|European Parliament Fact Sheets|
1.3.6. The Council
In the European Union's single institutional framework, the Council exercises the powers conferred on it by the Treaty on European Union [Articles 3 and 5 [C and E] and the Community treaties [Articles 202 to 210 [145 to 154]].
1. Community legislation
On the basis of proposals presented by the Commission, the Council adopts Community legislation in the form of regulations and directives, either jointly with the European Parliament in accordance with Article 251 [189b] EC or alone after consultation of the European Parliament (* 1.4.1). The Council also adopts individual decisions and non-binding recommendations [Article 249  EC] and issues resolutions. The Council establishes requirements for exercising the implementing powers conferred on the Commission or reserved to the Council itself.
The Council is one of the two branches (the other being the European Parliament) of the budgetary authority which adopts the Community budget (* 1.4.2).
3. Other powers
a. Community external policy
The Council concludes the Community's international agreements (which are negotiated by the Commission and require Parliament's assent).
The Council appoints the members of the Court of Auditors, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.
c. Economic policy
The Council ensures coordination of the economic policies of the Member States [Article 145 EC] and, without prejudice to the powers of the European Central Bank, takes political decisions in the monetary field. The decision to admit a Member State to the single currency is taken by the Council meeting at the level of Heads of State or Government.
d. Common Foreign and Security Policy and cooperation in the fields of justice and home affairs
In these fields of competence, created by the Treaty on European Union, the Council does not act as a Community institution but according to specific intergovernmental rules. It adopts common positions and joint actions and also draws up conventions. Since the Treaty of Amsterdam it has also adopted framework decisions on approximation of legislation in the fields of justice and home affairs.
The Council consists of a representative of each Member State, at ministerial level, "authorised to commit the government of that Member State" [Article 203 ].
The Council is chaired by the representative of the Member State that holds the Union's presidency: this changes every six months, in the order decided by the Council acting unanimously [Article 203].
a. Simple majority
This means that a decision is taken when there are more votes for than against. Each Member of the Council has one vote. The simple majority is applicable when the Treaty does not provide otherwise [Article 205(1)]. It is thus the decision-making process found in ordinary law. In practice it applies to only a small number of decisions: internal Council rules, organisation of the Council secretariat, the rules governing committees provided for in the Treaty.
b. Qualified majority
In many cases the Treaty requires decisions by qualified majority, which entails more votes than a simple majority. In that case there is no longer equality of voting rights. Each country has a certain number of votes in line in line with its population [Article 205(2)]: Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom have 10 votes, Spain 8 votes, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal 5 votes, Austria and Sweden 4 votes, Denmark, Finland and Ireland 3 votes and Luxembourg 2 votes. The total is 87, with 62 needed for a decision. In the event of a decision without a Commission proposal, the 62 votes must have been cast by at least ten Member States. These figures were updated at the last enlargement (bringing in Austria, Finland and Sweden). The updating generated considerable discussion between Member States, the United Kingdom in particular asking for a higher number of votes than 62. This led to a compromise decided at the European Council of March 1994 in Ioannina (Greece): if members of the Council who together represent 23 to 25 votes state their intention of opposing adoption of a decision by qualified majority, the Council will do all in its power to obtain a satisfactory solution. This is to be adopted by at least 65 votes in favour, within a reasonable period of time and without prejudice to the mandatory time limits specified by the treaties and secondary legislation.
Unanimity is required by the Treaty for only a small number of decisions but some of the most important (social and tax harmonisation, freedom of movement, etc.) It should be noted that the Council tends to seek unanimity even when it is not required. This goes back to the 1966 Luxembourg compromise. This ended the dispute between France and the other Member States that developed in 1965 when France refused to move from unanimity to the qualified majority voting laid down for certain decisions by the Treaty of Rome. France then refused to sit on the Council for six months. The text of the compromise reads: Where, in the case of decisions which may be taken by a majority vote on a proposal from the Commission, very important interests of one or more partners are at stake, the Members of the Council will endeavour, within a reasonable time, to reach solutions which can be adopted by all the Members of the Council while respecting their mutual interests and those of the Community, in accordance with Article 2 of the Treaty. This has no legal force in that it does not modify the Treaty but the resulting tendency to seek unanimity has considerably slowed down decision-making.
A committee consisting of the permanent representatives of the Member States COREPER prepares the Council's work and carries out the tasks that it assigns to it [Article 207(1) EC].
e. The Treaty of Amsterdam's contribution
Contrary to expectations, the Treaty of Amsterdam has not substantially reduced the areas in which unanimity is required for Council decisions. Only research policy has moved fully from unanimity to qualified majority voting. Joint actions and joint provisions under the common foreign and security policy are subject to qualified majority voting only when they are based on a common strategy (adopted unanimously) and no Member State has opposed it on the grounds of important reasons of national policy.
The weighting of the Member States' votes in the Council has not changed. A declaration adopted by the Intergovernmental Conference advocates extending the Ioannina Compromise until the next enlargement. It has, however, been decided (Protocol annexed to the Treaties) that a change in the weighting of votes in the Council is a condition for application after the next enlargement, of the decision to have only one member of the Commission per Member State.
The Treaty of Amsterdam does not change the six-monthly rotation of the presidency of the Council. The Troika formula, however, has changed. The presidency of the Council is assisted in the field of the common foreign and security policy by the Council secretariat general which exercises the functions of high representative for common foreign and security and the Member State that will hold the next presidency. The Council and presidency are also assisted by a policy planning and early warning unit, which was set up under a declaration annexed to the final act.