Which Council?

Analysis by Louis VIS (Traduction Française)

The complexity of decision-making of the European Union (EU) and its institutions is one of the main causes behind the recent rise in Euroscepticism levels across the continent. Having previously explained the role of the European Commission and the European Parliament, we will now look at the role played by the various Councils found in Europe to clarify certain uncertainties.

The Council of the European Union:

The Netherlands currently hold the Presidency of the Council until 1st July 2016 – by Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Council of the European Union, which was set up in 1958 and previously known as the Council of Ministers, is one of the three main institutions in the EU with the European Commission and the European Parliament (EP). Its headquarters are in Brussels, Belgium and it is considered to be the voice of Member States and their national governments in the EU decision-making process. Indeed, it is in the Council that ministers from each European Member States meet on a regular basis and in various formations to share ideas and discuss various issues. Furthermore, the Council of the EU is characterised for its rotating presidency, whereby each Member State takes the presidency for a six-month period and thus becomes the driving force of the Council. Overall, the Council has several important roles. It passes EU laws; coordinates and sets goals for the EU’s economic and political policies; approves the EU’s budget; develops the EU’s foreign and security policies; it coordinates on criminal matters; and concludes international deals negotiated by the Commission on behalf of the EU. As a result, the Council is considered to be one of the most powerful main decision-making bodies in the EU due to the fact it adopts legislations in cooperation with the EP.

The European Council:

TharonXX CC BY 2.0
Donald Tusk is only the second President of the European Council – by TharonXX, licensed under CC B 2.0

Formally created in 1974, the European Council only officially became an EU institution after the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. Based in Brussels, it consists of leaders of all 28 Member States along with the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. Consequently, it is seen as the highest political body of the EU (yet smallest in terms of personnel) and usually meets four times a year to discuss any issues or problems that have not been dealt with at the lower levels of the EU’s institutions. In most cases, decisions are made via consensus and detailed in the form of European Council conclusions each time they meet. However, whilst it defines and outlines political priorities and the general direction for the EU’s political and economic agenda, the European Council is not a legislative body. Thus whilst its President chairs meetings of the European Council, sets the agenda for these meetings, and represents the EU during international summits, he/she (so far always a “he”) does not have executive power and has to work very closely with leaders of each Member States.

The Council of Europe (CoE):

NikNaks93  CC BY 3.0
Who’s part of what? – by NikNaks93, licensed under CC BY 3.0

To make matters worse, whilst both the Council of the EU and the European Council are often confused, a third supranational Council can confuse matters further: namely the Council of Europe (CoE). However, unlike the previous two Councils mentioned above, the CoE is not an EU institution. Founded on 5th May 1949, its creation predates that of the EU. Based in the French city of Strasbourg, the CoE has a total of 47 Members, many of which, such as Russia, Turkey and Georgia, are not part of the EU. Its purpose is to spread common and democratic principles based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) throughout Europe – albeit using a broad understanding as to where Europe’s frontier actually lies, and not always very successfully, as illustrated by the actions of President Putin in Russia and President Erdogan in Turkey.

With those distinctions in mind, one should therefore read articles and facts published by the mainstream media with caution. Indeed many (including ourselves) sometime end up confusing these distinctive yet similar institutions. Understandable really!


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