The European Council defines the EU's overall political direction and priorities. It is not one of the EU's legislating institutions, so it does not negotiate or adopt EU laws. The European Council is also responsible for defining strategic guidelines for the area of freedom, security and justice.
The members of the European Council are the heads of state or government of the EU member states, the European Council President and the President of the European Commission. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part when foreign affairs are discussed.
European Council meetings are essentially summits where EU leaders meet to decide on broad political priorities and major initiatives. The Council meets at least twice every 6 months in Brussels. Meetings are chaired by the European Council President. The President of the European Parliament attends the start of each meeting, to outline the European Parliament's views. Other people, such as the President of the European Central Bank, may be invited to attend meetings, depending on the issues being discussed.
The European Council mostly takes its decisions by consensus. However, in certain specific cases outlined in the EU treaties, it decides by unanimity or by qualified majority. If a vote is taken, neither the European Council President nor the Commission President takes part.
European semester role
The European Council has a formal role to play in the EU's annual European semester process. This is the EU's yearly cycle of economic and fiscal policy coordination.
At its annual March meeting, the European Council assesses both the economic situation in the EU and progress towards the Europe 2020 targets. It then gives policy orientations on fiscal, economic and structural reforms.
At its June meeting, the European Council endorses the final country-specific recommendations, which set out priorities for each member state for the next 12-18 months.