EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union (the ‘Council of Ministers’ or the ‘Council’) is the Union's main decision-making institution. It is composed of the ministers of the Member States and thus constitutes the EU institution in which the governments of the Member States are represented. The Council, together with the European Parliament, acts in a legislative and budgetary capacity. It is also the lead institution for decision-making on the common foreign and security policy (CFSP), and on the coordination of economic policies (intergovernmental approach). The Council's headquarters are in Brussels, where it meets several times a month (in certain months, the meetings are held in Luxembourg).

Articles 202-210 EC set out the various roles and functions of the Council. About 20 different Councils of Ministers bring together ministers from the Member States depending on the area of activity (transport, energy, etc). The General Affairs Council deals with external relations plus general policy, while Ecofin deals with economic and financial matters. Employment and industrial relations are dealt with in the Labour and Social Affairs Council.

Each Member State in turn presides over the Council for six months. Decisions are prepared by the Committee of Permanent Representatives of the Member States (Coreper), assisted by working parties of national government officials. The Presidency, which rotates among Member States every six months, is responsible for arranging meetings, setting the agenda, developing initiatives, and liaising with the Commission and the Parliament, international bodies and governments around the world. The Presidency of the Council, therefore, has an important role in determining the priority to be given to employment and industrial relations matters by the Council, and in achieving progress, or lack of it, of the EU in this policy area.

In most cases, the Council, acting on a proposal from the European Commission, decides jointly with the European Parliament under the co-decision procedure. Depending on the subject, the Council takes decisions by simple majority, qualified majority or unanimously. In most cases, however, it acts by a qualified majority (agriculture, single market, environment, transport, employment, health, etc).

The Council’s legislative role is most important, though it shares this role with the European Parliament. The Council adopts legislative proposals put forward by the Commission. It can also request that the Commission prepare legislative proposals (it is estimated that 25% of Commission proposals originate in such requests) and delegate legislative power to the Commission in areas where specific detailed rules are needed (subject to approval by Council committees staffed by Member State representatives): a process known as comitology.

The European Constitution currently being ratified provides for new arrangements for the Council Presidency. The Presidency of the different configurations will be held, for 18 months, by a team of three Member States. Each State will hold the Presidency for a period of six months, assisted by the other two States on the basis of a common programme. In addition, the General Affairs Council will be chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, a new post created by the Constitution. Lastly, the Constitution has radically changed the qualified majority voting system in the Council.

See also: co-decision procedure; Coreper; Council voting procedure; Luxembourg Compromise; qualified majority voting ; Treaty of Nice.

Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
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