Council of ministers (Europe)

The Council of Ministers, typically referred to as just 'the Council', is the EU's main decision-making and legislative body. In conjunction with the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers forms the EU's legislature.

The Council of Ministers should not be confused either with the European Council or the Council of Europe. The former is a distinct EU institution that is discussed under below. The latter is an international body, completely separate from the EU, set up in 1949 with the aim of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law within its 40 member states.

The Council of Ministers comprises ministers from each member state with responsibility for the policy area under discussion. As such, the Council of Ministers is not a body that has a fixed membership – rather it is a legislative concept that is given expression at any given time in one of nine distinct 'councils'.

1. General affairs and external relations Council
2. Economic and financial affairs council (ECOFIN)
3. Justice and home affairs council
4. Employment, social policy, health and consumer affairs council
5. Competitiveness (internal market, industry and research) council
6. Transport, telecommunications and energy council
7. Agriculture and fisheries council
8. Environment council
9. Education, youth and culture council

The general affairs council (GAC) discusses international policy and general policy matters – it is comprised of member states' foreign ministers or ministers with responsibility for EU matters. The GAC and ECOFIN are regarded as the most 'senior' Councils. The GAC, ECOFIN and the agriculture council meet every month, while the other councils meet between twice and four times per year.

Between actual meetings of the Council of Ministers, the work of the councils is carried on by a set of national delegations or 'permanent representations'. They interact with one another in a body called the committee of permanent representatives, or COREPER, which meets around once a week.

There are in fact a number of bodies under the COREPER heading.

COREPER 2 – the senior body, comprising the permanent representatives and their staffs, which typically works primarily for the GAC and ECOFIN.
Special committee on agriculture (SCA) – this comprises senior staff from the permanent representations and national agriculture ministry staff, and deals with the work of the agriculture council
COREPER 1 – the junior body, comprising deputy permanent representatives and their staffs, which typically deals with the work of the other councils

COREPER, by virtue of its permanence, tends to function as the commission's main channel of communication with the Council of Ministers, as well as between the EU and member states' national governments. It tends to decide on non-controversial and technical matters on behalf of the council, leaving the more political and contentious matters to the full councils.

Member states take it in turns to assume the presidency of the Council of Ministers for six months at a time in accordance with a pre-established rota. In the context of May 2004's enlargement, it was decided that the previous six months rotation between the 15 pre-enlargement member states would continue until 2006.

The calendar of council presidency between 2010 and 2020 is as follows:

Spain January-June 2010
Belgium July-December 2010
Hungary January-June 2011
Poland July-December 2011
Denmark January-June 2012
Cyprus July-December 2012
Ireland January-June 2013
Lithuania July-December 2013
Greece January-June 2014
Italy July-December 2014
Latvia January-June 2015
Luxembourg July-December 2015
Netherlands January-June 2016
Slovakia July-December 2016
Malta January-June 2017
United Kingdom July-December 2017
Estonia January-June 2018
Bulgaria July-December 2018
Austria January-June 2019
Romania July-December 2019
Finland January-June 2020

During a member state's presidency, the ministerial representatives of that member state chair the council meetings.

Presidency of the council gives a member state substantial influence over the conduct of EU business during that six months (which run from January to June and from June to December each year).

1. The presidency represents the council in dealings with outside bodies, including other EU bodies.
2. The presidency and the council's general secretariat (the council's own civil service) set the agendas of meetings, the terms of meetings, and the frequency and location of meetings.
3. The presidency has responsibility for launching and building consensuses on initiatives – ie it takes the lead in promoting negotiations and agreement.

The Council of Ministers exercises the following functions.

1. The Council of Ministers is the EU's principal legislative body, with the unique power to make legislation in some areas. In others, this is exercised in conjunction with the European parliament.
2. The Council of Ministers (through ECOFIN) co-ordinates the domestic economic policies of member states.
3. The Council of Ministers concludes international agreements, negotiated by the Commission.
4. Along with the European parliament, the Council of Ministers authorises the budget proposed by the commission. The council has the final word in relation to 'compulsory' expenditure (eg CAP spending).
5. The Council of Ministers is the sole decision-making authority in respect of common foreign and security policy proposals, within the framework set by the European Council.
6. The Council of Ministers co-ordinates the activities of member states and adopts measures in relation to justice and home affairs policy.

The council votes either by unanimity of by qualified majority voting (QMV). The voting system used for a given decision depends on the policy area to which that decision belongs. According to the treaties, some subjects require unanimity, while others require only a qualified majority.

Under QMV each member state has a fixed (weighted) number of votes. The total number of votes is 345 and a qualified majority will be obtained if the decision receives at least 255 votes (the qualified majority threshold) and the decision is approved by a majority of the member states.

Where the council is required to act by a qualified majority, the votes of its members are weighted as follows:

Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom: 29
Spain and Poland: 27
Romania: 14
The Netherlands: 13
Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and Portugal: 12
Austria, Bulgaria and Sweden: 10
Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Finland: 7
Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia: 4
Malta: 3