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Subject: European Union Basics (FAQ), Part5/8
This article was archived around: 22 May 2006 04:35:55 GMT
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EU Basics FAQ: Councils representing governments
What is the Council of Ministers?
COMPOSITION OF THE COUNCIL OF MINISTERS
The Council of Ministers (or simply Council) represents the member state
governments. The Council is composed of member state ministers: depending on
the matter under discussion, either the ones responsible for specific policy
areas (environment, transport, treasury) or the foreign ministers for
The Council decides unanimously on major policy decisions as laid down in
the treaty provisions, and in principle decides with a qualified majority
on other matters, and for some matters (research, structural funds) on the
decisions about provisions to implement the decisions taken in unanimity.
For this purpose, each member state's votes are weighted
(less-than-proportionally to the number of inhabitants) and cast in a block:
10 votes each for France, Germany, Italy, the UK;
8 votes for Spain;
5 votes each for Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal;
4 votes each for Austria and Sweden;
3 votes each for Denmark, Finland and the Republic of Ireland;
2 votes for Luxembourg.
A qualified majority decision is valid if 62 out of 87 votes are in favour
of it (in other words: more than a 70% majority vote is required). In some
cases the majority in favour must also include at least ten countries.
Note: In April 1994, the UK tried to oppose an extension of the 70% rule to
the prospective EU of 16 member states, arguing that the blocking minority
should remain on 23 votes (out of 90) to retain a powerful blocking
mechanism for minority states. Britain's arguments were not accepted, but it
was agreed that a blocking minority of 23-26 votes would cause a proposal to
be reconsidered and delayed for some time. As Norway has rejected
membership, an extension of this agreement to the EU of fifteen means
essentially the same, except for the fact that a blocking minority of 26 is
now already enough to have the proposal rejected outright.
As Andrew MacMullen notes,
+This should not be confused [but often was, especially in the Brit
ish press, RS] with the so-called national veto arising out of the 19
65 French inspired crisis and boycott and the ambiguous Luxembourg ac
cords of 1966. This has allowed countries to claim the right to a vet
o where they consider their vital national interests are involved. Th
ere is no clear definition of what this involves since it is simply a
flexible political instrument . A classic instance was the German go
vernment invocation in 1985 to block a 1% cut in cereal prices which
German farmers found objectionable.;
And Nick Bernard wrote in eunet.politics:
+There are in fact two different issues: the question of the so-cal
led veto properly speaking, which is a reference to the Luxembourg ac
cords of 1966 (and the UK understanding thereof) and the issue of the
weighting of votes in Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) with enlargeme
nt of the EU. In the UK, politicians (on all sides) did little to cle
ar this ambiguity.;
COUNCIL DECISIONS AND SECRECY
The Council always meets behind closed doors; only the outcome of the
decision is published afterwards. In some cases it is not even clear which
Member States have supported or rejected which parts of the original
Commission or European Parliament proposals. This secrecy is often thought
to be one of the most undemocratic aspects of the European Union; Council
members are effectively unaccountable to their national parliaments for
whatever +national; position they claim to defend within Council meetings,
and they can always blame other Member States (without means of
verification) for Council decisions out of line with national European
Personally I feel that there is also a more philosophically undemocratic
aspect to this secrecy: the fact that there is no publicly acknowledged
opposition to Council policies. It is my view that the right to dissent
publicly is a fundamental aspect of democracy, even if democracy also
requires dissenters to loyally follow majority decisions until they can
muster a majority for their own dissenting proposal. The secretive and often
+unanimous; decision making within the Council does not acknowledge the fact
that there are always different sides to a coin, and hence alienates itself
(and the EU as a whole) from the European Citizen.
Ole Villumsen send me a very interesting contribution with regard to
another aspect of Council secrecy: the secret protocols appended to
+The Council passes rules that are made public, and produces protoc
ols containing declarations, which are kept strictly secret. It happe
ns, although seldom, that the secret protocols say the opposite of th
e published rules. Examples are:
The TV directive says that TV programmes can be interrupted by
commercials no more frequently than once every 20 minutes. A secret
Council declaration states that TV stations can easily deviate from this
rule if it fits better with programme scheduling. Of course, this
flexibility can only be utilized by TV stations that have received a hint
about the declaration.
In February 1995, the ministers of industry passed a directive on
protecting the citizen against registration of personal data. The
directive prescribes that member countries forbid (computerised,
presumably) processing of sensitive personal information, such as ethnic
origin, political or religious conviction, and information on health and
sex life. At the same time, the ministers and the Commission agreed on a
secret declaration stating that member countries can +pay regard to the
country's juridical and sociological characteristics, for example in
matters of information on genetic identity, political affiliation,
physical condition, punishments, personal habits, etc.;
Normally it is the job of the Commission to ensure that the rules a
re followed, in practice by checking that national legislations imple
ment them. When the commission knows about the secret protocols, it c
an take them into account. Should an ordinary citizen bring a case to
court, the court will have to judge according to the published rules
(Source: Danish newspaper Information, Saturday, May 20, 1995)
In a separate message, Ole also noted that there is some progress to
+The good news is that the Council of foreign affairs ministers on
their Monday meeting [...] May 29 decided that they will no more use
the option of keeping their voting secret. Whether the decision has e
ffect for the Council when other kinds of ministers meet, was not cle
ar from my newspaper (Information, May 30 1995).
Richard Corbett finds this section somewhat exaggerated:
No +protocols; - which are legally binding texts - are adopted in s
ecret. What is secret is declarations attached to the Council minutes
whereby individual States, the Commission or the Council collectivel
y make a statement as to how they interpret a legal text.
This is indeed a problem, but the European Court has ruled - and Co
uncil itself accepts - that the legal text actually adopted (and publ
ished therefore in the Official Journal) is the only one with binding
legal effect. Council has now agreed to limit the use of such declar
ations and, where they are made, will normally publish them. However,
it has not abolished entirely the possibility of making declarations
and keeping them secret.
As regards voting in Council, the Council does now publish the resu
lts of all such votes. However, it retains the right to decide not to
publish them, even if it has not recently used this right.
What is the European Council?
The European Council was formally established in 1974, building on the
practice of holding Summits of EC Heads of Government, but its existence was
only legally recognized in the Single European Act of 1987. The European
Council is a special meeting of the Council of Ministers, in which the
representatives of the Member States are the political heads of government
themselves (13 PMs and the Presidents of France and Finland, plus their PMs
if in a situation of +cohabitation;). The Foreign Ministers and three
members of the Commission, including its President, also participate. The
European Council should not be confused with the Council of Europe, which
is a totally separate international organisation independent of the EU.
WHO ARE THE CURRENT MEMBERS OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL?
Whether a Member State is represented by a Prime Minister or by a President
is dependent on the constitution of the Member State in question. In twelve
of the fifteen Member States the Head of State (President or Monarch) has a
largely ceremonial function, hence the Prime Minister is the political head
of government and the representative to the European Council. The Finnish
and French Presidents are Head of State as well as political head of
government, so they go to the European Council themselves (although France
has sent both the President and the Prime Minister in times of
+cohabitation;). Stefan Lintl reports that Austria is unresolved whether
to send the Chancellor or the President, as they seem to have conflicting
powers in this matter.
In response to some people requesting it, I have tried to compose a listing
of the current members of the European Council. As prime minister or
president, each member is of course also a very senior member of a political
party, the affiliation of which in the European Parliament is put between
brackets after their name. As I have compiled it by heart the list is not at
all complete yet, but I am counting on the readers of this list to send
in all missing information.
AT Mr Franz Vranitzky, Federal Chancellor (PES)
BE Mr Jean-Luc Dehaene, Federal Prime Minister (EPP)
DE Mr Helmut Kohl, Federal Chancellor (EPP)
DK Mr Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, Prime Minister (PES)
ES Mr Josi Aznar, Prime Minister (EPP)
FI Mr Martti Ahtisaari, President (XXXXX)
FR Mr Jacques Chirac, President (UE)
GR Mr XXXXX, Prime Minister (PES)
IE Mr John Bruton, Taoiseach (EPP)
IT Mr Romano Prodi, Prime Minister (leaning towards PES)
LU Mr XXXXX, Prime Minister (EPP)
NL Mr Wim Kok, Prime Minister (PES)
PT Mr Antonio Guterres, Prime Minister (PES)
SE Mr Gvran Persson, Prime Minister (PES)
UK Mr John Major, Prime Minister (EPP)
WHAT ARE THE POWERS/ACTIVITIES OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL?
The European Council convenes twice a year, in the last month of each member
state's presidency of the Council. In addition to some powers of its own
(mainly institutional ones), in theory it has all the legal powers of the
Council of Ministers. However, it does not normally operate in this mode.
The heads of government prefer to meet relatively informally, without being
tied to a bureaucratic agenda, but with plenty of photo-opportunities and
press conferences. Its meetings and statements are often very important in
providing political impetus or laying down guidelines in areas of prime
importance to the EU, but it leaves the day-to-day legislative work to the
ordinary Council meetings. The European Council also has the main
responsibility for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
In addition, Emile Noel notes that:
+Unlike the Council of Ministers, the European Council convenes in
the absence of experts, senior civil servants or other supporting sta
ff (except interpreters). This plays a major part in its political ef
fectiveness [and puts a great burden on personal skills of the politi
cians present], but may often cause problems with subsequent implemen
tation of its decisions.;
Who is the President of the (European) Council?
Both the Council of Ministers and the European Council have a rotating
presidency, with each member state being chair of both for six months only.
These are the presidencies of the latest and following years:
1991 Luxembourg, the Netherlands
1992 Portugal, United Kingdom
1993 Denmark, Belgium
1994 Greece, Germany
1995 France, Spain
1996 Italy, Ireland
1997 Netherlands, Luxembourg
1998 United Kingdom, Austria
1999 Germany, Finland
2000 Portugal, France
2001 Sweden, Belgium
2002 Spain, Denmark
Edited by Roland Siebelink & Bart Schelfhout
corrections and suggestions welcome.
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