From the European Commission and the European Parliament to the European Council and the Council of Ministers, understanding the separation of powers in Brussels is quite a challenge. Our secret columnist Schadenfreude attempts to unravel the labyrinthine EU hierarchy
The European Union does not make itself easily understandable. Some would say this is an understatement. So it is with the word ‘presidency’. There is the rotating presidency is of the Council of Ministers. This body receives and adopts or amends European Commission proposals. The member states in turn assume the presidency, meaning that they take the chair at ministerial and official meetings at which commission proposals are examined – and in the general run amended on the basis of a compromise acceptable to a majority, or more commonly, to all.
The presidency is a heavy task for the country concerned, running countless daily meetings at official level – the working groups – and in the sectional council meetings – agriculture, environment, health, social affairs and budget – at ministerial level. It also negotiates agreements on draft legislation with the European Parliament
One special case is the Foreign Affairs Council, where the chairperson is the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy – currently Catherine Ashton – and not the foreign minister of the presidency country. The high rep is nominated by the European Council and is also a vice-president of the commission.
To ensure some coherence, national presidencies now work in groups of three to a more or less common programme. The presidency is supported, if that is always the right word by the bureaucrats of the council secretariat. They provide briefings, legal advice, security and sustenance; and are masters of compromise.
The European Council is something different. It brings together the heads of state or government, HOSG for short, of the member states – a mixture of presidents and prime ministers. Its president is not, as was formerly the case, the top person of the presidency country but a fixed-term appointee of the aforesaid HOSG with his or her own staff within the council secretariat.
Whereas a Council of Ministers is a legislator – alongside the European Parliament – the European Council does not legislate but produces directions and other policy statements addressed to the member States and the commission – without prejudice to its independence. All the same, it works to a certain degree most of the time. Whether its works as well as it could is another question altogether.