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date: 27 April 2017

The Council of Ministers of the European Union

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The Council of Ministers, officially known as the Council of the European Union (EU), is a single legal composition of national ministers who meet in policy-specific formations to negotiate and adopt EU legislation.

In recent decades, the Council has undergone formal restructuring, most significantly in sharing co-legislative authority with the EP (now called the “ordinary legislative procedure” or OLP), as well as redesigning how majority voting works, repackaging the policy configurations in which the ministers meet, and altering leadership posts to a more differential blend of rotating and permanent chairs.

Over time, the Council has witnessed informal organizational change, seen particularly in the internal hierarchy and the relationship of the finance and foreign ministers to the heads of government who meet in the European Council. Adapting to an enlarged Union has also stimulated changes in the informal rules that cover working methods, including coordination between presidency rotations, a higher reliance on between-meetings exchanges of views, and the heightened role of written statements as a subtler form of contestation.

The Council is more than just the ministers however, since they rely heavily on an organizational infrastructure of preparatory committees and the expertise of specialist working groups as well as rotating and permanent leadership positions and a small but influential bureaucracy, the General Secretariat of the Council (GSC). EU Council research has documented both formal and informal decision-making dynamics, especially related to voting and consensus-seeking practices that include a range of behavioral norms and appropriateness standards. Somewhat surprisingly, there is still a widespread difference of interpretation in how the Council actually works, whether consensus is a culture of accommodating divergent interests or a façade of relative power, and even whether the Council is a generalizable form of intergovernmental cooperation or a unique amalgam of power and authority.

A widespread, yet not authoritatively accepted, view is that the Council is an institutional construct that exemplifies the potential hybridity of national control and collective action. The complicated admixture of national sovereignty and collective rationality, between instrumentalism and group norms that are found in the context of Council operations displays a commanding illustration of what Finnemore and Sikkink have suggestively termed a “strategic social construction.” As an institution, the Council deliberately promotes networks of club-like national policy specialists with an emphasis on a durable normative environment to make collective decisions in a non-transparent setting of policy insulation from domestic constituencies. However, in the post-Maastricht era of EU politics, since the early 1990s, the way the Council works is also increasingly debated in terms of transparency, accountability, and legitimacy.