Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The European Council, the Council of the European Union, the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe: A guide

Yes, it’s confusing. Too many Councils, all something to do with Europe. I get that it’s hard to keep track of them all – hell, I get confused myself sometimes.

But – and this is an important but – when the media is discussing these things, it should get them right. All too often, the media gets them muddled up and seems to have little understanding of where the distinctions lie, which does what, and where the sensible comparisons are.

The Council of Europe

It’s been around the longest, so you’d think people would understand it by now. It is not part of the EU – though every EU member state is also a member of the Council of Europe.

Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe focussed on fostering democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It has 47 member states (20 more than the EU) – and most often makes the news when its main court, the European Court of Human Rights (note: not an EU institution – that’s the European Court of Justice, and yes, that just adds to the confusion) features in a high-profile case.

The Council of Europe has a Secretary General, but not a President. It also – like the EU – has a Parliamentary Assembly which, unlike the European Parliament, is not directly elected, but is made up of members of the parliaments of its member states, their numbers (similarly to the European Parliament) based upon the population of the member state in question. The Council of Europe also – to add to the confusion – has a Congress, as well as a Committee of Ministers and a Commissioner for Human Rights (the European Union does *not* have a Commissioner for Human Rights).

The European Council

This is the body over which all the fuss is currently taking place, as under the Lisbon Treaty the European Council is to gain a President for the first time (although – as noted here recently – this position has very limited powers). It is not an official EU institution – yet is part of the EU. (Told you it was confusing…) It will only become an official EU institution after the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, though its role and powers will barely change.

The European Council is made up of the heads of government of the 27 EU member states, plus the President of the European Commission (and so, to some extent, it already has a president…) but – important to note, considering all the fuss that’s being made over its president – has no formal legilsative or executive powers. It only meets four times a year – twice at the headquarters of the Council of the European Union (to add to the confusion) and twice in the country of the member state that holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (yet more confusion) – in what are informally known as EU Summits. These started on an informal basis back in the early 1960s, first became formalised in the 1970s, and were included in an EU treaty for the first time in the 1987 Single European Act, and only gained a defined role with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

The European Council is – unsurprisingly, as it’s a formal meeting of the heads of government of the EU member states – the body that “provide[s] the Union with the necessary impetus for its development”, by allowing the heads of the member states to agree broad policy objectives for the Union to focus on. It has also adopted some of the higher-level powers of the Council of the European Union, such as the appointment of the President of the European Commission – again, because it is made up of the heads of government of the member states, and so it makes sense for these things to be discussed in the European Council (as the governments of the member states can veto candidates for the Commission Presidency, as well as other proposed EU legislation, it’s eminently sensible for them to try and agree a shared agenda before everyone starts work on pushing through candidates or policies).

Because of these powers – again, to stress, simply a natural offshoot of the European Council being made up of the heads of government of the member states – it can be seen as one of the EU’s most powerful bodies, despite not being an official EU institution. Some have compared it to the British Cabinet – though, as it meets only four times a year and tends to focus on broad, general policy objectives rather than specifics, this is being rather generous.

The proposed President of the European Council, therefore, will chair only four meetings a year, and act as a formal middle-man for the governments of the member states. He or she may well be able to propose solutions, suggest focuses for EU policy, and lend the EU a guiding hand, but – and this is a very important but – the President of the European Council will have practically no formal powers, and the job is very poorly-defined. He or she can suggest and try to persuade – but the final decisions will still be taken by the heads of government of the EU member states who make up the European Council, not by the person they have appointed (for just a two and a half year term, lest we forget) to help them reach agreement. It is an important position that will require a great deal of skilfull diplomacy, but it is not powerful one.

The Council of the European Union

This is the primary decision-making institution within the EU. The Council of the European Union is the same thing as the Council of Ministers. The latter is an informal name that was no doubt originally intended to prevent confusion with the European Council – but has only added to it. To make matters worse, it’s also sometimes referred to as the Consilium.

The members of the Council of the European Union are the 27 government ministers of the EU member states for the relevant topic under discussion. If Agriculture, then the Agriculture ministers. If Finance, the Finance ministers, and so on. (The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, by contrast, is made up solely of the Foreign ministers of the Council of Europe’s member states, or their representatives.)

Because of the subject-specific, ministerial-level debates that take place at the Council of the European Union, it can be seen as the EU’s principle decision-making body – and can in some cases overrule the European Parliament (though under the codecision procedure, unanimity between the two bodies is usually required). It is here that EU policy is most often determined.

The Council of the European Union also – like the European Commission, and like the European Council will soon – has a President. This is the six-month rotating “EU presidency” (as it is often informally known), that flits from member state to member state in an order that’s about as clear as mud, but no doubt makes sense to somebody. However, just to confuse matters een further, the actual position of President shifts throughout these six-month presidencies, depending on the topic being discussed. If it’s Agriculture, then the Agriculture minister from the member state that holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is, for that session, the President. If Finance, the Finance minister, and so on.

This rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union will continue after Lisbon’s ratification, and will exist alongside – not be replaced by – the Presidency of the European Council.

The Council of the European Union also – just to make matters even more confusing – has a General Secretary, who sits for a five-year term to help co-ordinate policy between the rotating presidencies and ensure some kind of continuity. The position was founded in 1999, and is currently held by Javier Solana, who is at the same time the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. After the Lisbon Treaty comes in, the latter part of Solan’s current job is to be separated out, merged with the European Commissioner for External Relations, become known as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – in which capacity whoever gets the gig will chair any Council of the European Union discussions on foreign affairs.

If you want comparisons to national governments, the Council is the closest the EU has to a Cabinet, as the power of executive formally lies with the Council of the European Union. However, the Cabinet analogy isn’t entirely right, because the Council also acts as the second (upper) chamber of the EU legislature – like the US Senate or UK House of Lords.

What this basically means is that the Council of the European Union is where most decisions get made – albeit after being pointed in the right direction by the European Council. Were Lisbon introducing a permanent President of the Council of the European Union, rather than of the European Council, then it would indeed be a position with the potential to wield a hell of a lot of power.

But it isn’t. So there’s no point getting all het up about it.

The quick version

Council of Europe
Not an EU body; concerned with democracy and justice

Council of the European Union
At once the EU’s Cabinet and Upper House of the legislature; where the decisions are made

Council of Ministers
The same as the Council of the European Union

European Council
The heads of government of the EU member states; an EU body but not an EU institution; effectively just a formalised old-school international summit, like the G8 or G20


  1. You should mention that after the Lisbon Treaty ratification, the European Council will be an official EU institution. And it rather meets four times a year, twice per rotating presidency (once in Brussels and once in the country of the presidency). I’d also say that the President will have some formal powers, but they are very vaguely formulated and conflict with the High Representative’s powers regarding external representation of the Union.

    And it should be made clear thatthe rotating EU Council presidency will not disappear, even when there is the new President of the European Council.

  2. You’re right, of course – should have made all that clear. Now edited.

    I expected I would, I got myself confused along the way. It’s one of those rules of the internet – try to explain how people get confused, you’re bound to get confused yourself. Like the inevitable grammatical / spelling mistake in comments left by people correcting spelling / grammar…

  3. NM Well done, thank you. One might hope that a printed copy of this would be pinned to the wall of every journalist. The reality, I fear, will be that they prefer their wilfull ignorance: which helps so many of them to mislead their readership (Sorry, a spill-over from a previous post).

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  5. You got one of your links wrong. Under the European Council section, you link to “Presidency of the Council of the European Union” on Wikipedia, when actually you should be linking to “President of the European Council”.


    Also, this is false:

    “This is the body over which all the fuss is currently taking place, as under the Lisbon Treaty the European Council is to gain a President for the first time”

    It already HAS a President. At the moment it’s Fredrik Reinfeldt. This position is doing the old rotation thing currently, similar to the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

    Finally, you say:

    “If you want comparisons to national governments, the Council is the closest the EU has to a Cabinet, as the power of executive formally lies with the Council of the European Union.”

    But this isn’t right surely, since it is the EU Commission that has the executive power.

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  7. @Frisch:
    In the new treaty the European Council is obliged to convene two meetings a year. Other meetings can be held if deemed necessary. In 2008 the French presidency organized an extraordinary meeting to discuss matters in relation to the credit crunch. In 2001 a meeting was convened the day after 9/11 to discuss the consequences of the terrorist attacks for foreign policy (also in relation to NATO supportive obligations many member states have). Since 2003 all formal meetings are held in Brussels, due to high security costs. Member states can convene informal gatherings on their home soil. In 2005 PM Tony Blair e.g. organized an informal summit at Hampton court to make progress on the topics of institutional reform and the multi-annual financial framework.
    The meetings in June and December are always on the general topics, while a meeting is also normally held in march is to discuss economic and monetary topics mainly in relation to the Lisbon Agenda (not the treaty).
    Formally Nosemonkey is right that the European Council can have a president for the first time in history. Since it is no official institution it lacks a formal president. But off course you are also right. The Head of state or government of the country where the presidency of the Council is residing also heads the meetings of the European Council.
    May be the position of the European Council can be easier understood when one adds some history to the matter. In the seventies the European Community (only 6 states) was confronted with deadlock and a turmoil environment. In 1969 it was therefore decided to relaunch the European Project. Therefore the European leaders meet one time a year to discuss general matters and to keep the European project on track. In 1974 Giscard d’Estaing (then French president) saw some new challenges for the enlarged community. The British were a new member and added their own agenda, while the Germans were relaxing their relations with the East (Ostpolitik). Furthermore the oilcrisis made clear that Europe was also dependent for their economic well-being on good relations with the Middle east. The community lacked any formal powers to tackle these internal and external matters. Amidst these complexities the European summits since 1975 became a beacon of external and internal guidance.

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  9. @ F.Spaak. It is not true to say that the European Council does not presently have a president. Article 4 TEU reads: “The European Council shall meet at least twice a year, under the chairmanship of the Head of State or Government of the Member State which holds the Presidency of the Council”.

    The simple fact is that the HOSG no longer wished to have their meetings guided by one of their number (and, after the experience of the Czech Presidency, who could blame them!). The biggest problem lay not with the personalities involved but with their staffs in capitals. Thye could be compared to people who fortuitously were given control of the steering wheel of Europe. Unfortunately, while experienced in domestic matters, they are incapable of driving abroad.

    The new arrangements should fix this as the coordination role will move to those best fitted to carry it out viz. the staff of the Council Secretariat.

  10. DOCM;

    You are absolutely right. My mistake and also my apologies to Alex.