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EUROPA > Summaries of legislation > The Institutions of the Union

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The Institutions of the Union


The European Council


Introduction
Debates in the Convention
General provisions
The composition of the European Council
The President of the European Council
Other provisions
Summary table

INTRODUCTION

The Constitution reviews the basic institutional set-up of the European Union (EU) . Article I-19 of the Constitutional Treaty lists the institutions and includes the European Council, the meeting of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, among them, together with Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the Court of Justice.

The European Councils, which were held on an irregular basis from the early 1960s and more consistently from 1974, have played a key role in European integration. The nature and role of the European Council were gradually established through practical experience. The European Council was first mentioned in the Single Act but not established as an institution. The Treaty on European Union (EU Treaty) defined the European Council's role, which is to provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and shall define the general political guidelines thereof. In addition, the EU Treaty gave the European Council specific roles in relation to the common foreign and security policy (CFSP) and economic and monetary union (EMU).

Clarification was necessary because ordinary citizens were confused about the activities of the institutions. Thus, the Council of Ministers normally consists of representatives of the Member States meeting at ministerial level but it may also consist of the Heads of State or Government, who meet to discuss matters of particular importance.

The Constitutional Treaty removes this confusion and makes a clear distinction between the European Council and the Council of Ministers, clearly outlining the tasks and composition of each institution.

In order to underline this difference even more clearly, the European Council is given a stable president who will hold office for two-and-a-half years, which is a new institutional arrangement designed to lend a degree of visibility and stability to the Presidency of the European Council.

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DEBATES IN THE CONVENTION AND THE IGC

The Convention discussed at length the possibility of establishing a permanent President of the European Council to replace the existing system of rotating Presidencies (a new Presidency every six months).

The compromise reached within the Convention and confirmed at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) is based on the appointment of a President with clearly-defined powers who will ensure the coherence of the European Council's work and raise its profile without jeopardising the institutional balance within the Union.

The role of the European Council is now defined in three Articles of the draft Constitutional Treaty: Article I-21 sets out the general arrangements, Article I-22 defines the role of the President of the European Council and Article III-341 lays down more specific arrangements concerning the operation of the institutions.

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GENERAL PROVISIONS

The Constitutional Treaty establishes the European Council as an institution of the Union and gives it a clearly-defined role, distinguishing its work from that of the Council of Ministers. Article I-21 thus repeats the definition of the role of the European Council in the Union's development: "The European Council shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and shall define the general political directions and priorities thereof". As regards the Union's external action, the Constitution stipulates that the European Council will identify the strategic interests and objectives of the Union (Article III-293). However, the practical implementation of policies is the responsibility of the other institutions (Commission, European Parliament, Council). The European Council nevertheless plays a more practical role in the common foreign and security policy.

Secondly, the Constitution stipulates that certain decisions, of a more constitutional nature, will be taken by the European Council, such as those relating to the composition of the European Parliament (Article I-20), the arrangements for the rotating Presidency of the Council (Article I-24), the system of equal rotation for the composition of the Commission (Article I-26), the suspension of the rights of a Member State in the event of a serious and persistent breach of the values of the Union (Article I-59) and the changeover from a legal basis of unanimous voting to qualified majority voting (Article IV-445).

The European Council plays a key role as regards nominations: for example, it proposes the President of the Commission to the European Parliament (Article I-27) and appoints, in agreement with the President of the Commission, the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs (Article I-28).

The Constitution points out that the European Council does not exercise legislative functions. All European laws or framework laws must be adopted by the Council of Ministers, in most cases jointly with the European Parliament. However, the European Council can also be called upon to debate a legislative act in cases which are clearly defined in the Constitution (so-called "emergency brake" procedure).

Finally, the Constitution stipulates that decisions of the European Council are taken by consensus, except where the Constitutional Treaty provides otherwise.

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THE COMPOSITION OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL

The European Council consists of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, together with its President and the President of the Commission. The Union Minister for Foreign Affairs takes part in its work. When the agenda so requires, its members may decide to be assisted by a minister responsible for the area in question and, in the case of the President of the Commission, by a European Commissioner. The President of the European Parliament may be invited to be heard by the European Council (Article III-341).

The European Council meets quarterly, convened by its President (Article I-21). When the situation so requires, the President may convene a special meeting of the European Council.
The number of meetings is therefore revised upwards (the Treaty on European Union states that it meets at least twice per year) and brought into line with current practice.

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THE PRESIDENT OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL

As proposed by the Convention, the Constitutional Treaty establishes a permanent President of the European Council, who will take on the work currently assigned to rotating Presidencies. Article I-22 sets out the tasks assigned to and the arrangements for the election of this new figure in European politics.
He/she will be elected by qualified majority, for a term of two and a half years, renewable once. In the event of an impediment or serious misconduct, the European Council can end his or her mandate according to the same procedure.

He/she will chair the European Council and drive forward its work, and ensure its proper preparation and continuity in cooperation with the President of the Commission, on the basis of the General Affairs Council's work. The President also endeavours to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council and presents a report to the European Parliament after each of its meetings.

The President will also, at his or her level, ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the responsibilities of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Finally, the Constitution stipulates that the President of the European Council may not hold a national mandate at the same time. It will therefore be impossible for a sitting Head of Government of a Member State to be President of the European Council, as is the case today. This is because of the burden of work associated with the Presidency of the European Council, particularly in an enlarged Union of 25 Member States. However, this does not prevent the President of the European Council from holding another mandate at the same time within another European institution. This allows for the possibility, in future, of combining the functions of President of the European Council with those of the President of the Commission, if the Member States so wish.

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OTHER PROVISIONS

Article III-341 lays down other provisions which are necessary if the European Council is to operate effectively. Where the Constitutional Treaty provides for a vote, any member of the European Council may also act on behalf of not more than one other member. An abstention does not prevent the adoption of an act which requires unanimity.

The European Council establishes its procedural rules by a simple majority. It is assisted by the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers and therefore does not have its own administration.

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SUMMARY TABLE

Articles Subject Comments
I-19 The Union's institutions Major changes
I-21 The European Council New rules
I-22 The President of the European Council New rules
I-27 The President of the Commission -
I-28 The Minister of Foreign Affairs New rules
III-341 Provisions governing the institutions - The European Council New rules

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The fact sheets are not legally binding on the European Commission. They do not claim to be exhaustive and do not represent an official interpretation of the text of the Constitution.


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