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FALQs: The Rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union

Photo by Flickr user EU2019FI (European Commission visiting Finland 4.-5.7.2019), July 5, 2019. Used under Creative Commons License, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/.

On July 1, 2019, Finland  took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the Council of Europe or the European Council). Yesterday, July 17, 2019, the Finnish President presented the priorities of the Finnish EU Presidency to the European Parliament. So, what is the Council of the European Union, and what does its rotating presidency do?

1. What is the Council of the European Union?

The Council of the European Union is one of the three main European Union (EU) institutions–the others being the European Parliament and European Commission. Together with the Parliament, it is part of the legislative branch (see Question 3 below).  It can be described as similar to the United States Senate.

The Council of the European Union is different from the European Council, although both are sometimes referred to as the Council. Throughout this blog post any reference to the Council is to the Council of the European Union.

The Council is made up of government ministers from each EU member state and thus represents the executive governments of the EU member states.

2. How is the Council configured? 

The Council meets in 10 different sub-councils (also referred to as “councils”). Each sub-council is typically made up of the responsible minister for the relevant policy area. For example, the ministers for environment of each European member state meet in the Environment Council. Thus, each council meeting has different configurations depending on the topic being discussed. Councils include:

  • Agriculture and Fisheries,
  • Competitiveness,
  • Economic and Financial Affairs,
  • Environment,
  • Employment, Social Policy, Health, and Consumer affairs,
  • Education, Youth, Culture and Sport,
  • Foreign Affairs,
  • General Affairs,
  • Justice and Home Affairs, and
  • Transport, Telecommunications and Energy.

In these different councils, the ministers agree on policy and amend legislative proposals. Voting is based on qualified majority.

As Finland now holds the presidency of this body, it will chair the meetings of these groups, except for the Foreign Affairs Council, which is always headed by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Note also that countries may have opted out of some areas of EU cooperation; for instance Denmark has opted-out of the EU cooperation on Justice and Home Affairs, and the Common Security and Defense Policy, and is therefore not represented in council meetings where these areas are discussed.

3. What is its role and its relationship with the European Parliament & European Commission?

The Council exercises the powers conferred on it under article 16 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)  and articles 237 to 243 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Thus, the Council negotiates and adopts EU legislation together with the Parliament. It also coordinates EU-wide policies, and the foreign and security policy is based on European Council guidelines. Together with the Parliament, it also adopts the EU budget (TFEU art. 314 ). The Council can also request that the Commission undertake studies that are of interest to the Council (TFEU art. 241).

4. How is EU legislation passed?

In an ordinary legislative procedure, the Commission proposes legislation, which is then adopted by the European Parliament together with the Council. This means that the European Parliament and the Council must both agree on the text of the proposed legislation. Most of the legislation is passed on the first reading of the text, but if the Parliament and the Council do not agree on the text there is a second reading. If they still cannot agree, it goes to a conciliation committee.

A special legislative procedure is used for legislation pertaining to certain policy areas such as, competition law. In these cases, the Council is, in practice, the sole legislator. It must still seek consent from or consult with the Parliament.

4 . What is the Council of EU Leadership?

In addition to the rotating Presidency, the Council is supported by the General Secretariat of the Council. As mentioned above, the country holding the EU presidency chairs the council groups, except for Foreign Affairs. The General Affairs Council consists of the Permanent Representatives to the EU, i.e., the EU member countries’ ambassadors to the EU.

5. What is the rotating presidency of the Council of the Europe Union?

The rotating presidency is a way for EU member countries to hold chairmanship every six months. It was first introduced as part of a rotating presidency for the Special Council of Ministers of the European Coal and Steel Community. The first nation to hold the Presidency was Belgium in 1958. (Treaty Establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) art. 27.)

Today the legal framework of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is set forth in the European Council Decision of 1 December 2009 on the exercise of the Presidency of the Council (2009 O.J. L315/50). It establishes that:

“1. The Presidency of the Council, with the exception of the Foreign Affairs configuration, shall be held by pre-established groups of three Member States for a period of 18 months. The groups shall be made up on a basis of equal rotation among the Member States, taking into account their diversity and geographical balance within the Union. 2.   Each member of the group shall in turn chair for a six-month period all configurations of the Council, with the exception of the Foreign Affairs configuration. The other members of the group shall assist the Chair in all its responsibilities on the basis of a common progra[m]. Members of the team may decide alternative arrangements among themselves.”

In addition, the “[m]ember States holding the Presidency shall take all necessary measures for the organi[z]ation and smooth operation of the Council’s work, with the assistance of the General Secretariat of the Council.”

Historically, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union had more power to influence negotiations and initiatives. The adoption of the Lisbon Treaty changed the autonomy of the presidency and the influence the President country has in setting the agenda. As of 2007, countries that hold the presidency close to each other are grouped in ‘trios.’ Finland is part of the Romania-Finland-Croatia trio. Finland took over the Presidency from Romania, which held the Romanian Presidency from January 1 to June 30, 2019. Croatia will take over the presidency on January 1, 2020. The next trio after that is Germany-Portugal-Slovenia. A full list of presidency until 2030 is available on the Council’s website.

With the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union got a permanent president as well as a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, meaning the High Representative heads the meetings in the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), regardless of what country holds the rotating presidency. In addition, the agenda of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) is typically largely influenced by the Eurozone group (Eurogroup). In addition, a representative from the president nation also represents the Council in the plenaries.

The Presidency has been criticized as an “EU relic” and a “key target for corporate lobbies,” but others argue that it still matters, especially in brokering legislation.

6. What are Finland’s priorities for its EU presidency?

The presidency may set certain priorities for its tenure, as outlined in the Council of the European Union Handbook for the EU Presidency.

Finland has specifically, set the following ““top priorities:”

  •    to strengthen common values and the rule of law
  •    to make the EU more competitive and socially inclusive
  •    to strengthen the EU’s position as a global leader in climate action
  •    to protect the security of citizens comprehensively

It has also published a program for its presidency, where it expands on these goals.  Its program is developed in light of the 18-month program of the trio-group presidency.

7. What has been Finland’s historic relationship with the EU ?

Timeline

  • Member of European Union (1995)
    Finland, together with the Åland territories became members of the European Union in 1995. Åland is exempt from certain taxes and excise duties (Article 2 of Protocol 2  -on the Åland Islands of the Finnish accession treaty (OJ C 241, 29.08.1994) & article 6 of Council Directive 2006/112/EC of 28 November 2006 (as amended) on the common system of value added tax (49 OJ L 347, 1)), meaning that goods can be sold tax free on vessels to and from Åland and another EU member country (including Finland).
  • Adopted Euro (1999)
    Finland adopted the Euro on January 1, 1999, together with the other Euro countries.
    The Finnish Markka was no longer legal tender after February 28, 2002. The Finnish National Bank continued to accept Finnish Markka notes until 2012 (the fixed conversion rate was €1 = 5.94573 FIM).
  • Schengen area member (2001)

8. Where can I find additional research resources?

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