European integration has deepened considerably in the recent years and many are predicting it to deepen even further, towards an all-embracing state of Europe in which national boundaries and cultural identities will gradually melt into one.
This scenario is definitely feared by many. However, among all the institutions of the European Union, the last stronghold of national interests still stands: the Council of Ministers, the Union’s main executive and legislative power. Alongside it is the European Council, a meeting of the heads of member states, which defines the broad political direction of the Union, and is under national influence as well. Are these two institutions the protectors of state interests within the European Union?
In this essay I intend to look at the organization and functions of both the Council of Ministers and the European Council. I will also examine how they interact with the rest of the European Union, and look at the functioning of the decision-making process closely to see whether the Council of Ministers protects national interests or strives for the common good of the European Union. Finally I will conclude on what I perceive as the role of the Council of Ministers and the European Council and whether they are protecting state interests within the European Union or not.
The Council of Ministers
The Council of Ministers was created on purely intergovernmental grounds in 1951. The national governments felt the need to limit the supranational powers that were driving the integration forward. The Council which was then created has evolved greatly since and its powers have deepened despite the growing powers of the supranational institutions within the European Union.
The Council of Ministers is not one complete body, but in fact meets in several different formations, depending on the subject area being discussed. For example, the ministers of education meet among themselves as do the ministers of foreign affairs. So all in all, the Council of Ministers has sixteen different formations. There also exists an hierarchy within these different formations: “Three Councils have traditionally met on a monthly basis, and have therefore been viewed as the most ‘senior’ formations – the General Affairs Council, made up of the foreign ministers of the member governments; the Economic and Financial Affairs (Ecofin), composed of the ministers of finance or economic affairs; and the Agriculture Council.” (Hayes-Renshaw, 2002: 50). The other councils meet less frequently, but yet at least twice a year. The ministers are in these meetings strictly as the representatives of their respective governments and are authorized to commit their governments (Hayes-Renshaw, 2002: 51).
The Council of Ministers is led by the presidency which rotates among the member states and is held up for a six-month period. Meanwhile the Secretariat-General of the Council acts as the administrative support to the Council performing also logistical and technical functions. The Secretary-General is also the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, so the tasks the Secretariat-General oversees are not to be overlooked. The Secretariat-General plays a significant role within the Council hierarchy.
COREPER (Committee of Permanent Representatives)
Coreper prepares the work of the Council of Ministers and is an important and integral part of the functioning of the Council. “Coreper acts as a process manager in the Council system between the ministers and the experts in the working groups.” (Cini, 2003: 157). Coreper consists of two groups: Coreper I and II. “Coreper I is made up of the deputy permanent representatives and they are responsible for preparing the so-called ‘technical’ councils.” (Cini, 2003: 157). Meanwhile, Coreper II is generally regarded the more important one and consists of the EU permanent representatives who prepare the work of the General Affairs Council and deal with issues that have broad implications. While the representatives have no formal decision-making power, they still exert a lot of influence on the ministers, and “Coreper is still an important de facto decision-making body, seen by the steady stream of ‘A points’ which are sent to the ministers for formal adoption” (Cini, 2003: 158).
Below the Coreper in hierarchy, several working groups exist: “… the working group level is a vast network of national officials who specialize in specific areas and form the initial starting point for negotiations on any new proposal or issue.” (Cini, 2003: 158) They hold the specialist knowledge needed for each subject area and aim to work through all the technical and fine detail to ease the workload of ministers.
The functions of the Council of Ministers
Decision-making is the Council’s main function and it is in fact the European Union’s principal legislative institution. All proposals originating from the Commission must be approved by the Council. Certain decisions are taken collectively with the European Parliament through co-decision procedure, and the power of the Parliament has increased in influencing the outcome of the decisions; however the Council of Ministers still holds the main power. The decisions made collectively with the European Parliament fall under the First Pillar of the issues. Decisions within the Second and Third Pillars which consist of ‘more important’ issues such as for example foreign policy are made solely by the Council of Ministers. Within the Council decisions are made preferably through negotiation and agreements; however in some cases voting is the only way to reach consensus. There are two categories for voting rules: unanimity and qualified majority voting (QMV). In the case of unanimity any country can block the decision-making process by casting a ‘no’ vote. However, QMV is more commonly used and is based on ‘weighted’ votes (every member state has a certain number of votes proportionate to their size and population). But again, it has to be stressed that voting does not take place commonly. Member states will rather come to a mutual agreement than try to hold on to their national points of view until the very end. This shows that even the Council of Ministers, the most intergovernmental of all the European Union institutions, is not all about fighting for national benefits but instead tries to look for what is good for the Union as well.
The Council of Ministers is also the executive power of the European Union. As such, its function is “to provide leadership and steer the pace and direction of European integration, seen especially in areas of diplomacy and foreign affairs.” (Cini, 2003: 149). In this task, it is aided by the European Council that sets the broad political agenda.
The European Council
The European Council, which is the meeting of the heads of member state governments, was established in 1974. The meetings had taken place prior to that but it was then that the European Council was institutionalized as an integral part of the European Union. “The main reason for the creation of the European Council was a growing feeling that the Community was failing to respond adequately or quickly enough to new and increasingly difficult challenges.” (Nugent, 2003: 179) The powers of the European Council at the moment (they have evolved over time and without a doubt will keep evolving as well) are the following: It defines the broad political direction and guidelines of the European Union. It guides the European Union’s development and determines the guidelines of economic policies within the Union; and it defines the general principles and guidelines for Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and takes decisions for implementing CFSP. Its task is also to “decide on common strategies to be implemented by the Union in areas where the Member States have important interests in common.” (Nugent, 2003: 181) And finally, “the Council shall ensure the unity, consistency and effectiveness of action by the Union.” (Nugent, 2003: 181) Basically, the European Council is a political get-together that unites the national interests of the member states into a broad political agenda.
Even if the European Council is not part of the official decision-making machinery, it still has an important role in that because “final and legally binding EU decisions may be made by other EU institutions, but major political decisions concerning the institutional and policy development of the EU are now generally taken by, or at least are channeled through and given clearance by, the European Council.” (Nugent. 2003: 182) The meetings of the European Council are prepared by the General Affairs and External Relations Council, again to ease the workload of the busy heads of states.
National Interests and the Decision-making Process in the European Union
In this section I intend to look at the decision-making process within the second and third pillars more specifically and see if that can offer proof of the claim that the Council of Ministers acts as the protector of state interests within the European Union. The main question here is whether member states will rather reach consensus, even if that might mean having to give up some of their national interests, or use their right to veto (or become part of a blocking minority) to ensure that national gains are reached?
As mentioned before, the Council of Ministers exercises its decision-making authority especially in matters under the Second and Third Pillars. Under these pillars, which comprise of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and justice and home affairs, the European Parliament is not an official part of the decision-making machinery; even if it is allowed state its opinion on the issues. The member states can be regarded as having strong national interests in these two areas, mostly related to national sovereignty and geopolitical and economic interests.
In the past, the Council of Ministers had a strong emphasis on national interests, under some informal rules, such as for example the Luxembourg Compromise: “For a long time the most important of these [the informal rules] was the Luxembourg ‘Compromise’ of 1966, under which it was asserted by the French government of the day that member states should be able to block decisions that would threaten ‘very important national interests’.” (Hayes-Renshaw and Wallace, 2005: 14) However, now Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) has become more important than unanimity voting, therefore vetoing is no longer as useful, or even possible. “Ever since QMV became an embedded option, votes have been formally taken on only about a quarter of eligible decisions, often with abstentions, rather than negative votes.” (Hayes-Renshaw and Wallace, 2005: 18) But even QMV is not often used because any kind of voting is not a common practice in the Council of Ministers. States will rather reach consensus through lengthy negotiations.
There exists some problems with QMV though which imply that member states still feel that their national interests might be threatened: weighted votes lead to larger states being underrepresented (not having enough votes relative to their population) and vice versa smaller states being overrepresented. “Even if the weight of an individual small country is limited, it is not only symbolic. It determines the extent to which the country can be an effective and valued partner in qualified majorities or blocking minorities, and thereby receive support for its national interests.” (Moberg, 2002: 267) Therefore, safeguarding national interests is still important and even if vetoing as such is not an option in most cases, blocking power remains important. Rather than clinging on to a specific national point of view, member states take a more flexible approach and team with like-minded states with shared interests. Coalitions of states tend to stay the same because “usually, states have a stable set of national interests, which in most cases are basically the same even after a change of government” (Moberg, 2002: 261). Weighting of interests is more important than mere concepts of power and blocking a decision can bring about new proposals, better suited to national interests.
The importance of national interests can also be seen in the fact that “in the daily work of the EU, (…), the dividing line is almost never between large and small, but rather between countries with opposite interests in other respects” (Moberg, 2002: 270). Despite this, a strong consensus-culture seems to exist. Member states cannot defend their national interests all the time but they have to consider their relations to other countries too, as well as their own image. At the end of the day, work at the Council of Ministers is like any group work: everyone has their opinion but something has to give and everyone has to compromise to find a solution that pleases everyone. And in the case of the European Union, a solution that allows the Union to function and move the integration forward.
Hayes-Renshaw offers a very useful one-sentence summary of the Council of Ministers: “The Council is the EU’s chief decision-making body, the place where national interests are articulated, defended, and aggregated by ministerial representatives of all member governments.” (2002: 47). It sums up the main functions of the Council, however it is interesting that she should emphasize the fact that the Council is where national interests are represented. Cini recognizes the Council of Ministers as “the premier EU institution for representing national interests and power” (2003: 163) but highlights the fact that the Council is also more than merely the forum for national negotiation and bargaining: “It is also a collective system of governance which locks member states into permanent negotiations with one another.” (2003: 163) The Council is therefore both intergovernmental and supranational. “… It blurs the traditional distinction between the national and European levels, between intergovernmental and supranational.” (Cini, 2003: 163) From these descriptions and the previous summaries on the Council of Ministers and the European Council, can we come to a conclusion that they are protecting state interests within the European Union? The European Union’s strongly supranational character might lead us to believe that any institution that has even a little to do with member state’s own interests is intergovernmental and safeguarding national interests and gains. This is even strengthened by the prominent roles that the Council of Ministers and the European Council have – for many outsiders, they are the Union. But as we can see from their functions and roles and positions that have been examined in this essay, we can conclude that they are indeed protecting national interests and it looks unlikely that the member states would settle for smaller representation. However, we should bear in mind that protecting national interests is not the only function they have in the European Union and they also serve a purpose to the deepening integration and a bigger picture of Europe.
Cini, M. (2003): European Union Politics. Oxford: University Press.
Hayes-Renshaw, F. (2002): The Council of Ministers, in Peterson, J. and Shackleton, M.: The Institutions of the European Union. Oxford: University Press.
Hayes-Renshaw, F. and Wallace, H. (2005): The Council of Ministers of the European Union. London: MacMillan.
Moberg, A. (2002): The Nice Treaty and Voting Rules in the Council, in Journal of Common Market Studies. Vol. 40, no. 2
Nugent, N. (2003): The Government and Politics of the European Union. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.