4.4 The Council of the European Union
The Council represents the interests of the individual member states and is seen as the legislative arm of the EU. It is composed of active representatives of the governments of the member states. Usually, these representatives are the departmental or junior ministers responsible for the matters under consideration at a specific Council meeting. This means that the Council itself, unlike the Commission, has no stable membership. Its membership varies depending upon the issues tabled for discussion at a given meeting.
For example, when items on the agenda of the Council meeting relate to pollution in the European rivers, the Council will meet as the ‘Environment Council’ and will be made up of departmental or junior ministers responsible in each EU member state for the environment. If the issues to be dealt with refer to the mutual accreditation and recognition of educational institutions among the EU member states, then the Council will meet as the ‘Education, Youth and Culture Council’ and be made up of departmental or junior ministers for education. The Council made up of the Foreign Ministers meets once a month and functions as a ‘General Affairs and External Relations Council’ dealing with general policy questions. Although the Council works within multiple configurations, it remains nevertheless one single institution.
Each minister of each EU member state who sits in the Council is answerable to his or her national Parliament and through this to the citizens that Parliament represents. This is meant to ensure the democratic legitimacy of the Council's decisions.
The Council fulfils six key functions:
promoting legislative decisions
coordinating the European policies of the member states
concluding international agreements
approving the European budget
developing a common foreign and security policy
police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.
In its legislative function the Council usually acts upon legislative proposals from the Commission.
The Council is supported by an institutional structure which facilitates and supports its work. This structure includes ‘permanent representations’ of the EU member states, a President of the Council, and a General Secretariat.
Each EU member state has a permanent team called ‘representation’. They represent their EU member state and defend its national interest at EU level. The head of each such representation is known as a ‘permanent representative’ and is in fact his or her country's ambassador to the EU. These permanent representatives of the member states meet weekly within the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER). The role of COREPER is to prepare the work of the Council and in this way continuity in the Council's work is ensured.
The EU member states take turns in presiding over the Council meetings. The Presidency rotates every six months and therefore each EU member state, at some point, has the opportunity to take charge of the Council's agenda and promote legislative and political decisions. The Council's Presidency is also assisted in its work by a General Secretariat. The General Secretariat prepares and ensures the smooth functioning of the Council's work at all levels.