How Council Works
The work of the Council can be analysed in different manner. In this page, we look at:
- The organisational structure or how the Council is organised per formation around subjects;
- How the preparatory work leading to the Council meetings is conducted; and
- What the Council voting mechanisms are.
Councils are organised according to nine different configurations that basically reflect the broad themes handled at EU level, namely:
- General Affairs and External Relations (GAERC), which covers also the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) including the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).
- Economic and Financial Affairs (Ecofin), which also covers budget.
- Agriculture and Fisheries
- Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs (EPSCO)
- Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), including civil protection.
- Competitiveness (Comp), which covers Internal Market, Industry and Research, including tourism.
- Transport, Telecommunications and Energy (TTE)
- Environment (ENVI)
- Education, Youth and Culture (EYC), which also covers audiovisual affairs.
The Ministers attending the Council meetings will obviously vary according to the configuration, and in some cases of split portfolio, more than one minister will represent a Member State at a Council meeting.
The GAERC, Ecofin and Agriculture and Fisheries Councils meet every month, whilst the other configuration can be more irregular.
In practice, one a proposal for a decision from the Commission has been put before the Council, preparing the Council’s position begins in the numerous specialist working groups and committees. The work carried out in these preparatory bodies with the assistance of the General Secretariat is submitted, in principle, to the Committee of Permanent Representative (Coreper) which, unless it decides by simple majority or the Council decides unanimously, reviews every item on the agenda in advance of every Council meeting. This filtering of issues allows Council to focus mainly on the political issues, the technical matters having been solved upstream.
General Secretariat of the Council
The General Secretariat of the Council (or “Council Secretariat”) is made up of civil servants (about 3000) that assist the Council and its Presidency in multiple ways:
From an organisation point of view, the Secretariat ensures that the various meetings are properly prepared, assists in the drafting of reports (including in terms of legal advice), and is in charge of the handling of translations, records, documents, agendas, and more generally the tasks of the presidency. This is done both for the working parties, the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper), the Council of Ministers and the European Council.
The Secretariat also acts as an honest broker and provides legal advice at the EU’s intergovernmental conferences (IGC).
The General Secretariat is headed up by the Secretary General of the European Union (currently Pierre de Boissieu). It also comprises a legal service, eight directorates-general (named alphabetically from A to I) and a private office that assists the Secretary-General and his Deputy.
Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper)
The Committee of Permanent Representatives ensures that Member States have a permanent presence at the European Union’s headquarters. It also enables the Council to focus on the major political issues at their meetings, most of the other issues having been prepared and dealt with at Coreper level. Coreper can only however issue non-binding guidelines to the Council, although generally the Council confirms the agreements reached by Coreper. In practice, it is estimated that 80 to 90% of Council decisions have been struck at Coreper level!
There are two configurations of Coreper, each of them meeting at least weekly:
- Coreper (part 2) or “Coreper II” brings together the Permanent Representatives (that generally hold the rank of Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary) and deals with politically sensitive areas or institutional and general issues (e.g. General Affairs, Ecofin, Justice and Home Affairs). Coreper II meets normally on Thursdays, except the weeks preceding the meetings of the Council for General Affairs and the Ecofin Council, when they meet on Wednesdays.
- Coreper (part 1) or “Coreper I” brings together the Deputy Permanent Representatives and deals with more technical matters (e.g. employment, competitiveness, transport, telecommunications, energy, agriculture, environment, education). Coreper I meets Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays as well.
The Permanent Representatives and their deputies act in both cases on instructions from their national authorities.
Both Corepers try to reach an agreement on decisions before submitting them to the Council. If they have achieved such an agreement, than the Council generally adopts it as an “A point” (approval without debate). If some issues were not solved through Coreper negotiations, than the item appears as a “B point” on the agenda and is subject to debate.
The agenda of Coreper follows the same organisation, as items that have been agreed on in the Council working groups appear on Part I of the agenda and are generally (but not necessarily) approved without debate, whilst items under Part II must be examined. Moreover, when looking at a Coreper agenda, one can see sometimes see items marked “as the case may be”: these can be deleted by the chair at short notice.
Coreper must also carry out any task the Council assigns to it, which usually covers cases where the Council requests further study of a dossier or a report on a specific issue.
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Committees can only be set up by Council or Coreper or with their approval, although a number of Special Committees were set up by Treaties to coordinate the Council’s activities in particular areas, and the Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA) was specifically set up by the European Council in 1960. These special Committees are referred to as “High-level” Committees and the main ones are:
- Economic and Financial Committee
- Article 133 Special Committee (Committee 133), dealing with tariffs and trade in the area of the Common Trade Policy.
- Political and Security Committee
- Article 36 Coordinating Committee, dealing with the area if police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.
- Economic Policy Committee
- European Union Military Committee (EUMC)
- Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA)
Working Groups can only be set up by Council or Coreper or with their approval. There are ad hoc groups that have a limited time span, and “standing” groups that deal with specific sectors.
A special set of horizontal Working Groups responsible specifically for preparing Coreper meetings are the Antici Group (preparatory Group for Coreper II), the Mertens Group (preparatory Group for Coreper I) and the Friends of the Presidency Group (ad hoc body studying the multidisciplinary aspects of specific issues).
The Mertens and Antici Groups are made up of the personal assistants of respectively the Coreper I and Coreper II members and meet the day before the Coreper meetings. They finalise with the help of the General Secretariat Cabinet and a member of the Legal Service the order of the Coreper agenda, the items that can be raised under “any other business” and the final list of reservations expressed by Member States on specific documents.
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The Council votes by simple majority, qualified majority or unanimity, depending on the subject matter and/or the legislative procedure stage at which a vote is cast.
With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, qualified majority votes have become the rule as many areas previously requiring unanimity have now moved under the qualified majority voting rule (e.g. external border control, asylum, immigration, etc.).
a) THE RULE UNTIL AT LEAST 2014
Obtaining a qualified majority within Council will require a combination of two criteria:
- The votes must represent 55% of EU Member States (i.e. at 27, 15 Member States); and
- The votes must represent 65% of the EU’s population.
4 Member States are needed to have a blocking minority, which will actually reduce the possibility to block legislation considerably compared to the post-Lisbon Treaty system, where a combination of three of the biggest EU Member States was sufficient (as they easily met the need to represent 35 % of the Union’s population).
However, this rule will not apply from 1 December 2009 onwards, as Poland required the adoption of a transitional rule (the “Ionnina Compromise”) to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, and will only enter into force at the earliest in 2014.
b) UNTIL THEN: THE “IONNINA COMPROMISE”
The purpose of the “Ionnina Compromise” (called after the Greek town at which the Foreign Affairs Ministers struck a deal in 1994 which inspired this measure) is to facilitate the reaching of blocking minorities.
Under this transitional rule, a small number of countries can force the Council to continue discussing an act even if they do not have a proper blocking minority and a qualified majority was reached. To make this request, two criteria must be met:
- Either 75% of the number of Member States necessary for the formation of a blocking minority (i.e. 3 at present), or
- 75% of the population necessary for the formation of a blocking minority.
If one of these criteria is met, Council must try to reach a broader agreement. This process cannot however be to the detriment of any of the deadlines set in place in the Treaty or by other rules and can therefore not be compared to an indefinite power of veto.
This Ionnina Compromise will remain in force until at least 2014. From 2014 onwards, the compromise can be repealed by a European decision, which requires a qualified majority.