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The Council of the European Union

INTRODUCTION

The role of the Council of the European Union remains unchanged. It shares law-making and budget power with the European Parliament and also has a role in defining and coordinating policies. However, the Treaty of Lisbon makes substantial changes in terms of the organisation of the Council’s work and internal structure.

The Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice had already made extensive changes to the system of voting in the Council in order to adapt it to the successive enlargements of the European Union (EU). The system of vote weighting has now been abolished and replaced by a new dual majority system. In addition, the Treaty of Lisbon improves the Council’s transparency by adding several provisions concerning its configurations and Presidency.

THE NEW DEFINITION OF QUALIFIED MAJORITY

The decision-making process within the Council is changing fundamentally. The earlier amending treaties had established a system of vote weighting. Each Member State had a certain number of votes depending on its demographic weight. Under this system, a decision was adopted only if a certain vote threshold was reached by a majority of Member States. Since 1 January 2007, a qualified majority was achieved if 255 out of 345 votes were cast by at least 14 Member States. The weighting of votes in the Council favoured the representation of small Member States compared with the larger States and was regularly the subject of long negotiations.

The Treaty of Lisbon simplifies the system with a view to improving its efficiency. It abolishes the weighting of votes and establishes a dual majority system for adopting decisions. From now on, a qualified majority is achieved if it covers at least 55% of Member States representing at least 65% of the population of the EU. Where the Council does not act on a proposal from the Commission, the qualified majority should cover at least 72% of Member States representing at least 65% of the population. This system therefore assigns a vote to each Member State while taking account of their demographic weight. The Treaty of Lisbon also provides for a blocking minority composed of at least four Member States representing over 35% of the EU population.

This new system of qualified majority voting will apply with effect from 1 November 2014. However, until 31 March 2017, any Member State may request, on a case by case basis, that a decision is taken in accordance with the rules in force before 1 November 2014 (i.e. in accordance with the qualified majority as defined by the Treaty of Nice).

In addition, Member States may request the application of the “Ioannina compromise” enshrined by the Treaty of Lisbon in Declaration No 7. This provision enables a group of Member States to demonstrate their opposition to a text even if the group is not large enough in number to constitute a blocking majority. In this case, the group of Member States must notify the Council of its opposition to the adoption of the act. The Council must then do everything within its power to find a satisfactory solution in order to address the concerns raised by the group of Member States. Moreover, these deliberations within the Council are completed within a reasonable period and should not prejudice the time-limits laid down by the law of the Union. The “Ioannina compromise” therefore remains, above all, a political compromise expressing the Council’s wish to find an agreement which satisfies as many Member States as possible on important issues.

The Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice greatly increased the scope of qualified majority voting. The Treaty of Lisbon confirms this trend. The Council now acts by qualified majority, except where the Treaties require a different procedure. Specifically, qualified majority voting is extended to new areas such as the common policy on asylum, culture or sport.

THE CONFIGURATIONS OF THE COUNCIL

For the sake of transparency, the Treaty of Lisbon specifies and clarifies the way in which the Council functions. The Council sits in different configurations, within which the competent Ministers of Member States meet. This practice is now laid down in the Treaty on European Union. The Treaty refers explicitly to two Council configurations:

  • the General Affairs Council, which is responsible for ensuring consistency in the work of the different Council configurations and for preparing for European Council meetings;
  • the Foreign Affairs Council, which is responsible for developing the foreign policies of the European Union.

The European Council adopts by qualified majority the list of other configurations in which the Council meets.

The Treaty of Lisbon also improves transparency in terms of decision-making within the Council. Like the European Parliament, the Council now sits in public when deliberating and voting on a legislative bill.

THE PRESIDENCY OF THE DIFFERENT COUNCIL CONFIGURATIONS

The Presidency of the different Council configurations continues to be held by representatives of the Member States on the basis of an equal rotation system. The Foreign Affairs Council is an exception, being chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Moreover, the rules on the exercise of the Presidency of the Council have been adopted by European Council Decision No 2009/881/EU.

SUMMARY TABLE

ArticlesSubject

Treaty on European Union

16

Role and composition of the Council of the EU

Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

237 to 243

Functioning of the Council of the EU
Last updated: 24.12.2009
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