The Council of the European Union

The Council, frequently referred to as the Council of Ministers, is the most important decision-making body within the EU. Like the European Parliament, the Council was founded in the nineteen fifties by the founding treaties of the European Community. It represents member states. Meetings are attended by one government minister from each member state. The composition of the Council depends on the issue on the agenda.

The Council can take a total of nine different forms:

  • General Affairs and External Relations

  • Economic and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN)

  • Justice and Home Affairs (JHA)

  • Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs

  • Competitiveness

  • Transport, Telecommunications and Energy

  • Agriculture and Fisheries

  • Environment

  • Education, Youth and Culture

The relations between the EU and all other countries are dealt with by the General Affairs and External Relations Council. This body is responsible for both general affairs and all foreign policy measures of the Union, including common foreign and security policy, European security and defence policy, foreign trade, and development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. The development ministers of all member states meet once every six months and lay down the fundamental principles of European development policy. These decisions are prepared at working level by the Council's working groups.

When the Treaty of Lisbon comes into force, the General Affairs and External Relations Council will be broken down into a General Affairs Council and an External Relations Council. The External Relations Council will then no longer be chaired by the rotating EU Council presidency but by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The High Representative will represent the Union in the fields of common foreign and security policy. In the name of the Union he or she will conduct the political dialogue with non-member states, and will represent the points of view of the Union within international organisations and at international conferences. He or she will be assisted in the discharge of these duties by the European External Action Service.

Under the current rotating EU Council presidency, each EU member state in turn holds the presidency of the EU for a period of six months. The nation holding the presidency chairs the Council, in whatever form it is meeting, and sets the political priorities. The sequence in which nations assume the presidency is fixed.

European Council

Unlike the Council of the European Union, the European Council is not currently an organ of the European Community. Under the provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon it would become an organ of the EU. The heads of state and government of member states meet with the President of the European Commission up to four times a year, and are known collectively as the European Council. The European Council gives the Union the impetus it needs for its future development and lays down the general political objectives and priorities required to this end. It does not legislate. Under the provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon the European Council would no longer be chaired by the rotating EU Council presidency but by a President who would be elected for a term of two and a half years.

The positions of the heads of government not only lay down the direction for the work of the Commission, but serve as references for the administrations of member states. The negotiating style is marked by the use of negotiation packages, in which demands and concessions in several policy areas are weighed up against one another.

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