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Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union forms, along with the European Parliament, the legislative arm of the European Union (EU). It contains ministers of the governments of each of the member-states. The Council of the European Union is sometimes referred to in official European Union documents simply as the Council, and it is often informally referred to as the Council of Ministers (which will become its official name if the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe is adopted).
The Council has a President and a Secretary-General. The President of the Council is the Foreign Minister of the state currently holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union; while the Secretary-General is a civil servant, the head of the Council Secretariat. The Secretary-General also serves as the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The Council is assisted by COREPER, which consists of representatives of the member-state at the level of diplomats or high-level civil servants. COREPER generally prepares the Council agenda, and negotiates minor and non-controversial matters, leaving controversial issues for discussion by the Council.
The Council of the European Union is to be distinguished from the Council of Europe which is a completely separate international organisation. It should also be distinguished from the European Council, sometimes referred to as the 'European Summit', which is a separate but closely related institution.
Legally speaking, the Council is a single entity, but it is in practice divided into several different councils, each dealing with a different functional area. Each council is attended by a different type of minister. Thus, for example, meetings of the Council in its Agriculture and Fisheries formation are attended by the agriculture ministers of each member state. There are currently nine formations:
- General Affairs and External Relations (GAERC): The most important of the formations, GAERC is composed of ministers for foreign affairs and meets once a month. Since June 2002 it has held separate meetings on general affairs and external relations.
- The GAERC also coordinates preparation for and follow-up to meetings of the European Council.
- At its sessions on External Relations, under the context of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy also takes part.
- Economic and Financial Affairs (Ecofin): Composed of economics and finance ministers of the member states.
- Agriculture and Fisheries: One of the oldest configurations, this brings together once a month the ministers for agriculture and fisheries, and the commissioners responsible for agriculture, fisheries, food safety, veterinary questions and public health matters.
- Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA): This configuration brings together Justice ministers and Interior Ministers of the Member States.
- Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO): Composed of employment, social protection, consumer protection, health and equal opportunities ministers.
- Competitiveness: Created in June 2002 through the merging of three previous configurations (Internal Market, Industry and Research). Depending on the items on the agenda, this formation is composed of ministers responsible for areas such as european affairs, industry and scientific research.
- Transport, Telecommunications and Energy: Also created in June 2002, through the merging of three policies under one configuration, and with a composition also varying according to the specific items on its the agenda. This formation meets approximately once every two months.
- Environment: Composed of environment ministers, who meet about four times a year.
- Education, Youth and Culture (EYC): Composed of education, culture, youth and communications ministers, who meet around three or four times a year.
The Council votes either by unanimity or by Qualified Majority Voting. The voting system used for a given decision depends on the policy area to which that decision belongs; according to the founding treaties, some subjects require unanimity, while others require only a qualified majority. Even in those areas which require a qualified majority, the Council is required to try to reach a unanimous decision where possible.
Countries of the EU hold different numbers of votes in the Council. The number of votes held by each country is based indirectly on the size of the country's population, but smaller countries are granted a greater number of votes than their population would strictly merit. This concept is aimed at balancing the voices of larger countries with those of smaller countries.
On 1 November 2004, modified voting weights from the Treaty of Nice came into effect (this date was revised by the Treaty of Accession 2003 from the originally intended date of 1 January, 2005). The Nice Treaty also provides for qualified majority voting to require a 'double majority' of both population and number of countries. Further revisions to the voting system are made in the proposed Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, which was signed on 29 October, 2004 but has yet to be ratified by all member states.
Main article: Parties in the Council of the European Union
Almost all of the leaders and ministers of each member state belong to political parties at the national level. Many of these national parties belong to formal political groupings in the European Parliament. However there are no formal political groups or alliances in the Council, and countries led by similar political parties are often not in agreement on questions that come before the body. Nonetheless the table below describes the current breakdown of party affiliations in the Council, as of March 2005, in terms of the European parliamentary alliances with which the leader of each member state is indirectly associated.
|Parliamentary group||No. of states|
|European People's Party - European Democrats||11|
|Party of European Socialists||9|
|Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe||4|
|Union for a Europe of Nations||1|
- Council of the European Union about itself (includes info on voting weights)
- SCADplus glossary: Council of the European Union
- DEsite: Information about the Council
- Reports from the UK Committee on European Scrutiny about the Council and Openness
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