Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union is the main decision making body in the EU. With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon on 1 December 2009, it has become an official EU institution.
The Council consists of one government minister from every member state. Although there is just one Council, different groups of ministers meet depending on what topic is being discussed at the weekly meeting. For example, if the issue to be discussed at the Council is agriculture, the ministers for agriculture from each member state will attend and sit as the Council.
The Council of the European Union has three essential functions:
- The power to legislate. The Council shares this power with the European Parliament. In most situations, European laws are made by a co-decision procedure. This means that the Council and the Parliament jointly adopt proposals for legislation that have come from the European Commission. The Council and the Parliament can make amendments to the legislation under this procedure. However, there are certain important areas, for example, tax legislation, where the Parliament may only give an opinion as to whether a proposed piece of legislation can become law.
- Co-ordination of the economic policies of member states. Every year, the Council drafts guidelines for the economic policies of member states. These are then made into a recommendation and their implementation by member states is supervised by the Council.
- The power to approve the budget of the EU. This power is shared with the Parliament. The Parliament supervises spending by the EU and it also adopts the annual budget for the EU. It has the last word on spending on the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, cultural and educational programmes, humanitarian aid and refugee programmes. However, when it comes to spending on agriculture and spending arising from international agreements, the Parliament can propose modifications but the Council has the final say.
The power to legislate
Ordinary legislative procedure
The usual method of making European Union (EU) decisions is as follows:
- The Commission makes a proposal
- The Council and the Parliament discuss it and each may make changes
- The final decision is made by the Council and the Parliament jointly (this is known at present as the co-decision procedure).
The Treaty of Lisbon calls this the ordinary legislative procedure and extends it to a number of new areas.
Special legislative procedures
There are specific decision-making procedures (called special legislative procedures in the Treaty of Lisbon) in relation to 2 areas:
- Common foreign and security policy - decisions are made by the Council
- Area of freedom, security and justice – some decisions are made as under the ordinary legislative procedure while others are made by the Council.
Voting in the Council
There are different ways that the Council makes its decisions. Some decisions must be made unanimously, for example, decisions in relation to defence and taxation. In practice, most decisions are made by consensus. If there is no consensus, decisions in most areas may be made by qualified majority voting (QMV).
Changes to the voting system
The system of QMV used to make decisions was changed on 1 November 2014. The change was agreed in the Lisbon Treaty. The new QMV system is sometimes called the double majority system.
If a decision is being made after a proposal has been made by the Commission (this is the usual way in which decisions arise), then a qualified majority means that the following two conditions must be met:
- 55% of the member states must agree: that means at least 16 member states at present (there are 28 member states at present) and
- Those supporting must represent 65% of the EU population (the population is about 506 million at present so those supporting must represent 329 million)
In order to prevent a decision being made, a blocking minority will have to include at least four member states – this means that if there are less than four member states opposed to a decision then the qualified majority will be treated as having been reached.
In some cases, only certain member states take part in decisions, for example, the member states that have adopted the euro make certain decisions in relation to it and the members of the Schengen area make certain decisions about it. In these cases, the percentages apply to the participating member states only.
If a decision is being made in cases where there has not been a proposal from the Commission, the following two conditions must be met:
- 72% of the member states must agree: that means at least 21 member states at present and
- Those supporting must represent 65% of the EU population
If only certain member states are taking part in these decisions, the percentages apply to those member states only. A blocking minority must include at least the number of participating states representing 35% of the population of the participating states plus one.
There are transitional arrangements in place for the period to 31 March 2017. During that time, a member state may ask for the application of the old QMV system (see below) rather than the new system. There is also a mechanism for dealing with cases where the blocking minority is nearly reached.
Old system of QMV
Under the old system of QMV, each member state’s vote was given a weighting. This was related, but not directly proportionate to the population; smaller member states had a greater share than their populations would warrant. Since July 2013, the number of votes each country could cast was as follows:
- Germany, France, Italy and the UK: 29
- Spain and Poland: 27
- Romania: 14
- Netherlands: 13
- Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and Portugal: 12
- Austria, Bulgaria and Sweden: 10
- Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Finland: 7
- Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia: 4
- Malta: 3
- Total number of votes: 352
A qualified majority was reached:
- If a majority of member states approved and
- If a minimum of 260 votes was cast in favour.
In addition, a member state could ask for confirmation that the votes in favour represented at least 62% of the total population of the European Union. If this was found not to be the case, the decision would not be adopted.