The Council is an essential EU decision-maker. It negotiates and adopts new EU legislation, adapts it when necessary, and coordinates policies. In most cases, the Council decides together with the European Parliament through the ordinary legislative procedure, also known as ‘codecision’. Codecision is used for policy areas where the EU has exclusive or shared competence with the member states. In these cases, the Council legislates on the basis of proposals submitted by the European Commission.
In a number of very specific areas, the Council takes decisions using special legislative procedures – the consent procedure and the consultation procedure – where the role of the Parliament is limited.
A three stage procedure
More than 150 working parties and committees help prepare the work of ministers who examine proposals in the different Council configurations. These working parties and committees are comprised of officials from all the member states.
Once a Commission proposal has been received by the Council, the text is examined simultaneously by the Council and the European Parliament. This examination is known as a ‘reading’. There can be up to three readings before the Council and the Parliament agree on or reject a legislative proposal.
The Council may sometimes adopt a political agreement pending first reading position of the Parliament, also known as a ‘general approach’. A general approach agreed in the Council can help to speed up the legislative procedure and even facilitate an agreement between the two institutions, as it gives the Parliament an indication of the Council’s position prior to their first reading opinion. The Council’s final position, however, cannot be adopted until the Parliament has delivered its own first reading opinion.
At each reading the proposal passes through three levels at the Council:
- working party
- Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper)
- Council configuration
This ensures that there is technical scrutiny of the proposal at working party level, political responsibility for it at ministers’ level, as well as scrutiny by ambassadors in Coreper, who combine technical expertise with political consideration.
1. The working party
The presidency of the Council, with the assistance of the General Secretariat, identifies and convenes the appropriate working party to handle a proposal.
A working party begins with a general examination of the proposal, and then makes a line-by-line scrutiny of it.
There is no formal time limit for a working party to complete its work; the time taken depends on the nature of the proposal. There is also no obligation for the working party to present an agreement, but the outcome of their discussions is presented to Coreper.
2. Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper)
Coreper treatment of the proposal depends on the level of agreement reached at working party level.
If agreement can be reached without discussion, items appear on Part I of the Coreper agenda.
If further discussion is needed within Coreper because agreement has not been reached in the working party on certain aspects of a proposal, items are listed in Part II of the Coreper agenda. In this case, Coreper can:
- try to negotiate a settlement itself
- refer the proposal back to the working party, perhaps with suggestions for a compromise
- pass the matter up to the Council
Most proposals feature on the agenda of Coreper several times, as they try to resolve differences that the working party has not overcome.
3. Council configuration
If Coreper has been able to finalise discussions on a proposal, it becomes an ‘A’ item on the Council agenda, meaning that agreement is expected without debate. As a rule, around two-thirds of the items on a Council agenda will be for adoption as ‘A’ items. Discussion on these items can nevertheless be re-opened if one or more member states so request.
The ‘B’ section of the Council agenda includes points:
- left over from previous Council meetings
- upon which no agreement was reached in Coreper or at working party level
- that are too politically sensitive to be settled at a lower level
The results of Council votes are automatically made public when the Council acts in its capacity as legislator. If a member wants to add an explanatory note to the vote, this note will also be made public, if a legal act is adopted. In other cases, when explanations of votes are not automatically published, it can be made public on the request of the author.