co-decision matters meetings are open to the public via television or the internet. Certain other areas may be open to public viewing, such as presentation of programmes and priorities, opening deliberations on acts and issues of major public interest.

Future of the Council

The proposed Treaty of Lisbon largely retains the reforms outlined in the rejected Constitutional Treaty. The body would be renamed, officially becoming the Council of Ministers, with an official separation from the European Council (itself becoming an institution with a separate system of Presidency). Of particular note is a change in voting system for most cases to double majority Qualified Majority Voting, replacing the voting weights system. Decisions made by the council have to be taken by 55% of member states and 65% of the Union's population. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the implementation of this voting system would be delayed until 1 November 2014.

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 eighteen 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".

See also



References

External links




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