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European Union - Main EU Institutions

The Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers)

Members ministers of the 15 Member States. Presidency from 1 July 1995 rotates every six months in the following sequence: Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Finland, Portugal, France, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Greece. Meeting place Brussels, except in April, June and October when all Council meetings take place in Luxembourg

The Council of the European Union, usually known as the Council of Ministers, has no equivalent anywhere in the world. Here, the Member States legislate for the Union, set its political objectives, co-ordinate their national policies and resolve differences between themselves and with other institutions.

It is a body with the characteristics of both a supranational and intergovernmental organisation, deciding some matters by qualified majority voting, and others by unanimity. In its procedures, its customs and practices, and even in its disputes, the Council depends on a degree of solidarity and trust which is rare in relations between States.

Its democratic credentials should not be in doubt. Each meeting of the Council brings together Member States' representatives, usually ministers, who are responsible to their national parliaments and public opinions. Nowadays, there are regular meetings of more than 25 different types of Council meeting: General Affairs (Foreign Affairs ministers), Economy and Finance, and Agriculture meet monthly, others such as Transport, Environment and Industry meet two to four times a year.

In 1994, the Council held around 100 formal ministerial sessions during which it adopted about 300 regulations, 50 directives and 160 decisions.

The Presidency

The Presidency of the Council rotates between the Member States every six months: January until June, July until December. The Presidency's role has become increasingly important as the responsibilities of the Union have broadened and deepened. It must:


The Treaty on European Union based the Union's activities on three 'pillars' and established that mainly decisions should be taken either by qualified majority voting or by unanimity.

Pillar One covers a wide range of Community policies (such as agriculture, transport, environment, energy, research and development) designed and implemented according to a well-proven decision-making process which begins with a Commission proposal. Following a detailed examination by experts and at the political level, the Council can either adopt the Commission proposal, amend it or ignore it.

The Treaty on European Union increased the European Parliament's say through a co-decision procedure, which means that a wide range of legislation (such as internal market, consumer affairs, trans-European networks, education and health) is adopted both by the Parliament and the Council.

In the vast majority of cases (including agriculture, fisheries, internal market, environment and transport), the Council decides by a qualified majority vote with Member States carrying the following weightings:

Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom 10 votes, Spain 8 votes, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal 5 votes, Austria and Sweden 4 votes, Ireland, Denmark and Finland 3 votes, Luxembourg 2 votes. Total 87 votes.

When a Commission proposal is involved, at least 62 votes must be cast in favour. In other cases, the qualified majority is also 62 votes, but these must be cast by at least 10 Member States. In practice, the Council tries to reach the widest possible consensus before taking a decision so that, for example, only about 14% of the legislation adopted by the Council in 1994 was the subject of negative votes and abstentions.

Those policy areas in Pillar One which remain subject to unanimity include taxation, industry, culture, regional and social funds and the framework programme for research and technology development.

For the other two pillars created by the Treaty on European Union - Common Foreign and Security Policy (Pillar Two) and co-operation in the fields of Justice and Home Affairs (Pillar Three), the Council is the decision-maker as well as the promoter of initiatives. Unanimity is the rule in both pillars, except for the implementing of a joint action which can be decided by qualified majority.

The objectives of the Common Foreign and Security Policy are to define and implement an external policy covering all foreign and security aspects.

Co-operation in Justice and Home Affairs aims to achieve the free movement of persons inside the Union; promote measures of common interest in the fields of external border control, asylum policy, immigration policy; and fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and other serious forms of international crime.

European Council

Since 1974, Heads of State or Government meet at least twice a year in the form of the European Council or 'European Summit'. Its membership also includes the President of the Commission. The President of the European Parliament is invited to make a presentation at the opening session.

The European Council has become an increasingly important element of the Union, setting priorities, giving political direction, providing impetus for its development and resolving contentious issues that have proved too difficult for the Council of Ministers.

The European Council submits a report to the European Parliament after each of its meetings and an annual written report on the progress achieved by the Union.


Community law, adopted by the Council - or by the Parliament and Council in the framework of the co-decision procedure - may take the following forms:

Community legislation, as well as the Council's common positions transmitted to the European Parliament, are published in the Official Journal in all the official languages.


Each Member State has a national delegation in Brussels known as the Permanent Representation. These delegations are headed by Permanent Representatives, who are normally very senior diplomats and whose committee, called Coreper, prepares ministerial sessions. Coreper meets weekly and its main task is to ensure that only the most difficult and sensitive issues are dealt with at ministerial level.

Coreper is also the destination of reports from the many Council working groups of national experts. These groups make detailed examinations of Commission proposals and indicate, among other things, areas of agreement and disagreement.

The work of the Agriculture Council is prepared by senior Brussels-based representatives of Member States meeting weekly in the Special Committee on Agriculture.

The Secretariat-General provides the intellectual and practical infrastructure of the Council at all levels. It is an element of continuity in the Council proceedings and has the custody of Council acts and archives. Its Legal Service advises the Council and committees on legal matters. The Secretary-General is appointed by the Council acting unanimously.


The Council is making strong efforts to make more of its work accessible to the citizen. Votes on legislative matters, as well as the explanations of these votes, are now automatically made public.

The public has also been given some rights of access to Council documents and some Council discussions are transmitted audiovisually. Other attempts to improve transparency include briefings for journalists and the provision of background notes on subjects under discussion.

In addition, the Council's Press Service produces comprehensive press releases following Council meetings which are available on demand and through databases.

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