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Council of the European Union

Also informally known as the EU Council, this is where national ministers from each EU country meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies.

Not to be confused with:

  • European Council – another EU institution, where EU leaders meet around 4 times a year to discuss the EU’s political priorities
  • Council of Europe – not an EU body at all.

What does it do?

  1. Passes EU laws.
  2. Coordinates the broad economic policies of EU member countries.
  3. Signs agreements between the EU and other countries.
  4. Approves the annual EU budget
  5. Develops the EU's foreign and defence policies.
  6. Coordinates cooperation between courts and police forces of member countries.

1. Passing EU laws

The Council and Parliament share the final say on new EU laws proposed by the Commission.

2. Coordinating economic policies

EU member countries have decided they want an overall economic policy for Europe, coordinated by the economics and finance ministers of each country.

A further objective is to create more jobs and improve education, healthcare and welfare systems. Although each country is responsible for its own policy, they can agree on common goals and learn from each other’s experience.

3. Signing international agreements

The Council signs agreements on behalf of the EU – on subjects as diverse as the environment, trade, development, textiles, fisheries, science, technology and transport.

4. Approving the EU budget

The money the EU can spend every year is decided jointly by the Council and the European Parliament.

5. Foreign and defence policy

National governments have independent control in these areas, but are working together to develop a joint foreign and defence policy (known as the 'Common Foreign and Security Policy'). The Council is the main forum for this cooperation.

The EU does not have an army. But to help it respond more quickly to international conflicts and natural disasters, some EU countries provide troops for a rapid reaction force, whose role is limited to humanitarian work, rescues and peace-keeping.

6. Justice

EU citizens should have equal access to justice anywhere in the EU. In the Council, justice ministers strive to ensure that court judgements in one EU country – on divorce cases, for instance – are recognised in all other EU countries.

Justice and interior ministers coordinate the policing of the EU’s external borders, and the fight against terrorism and international organised crime.

Who are the members of the Council?

There are no fixed members as such. At each Council meeting, each country sends the minister for the policy field being discussed – e.g. the environment minister for the meeting dealing with environmental matters. That meeting will then be known as the "Environment Council".

Who chairs the meetings?

The foreign ministers’ Council has a permanent chairperson – the EU's High Representative for foreign and security policy.

All other Council meetings are chaired by the relevant minister of the country holding the rotating EU presidency.

For example, any environment Council meeting in the period when Estonia holds the presidency will be chaired by the Estonian environment minister.

Presidencies 2011-2020

  • Hungary January-June 2011
  • Poland July-December 2011
  • Denmark January-June 2012
  • Cyprus July-December 2012
  • Ireland January-June 2013
  • Lithuania July-December 2013
  • Greece January-June 2014
  • Italy July-December 2014
  • Latvia January-June 2015
  • Luxembourg July-December 2015
  • Netherlands January-June 2016
  • Slovakia July-December 2016
  • Malta January-June 2017
  • United Kingdom July-December 2017
  • Estonia January-June 2018
  • Bulgaria July-December 2018
  • Austria January-June 2019
  • Romania July-December 2019
  • Finland January-June 2020

Voting

Decisions in the Council of the EU are taken by qualified majority as a general rule. The bigger a country’s population, the more votes it has, but in fact the numbers are weighted in favour of the less populous countries:

  • Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom: 29 votes
  • Spain and Poland: 27
  • Romania: 14
  • Netherlands: 13
  • Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and Portugal: 12
  • Austria, Bulgaria and Sweden: 10
  • Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Finland: 7
  • Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia: 4
  • Malta: 3

TOTAL: 352

When the Council votes, 'qualified majority voting' applies. A qualified majority is reached when:

  • a majority (sometimes even two thirds) of the 28 EU countries vote in favour
  • at least 260 of the possible 352 votes are cast

Furthermore, a member country can ask for a check to see whether the majority represents minimum 62% of the total population. If this is not the case, the proposal cannot be adopted.

In votes concerning sensitive topics - like security and external affairs and taxation - decisions by the Council have to be unanimous. This means that one single country can veto a decision.

From 2014 a system known as 'double majority voting' will be introduced.

For a proposal to go through, it will need the support of 2 types of majority: a majority of countries (at least 15) and a majority of the total EU population (the countries in favour must represent at least 65% of the EU population).