EU legislation can be likened to a two-chamber system in which the Council of Ministers is one chamber and the European Parliament the other. According to percomputer, the Council of Ministers meets in Brussels (or in Luxembourg three months a year) and consists of one Minister from each Member State. Which ministers meet depends on the issues to be addressed. When it comes to the environment, the environment ministers gather, when it comes to agriculture, it is the agriculture ministers who meet. Coordination responsibility lies with the foreign ministers when they meet in what is called the General Council.
All issues that are up to the ministers have first been dealt with in one of the Council of Ministers ‘approximately 250 working groups in which officials from the member states’ ministries or authorities participate. When an issue approaches a political decision, it is referred to Coreper, the Permanent Representations of the Member States in Brussels, for final consideration. In practice, it is often here that compromises are carved out.
The EU has chosen to rotate the Presidency of the Council of Ministers so that Member States take turns preparing and chairing ministerial meetings and working groups for six months at a time. Sweden was last EU President during the second half of 2009. From 1 January to 30 June 2020, Croatia will hold the Presidency Club.
The country holding the presidency sets the agenda for council meetings. The incumbent presidency usually coordinates the issues with the next and previous presidencies. A presidency country is said to be 90 percent devoted to “inherited” issues and only 10 percent to issues that the country itself wishes to address.
When the Council of Ministers adopts new common rules, decisions can be taken unanimously or by a majority (see below), depending on which area of cooperation the decision applies to. Majority decisions were first introduced for internal market issues in 1987, but have gradually come to cover more and more policy areas.
How many votes a country has in the EU Council of Ministers depends on its population. Sweden, for example, has 10 votes and Germany 29 votes. The distribution intentionally gives the smaller countries relatively greater weight than the larger ones. The distribution is also made so that the large countries will not be able to unite against the small ones and vote them down.
In perhaps nine cases out of ten, the Council of Ministers discusses reaching an agreement and does not have to go to the polls. But voting requires a so-called double majority for most decisions. In that case, the yes votes must be 55 percent (currently 16 out of 28 countries) plus represent at least 65 percent of the EU population.
It is possible to block a majority decision if at least four countries, which together represent 35% of the EU population, do something together. In the individual cases where a bill has not come from the European Commission or the EU Foreign Minister, 72 percent (21 of 28 countries) and 65 percent of the population apply.
Unanimity now only applies to decisions on major foreign and security policy issues, EU finances, new member states, citizenship, harmonization of indirect taxes, harmonization of social security and social protection, family law, operational police cooperation and the EU Prosecutor. Unanimity prevails when all countries have voted in favor (abstentions are not counted).
The Council of Foreign Ministers is special in that it is headed by a European Foreign Minister (formally called the Supreme Representative) who also acts as the EU’s external face. The EU Foreign Minister is equipped with his own diplomatic service and must always hold the post of Vice-President of the European Commission at the same time. First on the post was British Catherine Ashton, who took office in 2009. Ashton was succeeded in the autumn of 2014 by the Italian Frederica Mogherini, who in turn was replaced by the Spaniard Josep Borell Fontelles on 1 December 2019.
In an informal grouping, the finance ministers of the 19 euro countries meet regularly to coordinate euro issues. They meet before EU finance ministers’ meetings. In recent years, non-euro countries such as Sweden have sometimes had to sit with a few times.
One of the Eurogroup’s finance ministers will be elected permanent chairman for 2.5 years. Since the financial crisis in 2010, the Eurogroup has also met at the level of Heads of State and Government, and now it takes place twice a year.