European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 11: The Councils

Return to full list of chapter notes.

The Council of Minister and the European Council are often confused with one another, but are quite different. The Council of Ministers consists of national government ministers and shades responsibility with the European Parliament for amending and voting on proposals for new European laws, and for approving the EU budget. The European Council, meanwhile, is the meeting place for the heads of government of the member states, in which they make strategic decisions, respond to crises, and discuss pressing economic and foreign policy problems.

Both institutions are primarily intergovernmental. Their members are representatives of the member states, and defend national interests while trying to balance them with the wider European interest. The ministers mainly use a system of qualified majority voting to make decisions, while the European Council relies on consensus, informality, and flexibility. Until Lisbon, both were directed by a presidency, held by a member state for rotating periods of six months. The European Council is now headed by its own president, appointed to limited terms by members of the Council. Meanwhile, the presidency of the Council of Ministers continues to be held by a member state, while its detailed work is undertaken by permanent representatives of the member states based in Brussels.

This chapter looks first at the changing role of the Council of Ministers in the EU decision-making process, and at the implications of qualified majority voting. It then looks at the work of the European Council, with an emphasis on the political dynamics of summitry, and on the effects of the new appointed president of the European Council. It argues that the work of the Council of Ministers has been too often overlooked, thanks mainly to the attention paid to the Commission.
  • ‘The Council’ is shorthand both for the Council of Ministers (where national government ministers make decisions on proposals for new laws) and for the European Council (where heads of government discuss broad strategic issues).
  • The Council of Ministers is headquartered in Brussels, its membership changing according to the policy area under discussion. It is both intergovernmental and confederal in nature.
  • Meetings of the Council are chaired by representatives from the presidency of the Council, which rotates among member states every six months.
  • Most of the work of the Council is undertaken by the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper), one of the most influential and most often overlooked institutions in the EU system of governance.
  • The main job of the Council is to decide – in conjunction with Parliament – which proposals for new European laws and policies will be adopted and which will not. It also shares powers with Parliament for approving the EU budget.
  • Most Council votes are taken using a qualified majority, with each member state given a number of votes roughly in proportion to the size of its population.
  • The European Council is much like a board of directors for the EU, meeting at least four times annually in Brussels to address broader issues.
  • The European Council uses summitry and bargaining, works on the basis of achieving a consensus, appoints its own president and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and plays a key role in the appointment of members of the College of Commissioners.
  • Since Lisbon there has been an appointed president of the European Council, whose job is to provide it with more direction and consistency.