The EU-institutions: the Council of the European Union

This article is the first of a series that aims at exploring the EU-institutions as we know them nowadays. We often hear that the functioning of the EU is complicated, which is why I have decided to write about it. I will both try to show you how it works, and how rigid and bureaucratic its framework sometimes is.

To sum up, there are several main institutions in the EU, and they all represent different interests. This first article will be dedicated to the Council of the European Union (not to be mistaken with the European Council), which represents the interests of the Member States at ministerial level (the interests of the 28 governments that is). It is, as most institutions, located in the capital city of the EU, which corresponds to Brussels, Belgium. So, remember that Belgium has fries, waffles, (some) (very) bad jokes, (some) (very) good beers, two official languages (French and Dutch), and EU-institutions. The aim of the Council of the EU is to ensure the insertion of the member States within the community process.

For the records (and for you history freaks), the Council of the EU was originally created in 1958 under the name “Council of the European Economic Community (EEC)”, and was renamed as “Council of Ministers” after the 1965 Treaty of Brussels (also known as Merger Treaty) since the fact that each government shall send one of its members was provided for in this treaty. Then of course, the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 added that the Council shall be integrated by a representative of each Member State authorized to engage the government of this State, which implies that infra-state members could sit at the Council (which happens mostly in theory). You have probably realized it, but it was then impossible to call it “Council of Ministers”, so “Council of the European Union” seemed more adapted. Very subtle, right? I know it is a bit confusing at first – all the more so that there is another institution called European Council as said before – but so are the laws of cricket and new feminism. Anyways, it now works like a college of permanent representatives from the 28 Member States governments, which eventually is what really matters.

The Council of the EU does not meet on a regular basis: meetings are not weekly, or monthly, they depend on what needs to be discussed at a certain time. We can classify these Council meetings into three possible configurations:

1) The general configuration encompasses the representatives who know the European issues and functioning generally speaking (the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Member States for instance);

2) The sector-specific/specialized configuration is divided into nine sub-formations: Foreign Affairs; Agriculture and Fisheries; Competitiveness; Economic and Financial Affairs; Education, Youth, Culture and Sports; Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs; Environment; Justice and Home Affairs; and Transport, Telecommunications and Energy. That means that the specialized representatives will sit according to the agenda of the day: if the meeting is about Environment, then the Ministers of Environment will sit. The problem with the specialized configuration is pretty obvious: some policies and areas are linked to others: the so-important Common Agricultural Policy (configuration “Agriculture and Fisheries”) for instance is related to the economic policy (configuration “Economic and Financial Affairs”). Now, you can’t really expect a Minister of Agriculture to know much about European economic policies, can you?

3) The joint configuration: this is the least common configuration, during which a specialized representative and the representatives for Foreign Affairs sit together. These meetings are called “jumbo sessions”. This could basically be the answer to the specialized configurations problem, except that it is quite heavy, so it cannot be used as often as necessary because it would paralyze pretty much everything. In other words: it isn’t much of a lifesaver.

The organs of the Council of the EU are determined by two different sources: the treaties, and the rules and regulations of the Council itself.

First, let’s take a look at the Council Presidency: it rotates every six months between the 28 Member States. The Member State holding the Presidency has to work closely with the two next Presidencies, which is called the Presidency trio.The Netherlands currently hold the Presidency (until the 30th of June), then Slovakia will be up, and then Malta, meaning the three of them currently have to work together. The Presidency trio of the Council sets the general agenda for the next 18 months.

Over the years, the Presidency of the Council has gained power since it now has the role of coordinator of EU-community policies. In addition, the President can sit in meetings of other institutions and propose amendments, but he cannot cast a vote.

Of course, it was quite predictable that the rotation of the Member States would also follow rules: originally, the Presidency was decided upon alphabetical order according to the names of the Member States in their original language, but with the enlargements of 2004, there were actually much more small States than big States. That was too risky for big countries’ interests, which did not want to stay away from the Presidency for too long, so it has hence been decided that the rotation of the Member States holding the Presidency should be decided as follows: among the current country having the Presidency, the one that had it just before and the one that will have it right after, one should be a “big” country (Germany, the UK, France, Italy, or Spain). Now we are on a counter-example: the Netherlands have it, then it will be Slovakia, and beforehand it was Luxemburg. This rule is a bit silly since it is not really manageable (there are only five big countries, so it is basic mathematics – and yes maths come in very handy when it comes to EU-laws in case you were wondering) and there are almost more counter-examples than valid examples, but hey, it is the rule!

The General Secretariat of the Council is made up of eight general directions, where about 3500 civil servants work. The General Secretariat is led by a Secretary-General, who is appointed by the Council unanimously for five years (currently, Danish Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen is the Secretary-General). The role of the General Secretariat is to assist the Council in its organization on two levels: the financial level (it manages the funds of the Council), and the logistics level (it helps preparing the agendas and the reports of the meetings). It kind of works as a Council Cabinet.

The COREPER stands for “Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union” (no joke, this is the actual name, so let’s stick to COREPER). It represents the States to the other institutions permanently. But it is not that easy: one COREPER would not be enough, so to confuse people there are two of them: COREPER 1 consists of the deputy permanent representatives and deals with less important matters, so let’s not waste our time with it. COREPER 2, however, is a much bigger deal since it consists of the permanent representatives and handles fundamental issues such as Foreign Affairs, Economic and Financial Affairs, Justice and Home Affairs, and General Affairs. Only specialists designated by the States (one per State) can sit in it, so it is kind of an exclusive club in Brussels.

The COREPER is a place of dialogue for the various permanent representatives of the States with each others, and between the permanent representatives and their capital city. That gives some sort of a sense of community. Its second role is to maintain a certain control on the activities of the Council as it works as a filter between various pending dossiers within the Council, and decides whether these dossiers (which altogether make up for the agendas of the day when there are meetings) should be known by the Ministers. For more democracy, Member States or the European Commission can require that a point be integrated within the agenda of the day. But the integration of a point is not so easy obviously: it has to be required at least 16 days ahead of the meeting so that it can be decided whether it will appear on the agenda of the day.

On top of that and to once again make things even more difficult than they really need to be, the COREPER bears another name regarding Agriculture and Fisheries: the Special Committee on Agriculture.

As far as the rules and ways of voting are concerned, the Council votes on matters that have been written on the agenda of the day. There are two parts on the agenda of the day: in part A are all the points that require an approval of the Council without any further debate, however if there are debates the dossier is sent back to the COREPER; in part B we can find all the points that require a debate, but if the Ministers are unable to agree with each other, the dossier is sent back to the COREPER as well.

There are rules regarding the votes: the States vote in alphabetical order, and the State that votes first is the one that follows alphabetically (in the language of the country) the country that has the Presidency of the Council. I know, that is not very important, but it is too tempting to show how preposterously bureaucratic the EU really is. Please note that it is possible for a country to delegate its vote to another State in case its representative cannot be there, providing that the country to which it gives its delegation does not already have a delegation from another country since only one delegation per country is allowed – I mean, that country could actually cheat with two delegations, and not with one, right?

Now, various types of votes exist depending on the matter, for which the meaning of the word “majority” is different. These different types are provided for in the treaties. In fact, three majority types exist: the simple majority (believe me, this is as simple as it gets) means that the number of positive votes must be superior to the number of negative votes (currently, that means 15 positive votes out of 28 Member States). This is a common way of voting, and the States appeal to it whenever the treaties do not specify otherwise – which of course they do most of the time. This applies mostly to procedure decisions. The unanimous vote means that every single State has to agree with each other, which implies that countries do have a veto (abstention is not considered as a veto in this case). After the Single European Act, this way of voting was extended to two fields in particular: those considered “sensitive” (taxation, culture for instance), and those deemed to be “essential” (some aspects of the economic and monetary Union, of institutional-related matters, etc.). Finally, the qualified majority vote (or double majority as it is now known) is the most frequent method (about 80% of all EU-laws follow this procedure): before 2014, the bigger the State, the more power it had since every State was granted a certain number of votes (29 for France, Germany, Italy and the UK, 3 for Malta, and 260 votes out of 352 were required to obtain a qualified majority), which was unfair since most States were small after the 2005 enlargements and big States basically only had to get together to pass a law; however, since 2014, the rules have changed, and for a proposal to be accepted, 55% of the Member States, representing at least 65% of the EU-population, have to vote in favor (hence the “double majority” name). The goal of this new system is to make the EU more democratic and to encourage States-alliances. Now, that shows how hard it is for the EU to move towards more democratic principles, because this adds up to the complexity and the bureaucracy that no one actually understands. If making things impossible to understand is democratic, then the EU is great at its job. However, until 2017, Member States can require that the vote system that was in place before 2014 still prevail.

At the beginning, the role of the Council of the EU was minor since the voting method was unanimity. However, this changed, and its role is now dominant. It is a bit of a hybrid organ within the EU since its attributions range from the legislative power to the executive power.

Its legislative power revolves around three categories of legal instruments: it can adopt directives (States-oriented legislative act, meaning that the States must transpose the directive in their own internal legal frameworks so as to achieve a goal set by the EU), regulations (binding legislative act that is directly applicable across the EU), and decisions (directly applicable to the recipients specified in the decision, also binding).

Its executive functions are slightly more complicated: before the Lisbon-Treaty (2009, which updated the functioning of the EU-institutions), the Council of the EU had executive competences, but it could also delegate them to the European Commission – which it actually did a lot. In order to control the delegations of competences that it had made, it could use committees of management and regulation. There were so many of these committees that it eventually gave birth to the term “comitology”. Since Lisbon, this system has been revoked – in theory only: in certain fields, the Council must execute the decisions itself (free competition, Foreign Affairs). But for the rest, it still is up to the Council whether to delegate or not and hence go on with the “comitology” or not.

In addition, it is worth adding that the Council is responsible for coordinating the policies of the Member States by adopting recommendations (suggestion of a line of action that does not impose any legal obligation on those to whom it is addressed) to bring national points of view closer.

Finally, I would like to share my personal point of view. Yes, there are a lot of (silly) rules in place, and yes one can wonder who on Earth gets paid to come up with some of them, but we need not to forget that there are 28 members and 508 million people, and that if there are not enough rules, then the EU cannot work. It seems to be exaggerated sometimes (vote system with the first country to vote being the one that follows alphabetically the State holding the Presidency, unanimous vote blocking many decisions, etc.), but these rules eventually come from demands from the Member States. They are in place because they do not want to go far enough as far as solidarity is concerned, because Member States do not trust each other. Now, I am one of those people who firmly believe that the EU cannot work efficiently with 28 countries that are all so different and that want to put their national interests first, and sure the Council of the EU does not represent the citizens directly, but either way these rules are in place because the practice has needed them at some point to be in place. The Member States and the peoples of the EU need to understand that things would be worse without the EU, and that it is not a threat to their interests but rather the solution to their problems – solution that they have come up with themselves, because we need to remember who takes all those decisions eventually: the Member States themselves and their representatives (at least in the Council), not the EU as an entity. That is why as long as the societies won’t be included by the Member States themselves, the EU won’t be able to respond to their needs and they will grow more and more apart. The problem is the same at EU-level and at national-level, so I will once again come to the same conclusion: do not wait for a change in the EU, wait for a change in your respective countries, because this is the only way that the EU will ever change. Be this change.


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