The Council of the European Union—sometimes informally referred to as the “Council of Ministers,” or more simply, the “Council”—is the oldest of all E.U. governing institutions. Its genesis can be traced to the early treaties establishing a common European market. The Council of the European Union should not be confused with the European Council, a separate E.U. institution discussed in the next Module. Nor should it be confused with the Council of Europe, a distinction we discuss further below. When reference is made simply to the “Council,” this is a reference to the Council of the European Union—not the European Council or the Council of Europe.
The Council is comprised of one representative from each member state of the European
This representative is intended to speak on behalf of the nation it represents, and it may cast its vote on behalf of that
The representative, therefore, is ultimately accountable to the citizens of the member state that it represents, along with that member state’s national parliament.
The Council is led by a President, a position that rotates among member states every six months on an equal
The role of the President is to preside over meetings of the Council, set its agenda, and represent the Council in its relationship with the European Commission and
a. The Role of the Council
Under the modern E.U. framework, the Council plays a legislative, political, and budgetary role—similar to the European Parliament. Article 16(1) of the Treaty on European Union, as amended, provides: “The Council shall, jointly with the European Parliament, exercise legislative and budgetary functions. It shall carry out policy-making and coordinating functions as laid down in the Treaties” governing the
As discussed in the preceding Module, there are three primary procedures used to enact legislation in the E.U. In the ordinary procedure, both the Council and Parliament must agree on legislation. In the consultative procedure, the Council has sole authority to enact legislation, though it must consult the Parliament in a non-binding process. In either procedure, the Council has authority to amend proposed legislation before its adoption. As noted previously, data protection legislation must be adopted according to the ordinary legislative procedure. Therefore, the Council plays a roughly equal role with the Parliament in the development of such legislation.
When the Council meets to deliberate and vote on draft legislation, it must conduct such meetings in
The text of the Treaty on European Union is silent on whether the Council’s meetings must be open to the public when it meets for purposes other than exercising its legislative functions. Presumably, therefore, such meetings can be held in private.
b. The Functioning of the Council
The voting procedure within the Council is governed by the treaties establishing the E.U. In some cases, members are permitted only one vote each. But, in other instances, members are permitted several votes based upon the percentage of the E.U. population that the member represents.
Acts by the Council can include both regulations and directives. Additionally, however, the acts of the Council can take the form of decisions, common actions, common positions, recommendations, opinions, conclusions, declarations, or resolutions. The treaties establish whether a simple majority, qualified majority, or unanimous consent are necessary to take any of these listed actions.
The Council is intended to function as a unified entity. When the Council meets, however, it does not necessarily meet as a collective group. Rather, the Treaty on European Union calls for the Council to “meet in different
There are currently ten different configurations, which include: (1) Agriculture and Fisheries; (2) Competitiveness; (3) Economic and Financial Affairs; (4) Education, Youth, Culture, and Sport; (5) Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs; (6) Environment; (7) Foreign Affairs; (8) General Affairs; (9) Justice and Home Affairs; and (10) Transport, Telecommunications and
c. Distinction from the Council of Europe
As noted above, the Council of the European Union should not be confused with the European Council, another E.U. institution. It is equally as important, however, not to confuse the Council of the European Union with the Council of Europe.
The Council of Europe was first established in 1949 as a consultative
Unlike the Council of the European Union and the European Council, the Council of Europe is
not an institution of the E.U. Rather, the Council of Europe is an international organization of 47 member states that is entirely separate from the E.U. In its early years, it produced the European Convention on Human
“[T]he aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its Members for the purpose of safeguarding and realizing the ideals and principles which are their common heritage, and facilitating their economic and social
In contrast, the European Union is a political and economic union of 27 member states (following the exit of the United Kingdom). Every member of the European Union is also a member of the Council of Europe. Being a part of the Council of Europe, however, is not a prerequisite for inclusion into the European Union.
Explanatory Note: Another distinction to be aware of is that between the E.U. and the European Economic Area (“EEA”). The EEA consists of all E.U. member states, along with non-member states of Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Norway. The EEA is based on a 1994 agreement, which allows these non-member states to participate fully in the E.U.’s internal market. Switzerland is not a member of the EEA, but it has a set of bilateral agreements with the E.U. that also permits it to take part in Europe’s internal market.