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The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about The Council of the European Union

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Institutional affairs > Building europe through the treaties > The Amsterdam treaty: a comprehensive guide

The Council of the European Union

A Protocol on the institutions with the prospect of enlargement has been annexed to the EU Treaty and to the Treaties establishing the European Communities. It lays down a number of institutional conditions that will have to be met at the next enlargement and provides for another Intergovernmental Conference to be convened before the membership of the European Union exceeds twenty. The present structure is the legacy of an organisation designed for six member states and although it has been adjusted to take account of the accession of new members, it still operates today on the same institutional principles.

The Council is facing two main questions:

  • weighting of votes of Member States’ representatives;
  • the scope of qualified majority voting.

The Protocol on the institutions incorporates in a common framework the questions of the weighting of votes in the Council and the size of the Commission, the underlying idea being to revise the Community system so that the relative influence of the small and medium-sized countries should not one day become disproportionate to the size of their population.

The question of the weighting is particularly important owing to the extension of qualified majority voting, since that method of decision-making applies to most of the new provisions introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam. At the same time, qualified majority voting has also been extended to a number of existing provisions.

The General Secretariat of the Council now also has a special role to play in the context of common foreign and security policy.

RE-WEIGHTING OF VOTES AND DUAL MAJORITY

Re-weighting of votes or the introduction of a dual majority are two of the options between which the Member States will have to choose before the next enlargement of the European Union. Re-weighting would mean that the proportion of votes allocated to the large countries would be increased in relation to those of the small States. A dual majority, on the other hand, would not, in theory, alter the present weighting but would provide that, for a decision to be adopted within the Council, it would not only have to obtain a number of votes representing a qualified majority, but also correspond to a threshold, yet to be decided on, of the population of the European Union.

The Protocol on the institutions links these questions affecting the Council with the reform of the Commission. In practical terms it requires that, on the date of entry into force of the first enlargement, the Commission will comprise one national of each of the Member States, provided that, by that date, the weighting of the votes in the Council has been modified, whether by re-weighting of the votes or by dual majority, in a manner acceptable to all Member States.

GREATER USE OF QUALIFIED MAJORITY VOTING

Use of qualified majority voting has been extended to cover the following provisions of the EC Treaty (the article numbers reflect the new numbering):

  • the coordination of provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action providing for special treatment for foreign nationals (right of establishment, Article 46(2));
  • the adoption or amendment of the framework programme for research (Article 166);
  • the setting-up of joint undertakings for research and technological development (Articles 171 and 172).

Qualified majority voting also applies to the following new areas introduced into the EC Treaty:

  • guidelines on employment (Article 128);
  • adoption of incentive measures for employment (Article 129);
  • adoption of measures to strengthen customs cooperation between Member States and between them and the Commission (Article 135)
  • measures to combat social exclusion (Article 137 (2));
  • adoption of measures to ensure the application of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women (Article 141 (3));
  • promotion of public health (Article 152 (4));
  • the determining of general principles governing the right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents (Article 255);
  • measures to combat fraud affecting the financial interests of the Community (Article 280);
  • adoption of measures on the establishment of statistics (Article 285);
  • establishment of an independent supervisory body responsible for monitoring processing of personal data (Article 286);
  • laying down the conditions governing the application of the EC Treaty to the outermost regions (Article 299);

Qualified majority voting is now also used in two cases relating to the common foreign and security policy (Title V of the EU Treaty):

  • when adopting decisions implementing a common strategy decided on by the European Council;
  • when adopting any decision implementing joint actions or common positions adopted in advance by the Council.

GENERAL-SECRETARIAT

The Secretary-General of the Council now serves as High Representative for the common foreign and security policy, while the running of the General Secretariat is handled by a Deputy Secretary-General who, like the Secretary-General, is appointed by unanimous Council decision.

The High Representative for the common foreign and security policy assists the Presidency and the Council, in particular by contributing to the formulation, preparation, and implementation of policy decisions. He also fulfils a representative function and is assisted by a policy planning and early warning unit under his responsibility.


Another Normative about The Council of the European Union

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Institutional affairs > Building europe through the treaties > The Lisbon Treaty: a comprehensive guide

The Council of the European Union

The role of the Council of the European Union remains unchanged. It shares law-making and budget power with the European Parliament and also has a role in defining and coordinating policies. However, the Treaty of Lisbon makes substantial changes in terms of the organisation of the Council’s work and internal structure.

The Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice had already made extensive changes to the system of voting in the Council in order to adapt it to the successive enlargements of the European Union (EU). The system of vote weighting has now been abolished and replaced by a new dual majority system. In addition, the Treaty of Lisbon improves the Council’s transparency by adding several provisions concerning its configurations and Presidency.

THE NEW DEFINITION OF QUALIFIED MAJORITY

The decision-making process within the Council is changing fundamentally. The earlier amending treaties had established a system of vote weighting. Each Member State had a certain number of votes depending on its demographic weight. Under this system, a decision was adopted only if a certain vote threshold was reached by a majority of Member States. Since 1 January 2007, a qualified majority was achieved if 255 out of 345 votes were cast by at least 14 Member States. The weighting of votes in the Council favoured the representation of small Member States compared with the larger States and was regularly the subject of long negotiations.

The Treaty of Lisbon simplifies the system with a view to improving its efficiency. It abolishes the weighting of votes and establishes a dual majority system for adopting decisions. From now on, a qualified majority is achieved if it covers at least 55% of Member States representing at least 65% of the population of the EU. Where the Council does not act on a proposal from the Commission, the qualified majority should cover at least 72% of Member States representing at least 65% of the population. This system therefore assigns a vote to each Member State while taking account of their demographic weight. The Treaty of Lisbon also provides for a blocking minority composed of at least four Member States representing over 35% of the EU population.

This new system of qualified majority voting will apply with effect from 1 November 2014. However, until 31 March 2017, any Member State may request, on a case by case basis, that a decision is taken in accordance with the rules in force before 1 November 2014 (i.e. in accordance with the qualified majority as defined by the Treaty of Nice).

In addition, Member States may request the application of the “Ioannina compromise” enshrined by the Treaty of Lisbon in Declaration No 7. This provision enables a group of Member States to demonstrate their opposition to a text even if the group is not large enough in number to constitute a blocking majority. In this case, the group of Member States must notify the Council of its opposition to the adoption of the act. The Council must then do everything within its power to find a satisfactory solution in order to address the concerns raised by the group of Member States. Moreover, these deliberations within the Council are completed within a reasonable period and should not prejudice the time-limits laid down by the law of the Union. The “Ioannina compromise” therefore remains, above all, a political compromise expressing the Council’s wish to find an agreement which satisfies as many Member States as possible on important issues.

The Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice greatly increased the scope of qualified majority voting. The Treaty of Lisbon confirms this trend. The Council now acts by qualified majority, except where the Treaties require a different procedure. Specifically, qualified majority voting is extended to new areas such as the common policy on asylum, culture or sport.

THE CONFIGURATIONS OF THE COUNCIL

For the sake of transparency, the Treaty of Lisbon specifies and clarifies the way in which the Council functions. The Council sits in different configurations, within which the competent Ministers of Member States meet. This practice is now laid down in the Treaty on European Union. The Treaty refers explicitly to two Council configurations:

  • the General Affairs Council, which is responsible for ensuring consistency in the work of the different Council configurations and for preparing for European Council meetings;
  • the Foreign Affairs Council, which is responsible for developing the foreign policies of the European Union.

The European Council adopts by qualified majority the list of other configurations in which the Council meets.

The Treaty of Lisbon also improves transparency in terms of decision-making within the Council. Like the European Parliament, the Council now sits in public when deliberating and voting on a legislative bill.

THE PRESIDENCY OF THE DIFFERENT COUNCIL CONFIGURATIONS

The Presidency of the different Council configurations continues to be held by representatives of the Member States on the basis of an equal rotation system. The Foreign Affairs Council is an exception, being chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Moreover, the rules on the exercise of the Presidency of the Council have been adopted by European Council Decision No 2009/881/EU.

SUMMARY TABLE

Articles Subject

Treaty on European Union

16

Role and composition of the Council of the EU

Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

237 to 243

Functioning of the Council of the EU

Legislative procedures

Legislative procedures

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Legislative procedures

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These categories group together and put in context the legislative and non-legislative initiatives which deal with the same topic.

Institutional affairs > Building europe through the treaties > The Lisbon Treaty: a comprehensive guide

Legislative procedures

The Treaty of Lisbon is aimed at strengthening the capacity of the European Union (EU) to decide and to act, whilst guaranteeing the legitimacy of decisions adopted. It therefore reforms the EU’s decision-making process, in particular by amending the legislative procedures in force.

Article 289 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU now only refers to two types of legislative procedure:

  • ordinary legislative procedure;
  • special legislative procedures.

In addition, the Treaty of Lisbon introduces ‘passerelle clauses’. These clauses enable the ordinary legislative procedure to be generalised, under certain conditions, to areas that were initially outside its scope.

ordinary legislative procedure

The ordinary legislative procedure replaces the former codecision procedure. This procedure is the most legitimate from a democratic point of view. It involves the European Parliament as a co-legislator at the Council’s side. Over time, it has also become the most widely used legislative procedure. The Treaty of Lisbon therefore confirms this trend by changing its name and establishing it as a common law procedure. Continuing on from previous Treaties, the Treaty of Lisbon also extends the ordinary legislative procedure to new areas of policy (see file “Extension of voting by qualified majority and the ordinary legislative procedure”).

The modalities of the ordinary legislative procedure are the same as those of the former codecision procedure. They are described in Article 294 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. The Council and the Parliament are placed on an equal footing. The two institutions adopt legislative acts either at first reading, or at second reading. If, following the second reading, the two institutions have still not reached agreement, a Conciliation Committee is convened.

In addition, the voting rule under the ordinary legislative procedure is qualified majority. In order to facilitate decision-making and strengthen the effectiveness of the procedure, the Treaty of Lisbon has also laid down a new definition of a qualified majority (see file “Council of the European Union”).

special legislative procedures

Special legislative procedures replace the former consultative, cooperation and assent procedures. The objective is to simplify the EU’s decision-making process by making it clearer and more effective. As their name indicates, these procedures derogate from the ordinary legislative procedure and therefore constitute exceptions.

In special legislative procedures, the Council of the EU is, in practice, the sole legislator. The European Parliament is simply associated with the procedure. Its role is thus limited to consultation or approval depending on the case.

Unlike the ordinary legislative procedure, the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU does not give a precise description of special legislative procedures. The rules of special legislative procedures are therefore defined on an ad hoc basis by the Articles of the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU that provide for their implementation.

PASSERELLE CLAUSES

The Treaty of Lisbon has introduced passerelle clauses in order to be able to apply the ordinary legislative procedure to areas for which the Treaties had laid down a special legislative procedure. Furthermore, these clauses also allow voting by qualified majority to be applied to acts that are to be adopted unanimously.

There are two types of passerelle clause:

  • the general passerelle clause applying to all European policies; activation of this clause must be authorised by a Decision of the European Council acting unanimously (see file “Amendment of Treaties”);
  • specific passerelle clauses relating to certain European policies.

Specific passerelle clauses have some procedural particularities with respect to the general passerelle clause. As an example, national Parliaments do not generally have a right to object, which is granted to them by the general clause. In other cases, the application of certain specific clauses may be authorised by a Decision of the Council, and not of the European Council as is the case for the general clause. The implementing rules for the specific clauses therefore differ from case to case and are described in the Articles of the Treaties providing for their application.

There are six specific passerelle clauses to be applied to:

  • the multiannual financial framework (Article 312 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU);
  • the Common Foreign and Security Policy (Article 31 of the Treaty on European Union);
  • judicial cooperation concerning family law (Article 81 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU). This specific clause is the only clause regarding which national Parliaments retain a right to object;
  • reinforced cooperation in areas governed by unanimity or by a special legislative procedure (Article 333 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU);
  • social affairs (Article 153 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU);
  • environmental matters (Article 192 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU).

This summary is for information only. It is not designed to interpret or replace the reference document, which remains the only binding legal text.