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date: 26 July 2017

The Council of Ministers of the European Union

Summary and Keywords

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 policies and laws. The Council is more than just the ministers; they depend on an infrastructure of preparatory bodies and specialist working groups, as well as rotating and permanent leadership positions and an internal bureaucracy, the General Secretariat of the Council (GSC). Over time, the Council has undergone formal restructuring, such as sharing colegislative authority with the European Parliament (EP), now called the “ordinary legislative procedure” (OLP), and redesigning how majority voting works. The Council has also witnessed informal organizational change, especially in internal pecking-order dynamics and techniques to reach consensus-based outcomes.

EU Council research has documented formal and informal decision-making dynamics, especially related to voting and consensus practices, although there is no real agreement on how formal and informal rules interact to influence the context of negotiations. There is still a divergence of interpretation in how the Council actually works, such as whether consensus is a “culture” of mutual accommodation subject to group standards or is instead a façade of relative power. As an institution, the Council deliberately promotes clublike networks of like-minded national policy specialists and experts who meet in repeat, face-to-face interactions and make collective decisions in mostly nontransparent (in camera) settings of insulation from domestic audiences. 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.

Keywords: Council of the European Union (EU), Council of Ministers, sovereignty, decision-making, formal and informal rules, consensus

The Council: A Redoubt for Sovereignty in Transnational Form

The Council of the European Union (EU) is the most intricate transnational network yet devised of what Anne-Marie Slaughter (2004, p. 5) suggestively termed “disaggregated sovereignty.” As an original EU institution established by the 1951 Treaty of Paris (Articles 26–30), the Council of Ministers began meeting in September 1952. Originally intended as a redoubt for national sovereignty by member-states to safeguard an intergovernmental control mechanism at the heart of the European integration process, the Council has nonetheless evolved into a metanetwork of clublike bodies with far-reaching implications for both national autonomy and democratic accountability. Since the 1990s, the post-Maastricht era of European integration has seen significant reengineering of Council politics, especially with the intensification of policy coordination processes that make permanent consensus seeking and face-to-face deliberation among key sets of ministers a kind of TINA (there is no alternative) principle (Puetter, 2014). In effect, Council governance leads to constitutive changes for the process of defining and defending what national interests are and what statehood means (Adler-Nissen, 2014; Bickerton, Hodson, & Puetter, 2015, p. 22).

This does not mean that the conventional view of the Council as a bulwark for national power and interests is incorrect. The classical, liberal, and “new” intergovernmentalism all document the Council as a site of relative power and national control. One does not have to dig too deeply to find confirmation: the eurozone’s history of excessive deficit surveillance and the suppression of automatic penalties; the neoprotectionist food, farming, and fisheries policies; the public contestation of mandatory migration quotas; and so on. The Council is overtly designed to represent national interests and power. There is convincing empirical evidence of how distributional issues and domestic politics affect Council bargaining (Bailer, 2010, 2011). The Council is clearly geared toward managing competing “country-level redistributive issues” that can vary considerably by policy sector and the relative salience of domestic commercial interests (Bailer, Mattila, & Schneider, 2015, p. 437; see also, Moravcsik, 1998).

At the same time, one finds a basic incongruence in the scholarly treatment of the Council as an intergovernmental institution. This is evident, for example, in the influential relaunch era–edited volume by Keohane and Hoffmann (1991), where the assumption of the Council as an “interstate body” (p. 8) is at odds with other contributors like Wolfgang Wessels (1991, p. 137), who depict the system as more “a body at the supranational level.” In the same volume, Andrew Moravcsik’s nascent liberal intergovernmentalist theory holds: “EC politics is the continuation of domestic politics by other means” (Moravcsik, 1991, p. 47). In this view, there is no autonomous interaction context at the EU/Council level, and the Council’s institutional environment is simply a facilitator for interstate bargaining—an empty chessboard. Contrast this with William Wallace’s insight that the Council represents “the exercise of collective sovereignty, not simply multilateral bargaining among sovereign states” (Wallace, 1994, p. 36). As this article will attempt to show, the conventional intergovernmental view is at best a partial picture of how things actually work in practice.

The conventional view understates the club membership implications for sovereignty on the macro-historical level, as well as the microfoundational effects on participating state agents. In short, it misses the transformational qualities of the Council as a social order. As Slaughter (2004, pp. 34, 270) explains, in “disaggregated” form, the core character of sovereignty shifts from “autonomy from outside interference” to the “capacity to participate” in transnational settings. Such settings rely heavily on group behavioral norms, professional standards of conduct, and a host of informal rules that proscribe or prescribe conduct. In the words of Daniel Thomas (2011, p. 14), “the European Union is almost certainly the most normatively structured transnational space on Earth.”

The Council exists at the interstitial core of this transnational space. Rather than simply safeguarding sovereignty, it collectively redefines the meaning of national sovereignty (Lewis, 2009; Laffan, 1998; Waever, 1995). By loosening what Robert Keohane (2002, pp. 748–749) refers to as the “straightjacket of sovereignty,” the member-states of the EU have exchanged “classical” for “pooled” sovereignty, with the implication that “in many areas, states’ legal authority over internal and external affairs is transferred to the Community as a whole, authorizing action through procedures not involving state vetoes” (also see Bickerton, 2012; Sbragia, 1994).

The Council’s transformational qualities on members lack no shortage of labels to describe it, from the “new intergovernmentalism” (Bickerton et al., 2015; Puetter, 2014) to “late sovereign diplomacy” (Adler-Nissen, 2009). Many of the traits are less new than venerable characteristics of the Council’s modus operandi, already forecast by earlier integration research such as the Haasian lock-in effects of “engagement”; or Helen Wallace’s “modes” of decision-making, including “intensive transgovernmentalism”; Joseph Weiler’s intriguing concept of “infranationalism”; or, pardoning the jargon, John Ruggie’s idea of a “multiperspectival polity” (Haas, 1958, pp. 522–523; Wallace, 2000, pp. 33–35; Weiler, 1999, pp. 96–99; Ruggie, 1998, p. 195).

Before unpacking the terminology any further, some basics are in order. The article is organized as follows. First, the Council is presented in terms of annual output and the component parts of which it consists, including some arbitrary distinctions of where to draw the line. The contrast between de jure and de facto decision-making is then made, followed by an analysis of voting rules and the importance of formal and informal rules in understanding how the Council operates. This section will cover what abstentions mean, counting practices and the indicative vote, and the political maze of safeguards such as the infamous Luxembourg Compromise (LC) or its rarely invoked analog for almost-but-not-quite blocking minorities, the Ioannina Compromise. Building on this, the following section will examine consensus-seeking patterns and the explanations for why they seem to endure over time. The durability of consensus practices are best accounted for in a complementary, three-layered explanation of strategic rationality, pro-norm socialization, and a habitus of how things work inside the “Brussels bubble.” Sorting out the causal complexity here is no light task, but the potential payoff is a richer understanding of the seemingly paradoxical construct of an intergovernmental institution made up of clublike networks of like-minded national officials in which sovereignty becomes disaggregated and pooled in transnational configurations. The concluding section will briefly reexamine the Council as an institution and social order in light of these hybrid characteristics.

What the Council Is

The scale of what the Council does affirms two commonly cited hallmarks of the institutional environment—continuous negotiation and issue intensity. Now averaging more than 4,200 meetings per year with an operational budget that exceeds 540 million euros, the Council’s work regularly engages on the order of 62,000 national officials (see Table 1).1

Table 1. Frequency of Council Meetings, 2005–2015

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

Summits

3

3

3

5

7

7

9

7

6

9

12

Councils

80

76

68

81

74

86

85

77

74

81

81

Coreper

123

120

106

144

140

122

135

140

140

135

138

Working Groups

3,918

4,037

4,183

4,480

4,272

4,127

4,373

4,480

4,164

4,016

3,471

Total

4,124

4,236

4,360

4,710

4,493

4,342

4,602

4,704

4,384

4,241

3,702

Other meetings

2,791

2,713

1,735

2,051

2,021

1,996

2,075

2,189

2,027

2,189

2,271

Grand total

6,915

6,949

6,095

6,761

6,514

6,338

6,677

6,893

6,411

6,430

5,973

Note: (*) Other meetings include training sessions, seminars, information sessions and briefings, and meetings with third countries.

Source: Council Financial Activity Report 2015, Section II European Council and Council (2016/C 360/01), Table 3. For 2005: Council Financial Activity Report 2014, Section II European Council and Council (2015/C 359/01), Table 3.

Annually, this produces 1,107 official legal acts published in the Official Journal (OJ), on average, since 2003 (see Table 2).

Table 2. Annual Number of Legal Acts, 2003–2015

Year

Legal Acts Published in OJ

2003

1,045

2004

1,118

2005

1,056

2006

1,317

2007

1,000

2008

1,274

2009

829

2010

825

2011

986

2012

958

2013

1,132

2014

1,437

2015

1,412

Source: Council Financial Activity Report 2015, Section II European Council and Council (2016/C 360/01), Table 4. For 2004 and 2005: Council Financial Activity Report 2014, Section II European Council and Council (2015/C 359/01), Table 4. For 2003: Council Financial Activity Report 2013, Section II European Council and Council (2014/C 411/01), Table 4.

But only measuring formal legislative acts would significantly undercount the true “output” of the Council’s annual meetings since they also produce thousands of politically and legally binding conclusions, common positions, joint actions, and forms of informal policy coordination. Just in the area of foreign policy, the EU has grown from adopting perhaps 15 common policies per year in the early 1990s to something averaging more like over 100 per year (Thomas, 2011, p. 11). Peter Katzenstein’s (2005, p. 136) observation that the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) is a “legal space that rivals in its political significance the single market initiative” appears to have become exactly that. The JHA Stockholm Program, an ambitious agenda covering the 2009–2014 time frame, lists more proposals than the 1992 project by the Single European Act (SEA) to implement the Single European Market (Wolff, 2015, p. 130). Add to this the ever-burgeoning scope of policy coordination functions pertaining to “economic governance” and the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) dialogue among Eurozone members to begin to appreciate the pervasive way that Council politics enmesh national sovereignty (Puetter, 2014, chapter 4; Heipertz & Verdun, 2010).

The January 2017 unveiling of the new Council and European Council headquarters, the Europa building (unofficially dubbed “the egg” due to the glass urn–shaped design), adjacent to the existing Justus Lipsius, is a symbolic statement of the institutions’ centrality in EU politics. Europa is built on the foundations of the art deco era Résidence Palace, a decision dating back to 2004 in anticipation of Eastern enlargement and the growing space limits of Justus Lipsius (especially for interpreters’ booths).2 While Europa’s largest meeting spaces can reportedly hold over 300 people around a phalanx of 32 interpretation booths, the everyday reality of Council politics is still fundamentally designed around confidential face-to-face encounters among like-minded policy specialists over a repeat, iterative series of deliberations. The most visible element of the Council, and where the older nomenclature of Council of Ministers still holds descriptive appeal, is the network of ministerial formations that are organized by policy sector. After a formal reorganization in 2002, to rationalize the sprawl of Councils that proliferated in the post-Maastricht EU of the 1990s, the number of ministerial formations was reduced to 10 (see Table 3).

Table 3. Council Configurations

General Affairs (GAC)

Foreign Affairs (FAC)

Economic and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN)

Justice and Home Affairs (JHA)

Agriculture and Fisheries (AGFISH)

Competitiveness (COMPET)

Environment (ENV)

Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs (EPSCO)

Transport, Telecommunications and Energy (TTE)

Education, Youth, Culture and Sport (EYCS)

Source: Council’s website, available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/configurations/.

Perhaps oddly, Table 3 omits one of the most hyperactive and influential Council clubs, the informal Eurogroup. Technically, the Eurogroup is not a Council formation, since it excludes noneuro members’ finance ministers, who are all represented in Economic and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN). The Eurogroup was created in December 1997 at the behest of the European Council, and it has since become one of the most important Council networks, with an autonomous administrative infrastructure to service it and a penchant for confidential deliberations that the euro crisis has enhanced. Research shows that the Eurogroup evolved in a highly experimental manner, utilizing secrecy and informality and building on the consolidation of political clout that EU finance ministers have fashioned over the years as an independent-minded group (Puetter, 2006, 2007; Hayes-Renshaw & Wallace, 2006, pp. 42–43).

The issue of how to code a body like the Eurogroup raises a bigger boundary delineation problem in studying the Council. Since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty (LT) designates the European Council as a separate, official EU institution, there is a slight accounting problem in the terminology—what counts as “the Council”? This is not an entirely unambiguous question, as some texts (including this one) offer separate treatment for the European Council and the Council of the EU (e.g., Peterson & Hodson, 2016), while others combine them (e.g., Cini & Borragán, 2016; Puetter, 2014). The boundary issue of what to include is often settled by pragmatism or space constraints rather than theoretical coherence. Given the longevity of intertwined relations going back to at least 1974, it does not make strong theoretical sense to separate these aspects of the Council universe. On the other hand, given the sheer number of groupings at different levels of the political hierarchy—from the heads of government and ministers to career civil servants and experts—accounting for all these components at once is not easy. One result is a lack of authoritative terminology to capture all the Council’s moving parts. Apparently, some components can even apparently hive off in physical and organizational autonomy, such as the newer European External Action Service (EEAS) infrastructure, which included a large infusion of staff from the Council’s bureaucracy in 2010 (Blom & Vanhoonacker, 2015; Lequesne, 2015; Henökl & Trondal, 2015).

In 2014, the Council’s bureaucracy, the General Secretariat (GSC), developed a new visual symbol for what they called the “Council family” (see Figure 1).

The Council of Ministers of the European UnionClick to view larger

Figure 1: 2014 “Council Family” Symbol.

What they count as this is eloquently stated: all institutions and entities served by the GSC.3 By this parcing, one can cast the widest net—the European Council and its president (including the newer Euro summitry), the Council with its rotating presidency and distinct sectoral formations, the Foreign Policy “High Representative” as president of the Foreign Affairs Council and administration, and the Eurogroup. However, for simplifying reasons, this article focuses more narrowly on the Council of Ministers and the accompanying bureaucratic/administrative infrastructure that services it unless otherwise noted.

What the Council Does

The Council negotiates and adopts EU policies and laws in a range of forms, from regulations and directives to decisions and nonbinding recommendations. Since the Maastricht era and the advent of “codecision”—rebranded by the LT as the “ordinary legislative procedure (OLP)”—the European Parliament (EP) has evolved into a colegislator along with the Council in roughly 80% of EU affairs (important exceptions still include foreign policy, taxation, and social security). The formal decision rule (including OLP status) is determined by the underlying legal basis of the proposal. A simple rule of thumb is that less controversial and more routine matters (e.g., approving staffing decisions and replies to written questions) are settled by a formal rule of simple majority voting, whereas the most sovereignty-sensitive issues (taxation, institutional reform, foreign policy with military implications) are subject to a formal rule of unanimity voting. Everything else is now governed by the formal rule of qualified majority voting (QMV). Post-Lisbon, the legislative norm is QMV under OLP.

In addition, the Lisbon Treaty significantly revised how QMV rules work, by establishing a new double-majority system that scraps the long-standing but asymmetrical voting weights. The new QMV rules require (a) support from at least 55 of the member-states (i.e., at least 16 of the EU28), and (b) representing at least 65% of the total EU population (see Table 4).

Table 4. Qualified Majority Voting Population Weightings

Member-State

Percentage of Total EU Population

Germany

15.93

France

13.04

United Kingdom

12.73

Italy

12.07

Spain

9.12

Poland

7.47

Romania

3.90

Netherlands

3.37

Belgium

2.21

Greece

2.13

Czech Republic

2.05

Portugal

2.04

Hungary

1.94

Sweden

1.92

Austria

1.69

Bulgaria

1.42

Denmark

1.11

Finland

1.08

Slovakia

1.06

Ireland

0.91

Croatia

0.83

Lithuania

0.57

Slovenia

0.41

Latvia

0.39

Estonia

0.26

Cyprus

0.17

Luxembourg

0.11

Malta

0.08

Total

100

Source: Council website, voting calculator; accessed March 17, 2016; see http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/voting-system/voting-calculator/.

QMV reform predates the LT since the earlier Nice Treaty produced a vote-reweighting exercise in anticipation of Eastern enlargement and a much bigger Council. Nice QMV reform became embroiled in controversy over the various parity clusters between members like Germany and France, Spain and Poland, or even Belgium and the Netherlands. At issue was relative voting power, especially among the “big four,” who had parity voting weights but a national population spread of greater than 20 million citizens between them (see Table 5).

Table 5. Nice-Era QMV Weights and Population Range Within Parity Clusters

Weighted Votes

Difference in National Population Size Within Clusters (x1000)

Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy

29

21,023

Spain, Poland

27

7,658

Romania

14

Netherlands

13

Greece, Belgium, Portugal, Czech Republic, Hungary

12

1,333

Sweden, Austria, Bulgaria

10

2,156

Denmark, Slovakia, Finland, Ireland, Croatia, Lithuania

7

2,573

Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg

4

1,531

Malta

3

Source: The European Council and the Council of the EU Through Time, January 2016: 59. Column 2 calculations by author based on 2013 population statistics, see Council Decision 2013/37/EU of 14 January 2013 amending the Council’s Rules of Procedure (OJ L 16, 19.1.2013: 16–17).

After heated negotiations and horse-trading that linked voting reweights to issues such as Germany’s number of members in the EP, the legal basis for cohesion and structural funds, and the future location for European Council summits, a new QMV order was established (Sbragia, 2012). Nice-era QMV was a triple-majority system, requiring (a) a majority of member-states, (b) representing at least 62% of the total EU population, and (c) a minimum of 260 out of 352 weighted votes in favor in the EU28 (or 73% of the total weighted votes). But the Nice reweights, and especially the parity discourse that emerged during negotiations, exacerbated an imbalanced sense of “demographic primacy” (Dehousse & Deloche-Gaudez 2009, p. 21) On the basis on the Nice QMV weights, a Maltese citizen’s vote carried about 20 times as much weight as a German citizen’s vote (EurActiv, 2014).

The new LT double-majority QMV rules proved controversial for members such as Poland, which had a generous “weighting” under the old Nice Treaty, and, as a result, the Lisbon rules only came into effect from November 1, 2014. A further transitional safeguard was added that allowed any member-state requesting it to invoke the old Nice QMV rules until November 2017. Another formal LT safeguard, intended for small-state reassurance, mandates a minimum blocking coalition of at least four members, since any three of the four largest (Germany, France, Britain, Italy) exceed the 35% minimum population threshold.

Explaining and understanding voting patterns constitute a classic area of debate in EU studies since the observable reality is that most EU policy is made without recourse to formal voting at all—that is, it is adopted by consensus. Before discussing the voting issue and consensus patterns in detail, the next section clarifies a more basic question: who actually decides? By offering both a straightforward “in principle” answer and a more complicated “in practice” perspective, we can establish a prima facie case for thinking about formal and informal rules as intertwined, inseparable elements in explaining how decision-making across the Council’s many clublike layers actually works.

Who Decides?

To understand who decides in the Council system, there are two explanations: one simple, the other more complicated. The simple story is the ministers are the only ones with legitimate authority to make decisions. By treaty rule, only representatives of member-states at the ministerial level are “authorized to commit the government of that Member State” [Article 16(2) TEU]. The unquestioned logic, of course, is that the ministers are directly accountable to the citizenry back home as part of a democratically elected government. The input legitimacy of EU law derives from this unambiguous delegation chain and the expectation that only democratically accountable ministers are committing sovereign governments to EU-level rules and laws.4

The complicated explanation of who decides requires a distinction between formal (de jure) and informal (de facto) authority. While the ministers, and only the ministers, hold the former, a range of other national officials who might be civil servants or technocratic specialists are involved in the latter. Codifying the Council levels at which these de facto decisions occur is notoriously difficult and often rely on simplifying assumptions in terms of ministerial input. Some put stock in trying to codify where actual (de facto) decisions are made, such as the widely cited 85% preparatory/working group level and 15% ministers estimate (Hayes-Renshaw & Wallace, 1997, p. 78). Häge (2008, 2013) challenges this, but his higher ratio of ministerial involvement (60% or more) includes whether the ministers discussed a file at any point in the negotiation process, which still leaves a lot of unexplained variance in the substantive question of exactly who decides what. Historically, the record suggests that intra-Council networking—especially between the preparatory bodies and the ministers—is at least partially designed to cloak the actual decision-making sequence (Noël, 1967). For example, Uwe Puetter (2007) traces the subterranean influence of the Economic and Finance Committee (EFC) in structuring the European Convention’s framing of economic governance institutions through the influence that this preparatory body has on the EU finance ministers. And ethnographic “insider” studies, such as Sandrino Smeet’s path-breaking study of Balkans enlargement negotiations, convincingly demonstrate how decisions “are the result of the interplay of different Council levels” (Smeets, 2015, p. 184). If the qualitative evidence is believed, quantifying who decides is hardly a straightforward counting exercise; it requires a fair amount of interpretation.

Another complicating factor in understanding who decides is the question of whether the ministers are actually present at the meeting or whether a proxy sits in for them. Council Press Releases include a record of who attends each meeting, and researchers have started to assess the patterns of ministerial versus proxy representation. For example, a new data set of all 362 Council meetings between 2005–2009 shows that, on average, the minister was present 76% of the time (GrØn & Salomonsen, 2015, p. 1079). Some members sent ministers more often. Finland sent a minister 93% of the time, while others use a mixture of ministers and deputy ministers. The United Kingdom sent a minister only 56% of the time but was represented by a junior minister an additional 30% of the time. A significant trend in the data is the finding that permanent civil servants sit in for the ministers in 10% or more of the ministers’ meetings in 14 of the 28 member-states (ibid., p. 1080; also see Table 1).

Related to patterns of attendance is the incidence of ministerial turnover, something that has not been very explicitly studied in the context of the Council. New research tentatively finds support for a pattern of high turnover rates by ministers represented in the Council (35% annually; 93% over a five-year span), leading to systemic patterns of discretion for civil servants based in Brussels (Perez & Scherpereel, 2015). Even within a given six-month EU presidency rotation, the average Council configuration sees more than one-sixth of the ministers come and go (Scherpereel & Perez, 2015, p. 670). These patterns of representation and de facto decision-making within the Council have far-reaching implications for our understanding of democratic accountability in EU politics. Based on data from 2004–2012, Perez and Scherpereel (2015, p. 23) conclude, “when levels of turnover are high and bureaucrats are making more decisions, national parliamentarians have a harder time assigning approbation and blame.” Eastern enlargement and the higher transaction costs of negotiating in a more heterogeneous Council (Hertz & Leuffen, 2011) may have accentuated the pattern of bureaucratic discretion, especially to senior preparatory bodies like Coreper (Parízek, Hosli, & Plechanovova, 2015).

There is widespread recognition that the relative authority of different ministerial Councils is neither fixed nor formalized. A clear winner in recent decades has been the nexus of finance ministers in the ECOFIN Council and newer Eurogroup formation (Puetter, 2006). The foreign ministers are a declining power, both as horizontal issue managers in the General Affairs Council (GAC) and, domestically, as senior cabinet advisors to the head of government on EU affairs. The former pattern was documented by Gomez and Peterson (2001, p. 54), who observed that the GAC had lost its status as the “overall coordinator” of the Council’s business, a trend that accelerated post-Maastricht by empowering a much more avuncular European Council, with “special oversight powers” over individual ministerial Councils (Bickerton, Hodson, & Puetter, 2015, p. 10; see also, Puetter, 2014). The latter is symbolically captured by the European Council decision to exclude the foreign ministers from summits (initiated at the 2002 Seville European Council) where they used to sit alongside the head of government or state as informal advisors.

There is also a discernible pecking-order dynamic and occasional bureaucratic rivalry that flares up among the senior preparatory bodies like Coreper, the EFC, and the Political and Security Committee (PSC). These turf struggles date back to the Maastricht era of the 1990s and are clearly different from the smooth functional division of labor that earlier separated the workload of Coreper I and II and the Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA) (Lewis, 2000). One of the persistent contemporary battles among senior preparatory bodies is who has more direct access to the European Council. There is also a higher reliance on the autonomous Sherpa network of personal representatives to the heads of government in preparing summit agendas.5 Overall, this can either be interpreted as a sign of institutional fragmentation (e.g., Genschel & Jachtenfuchs, 2016, p. 6) or a more differentiated but still complementary “focus on informal committee-based governance with an accent on expertise and consensus” (Bickerton, 2012, p. 35).

Having established the basic anatomy of the Council’s multifaceted design, we can now look more closely at how the Council decides by delving deeper into the formal and informal rules of the decision-making process and the ways in which they interrelate. Just as there are formal (on paper) and informal (in practice) distinctions that determine who decides, there are underexplored connections between the formal and informal rules of the game of how Council decision-making actually works.

How the Council Decides: Formal and Informal Rules are Inseparable

Formal decision-making rules act as a structuring device to control how Council negotiations work. But informal rules also guide negotiating behavior, especially by imbuing the process with collective meaning. Formal rules interact with informal rules in complex and still generally misunderstood ways.6 In Council settings, the formal rules prestructure interactions, but informal rules are causally inseparable from the institutional environment in which negotiations take place, as are the underlying shared understandings that such practices rest on, such as the need to “keep raw obstructionism to a minimum” (Heisenberg, 2012, p. 378). Informal rules vary by Council setting, each of which has evolved a particular ethos for making collective policies. Some Council settings have a quicker recourse to formal voting, such as the AGFISH constellation, which has historically seen a higher incidence of contestation, but the JHA Council is the opposite. Informal rules also bind individuals in varied (and not uniform) ways. There are dynamics of socialization, engrenage, and norm internalization, but there are also patterns of normative contestation, noncompliance, and deviance at the microlevel (Smeets, 2016; Panke & Petersohn, 2016).

The formal rules help compel and instantiate a process whereby informal rules, standards, and expectations cannot be neatly separated from them or ranked in order of importance. The reason, simply stated, is that the Council is not just a formal organization, but also a social order (Adler-Nissen, 2014, p. 175). The extensive “Decision Making in the EU (DEU)” data set offers a great deal of comprehensive material on national bargaining positions and voting outcomes, yet it generally does not account for the social context in which these bargaining models play out (Thomson, Stokman, Achen, & König, 2006; Thomson, 2008). This is a consistent limitation in the Council power indices literature that focuses on formal voting weights but ignores intangibles like Adler-Nissen’s concept of “diplomatic capital” or “the power that comes with social standing” (Adler-Nissen, 2014, pp. 60–61; Hosli, 1995, 2001). In a social order, what counts as power and who can wield it is not the textbook notion of power politics, where relative size, votes, material capabilities, and the like determine outcomes. To offer one quick but telling illustration, survey research of EU foreign policy specialists rank the Dutch just as powerfully connected as the Germans or French in terms of their “transaction power,” which “derives from the Netherlands’ strong reputation as a like-minded country that is responsive and easy to work with” (Janning, 2016, p. 3). The importance of this distinction can be seen by looking more in depth at how the formal decision rules interact with informal negotiation practices. This will help us establish the historical pattern of “voting in principle, consensus in practice,” as well as shed light on formal rules that don’t bark much (the Ioannina Compromise) or have lost much of their bite (the LC).

To begin, let’s look more closely at the importance of formal voting rules. In plain language, formal voting rules are an omnipresent “shadowing” device: under unanimity, it creates a “shadow of the veto” and, under QMV, the “shadow of the vote” (Golub, 1999, p. 733). The difference is hard to overstate because a very different negotiation dynamic occurs when the legal right to block something with a national veto is available to anyone who wishes to invoke it under unanimity rules. But under the “shadow of the vote,” the recourse to formal voting compels different informal standards of behavior. Stéphanie Novak’s research on consensus patterns supports this point where she notes the “pace and style” of decision-making differs in policy areas governed by unanimity and QMV rules (Novak, 2013, p. 1093; see also, Smeets, 2016, p. 24). Under the latter, intransigence over a national position at odds with an emergent majority carries the burden of the group potentially ignoring you, and, if need be, voting you down with a formal decision.

Since the “relaunch” era of European integration in the mid-1980s, one of the most salient institutional reengineering trends has been extending the formal recourse to majority voting to more and more issue areas. One scholar equates “the gradual extension of QMV” to “one of the most hard-fought battles in the political history of the EU” (Dinan, 2015, p. 209). The formal rule of QMV has even overtaken veto rights in sovereignty-sensitive areas like JHA, covering topics such as asylum and migration policy or police and judicial cooperation. Nearly a cliché in Brussels is the adage that “the surest way to agree is for QMV.” What this means in practice is twofold: First, under the “shadow of the vote,” a delegation that is isolated and unwilling to compromise may be ignored or outvoted; and second, QMV becomes a technique to induce efforts at mutual responsiveness and collective legitimation that can produce compromise outcomes without a need for formal voting at all. So a formal rule of majority voting impels a behavioral standard for informal compromise and consensus-seeking that can work in the long run to produce a steady stream of efficient and effective collective decisions (Neyer, 2004; Dehousse & Deloche-Gaudez, 2009; Heisenberg, 2007).

The Multiple Meanings of Abstention

We also see how formal voting rules structure informal negotiation practice in the differential meaning of abstentions. Abstaining under unanimity does not count as a “no” vote, and therefore it is typically employed as a signaling device (usually for domestic consumption) or as a political statement of dissatisfaction with some element of the proposed legislation. Thomas Jensen (2009, p. 7) describes the abstention under unanimity as a signaling device for a “mild form of dissent,” which is not trivial but also is not salient enough to block or jeopardize the outcome. On the other hand, abstaining under QMV does effectively count as a “no” since it does not count toward the minimum majority threshold requirement to adopt a proposal. In the last decade, a newer formal rule, known as reverse qualified majority voting (RQMV), has been expanded in select areas such as EU antidumping decisions (since 2004), economic surveillance under the revised stability and growth pact (SGP) regarding the “excessive deficit procedure” (since 2011), and the fiscal compact (since 2012) (Van Aken & Artige, 2013; Scharpf, 2013). RQMV flips the QMV logic on its head, whereby abstentions do effectively count as votes in favor, enhancing the enforcement power of Commission recommendations in these areas (Van Aken & Artige, 2013). Under the old rules, a blocking minority could reject Commission recommendations, but RQMV “significantly lowers the majority threshold to pass legislation” since a blocking vote requires a qualified majority to do so (Van Aken & Artige, 2013, p. 153).

So the calculus of when and whether to abstain has different implications for a delegation to consider, depending on whether the formal rule is that of unanimity, QMV, or RQMV. This tells us that practices of contestation (and consensus-seeking) hold different meanings depending on the context of the formal voting rules. There is no evidence to suggest that the formal decision rules somehow recede into the background or become replaced by informal norms in the context of negotiation (for a discussion, see Novak, 2013, pp. 1093–1094; Rasmussen, 2016, p. 720). The formal rules prestructure the interaction context and remain omnipresent in the process of negotiations (Van Aken, 2012, p. 23). But as RQMV shows, a procedural adaptation of formal rules can have a large impact on informal voting behavior (in this case, the influence of Commission recommendations and the ability of member-states to reject them).

Informal Counting and the Indicative Vote

A related formal/informal rule dynamic is the so-called indicative vote and the calculation of hypothetical blocking minorities under QMV. Qualitative evidence reveals a continual alertness by the Council presidency, the Commission, and the GSC of hypothetical blocking coalitions during all stages of the negotiation process (Novak, 2013; see also, Piris, 2000, p. 19). The implication is that the chair is more willing to state a sufficient majority exists or move toward a formal vote in circumstances where a clear blocking minority is no longer a valid threat. This practice has long been reported in certain Council settings, such as budget negotiations; in these instances, discussions can abruptly stop as soon as a sufficient majority threshold is reached. The formal role of the “indicative vote” is to supply a signaling device in the coalition-building process for emerging majorities or potential blocking minorities (Häge, 2012). The meaning of how indicative voting is used in practice clearly shows us that Council consensus-seeking is not really about trying to make everyone equally happy with the outcome (discussed further later in this article).

Indicative voting creates a permanent “counting practice” that can efficiently identify majority win sets (Deloche-Gaudez & Beaudonnet, 2010, p. 4). But the formal use is interpreted within the context of informal club rules for mutual accommodation and responsiveness expectations. Diana Panke (2010) reveals this in her case analysis of the EU “spirit drinks” negotiations over vodka labeling. Britain developed a credible blocking coalition through subtle club methods to broaden a narrow definition, whereas Poland applied “hardball tactics,” with an unwillingness to make concessions over a purist-conception of vodka (only from cereals and potatoes) that led to isolation and blocking minority threats that lacked credibility (Panke, 2010, pp. 144–164). The use of indicative voting is also an institutional resource for the presidency, an informal procedural device to invoke the “shadow of the vote” and perhaps to show partiality to an emergent majority.7 Under informal club rules, the chair can use indicative voting to put group pressure on minority positions. By using the indicative vote, group leverage on a single isolated delegation can be especially intense, and some delegations openly mention having a standing instruction to “avoid isolation.” For example, France and Lithuania did not record a single “no” vote in the Council between July 2009 and June 2012 (VoteWatch Europe, 2012).

There does appear to be a safety-in-numbers aspect to public contestation under QMV that fits the indicative counting practice under discussion. Comparing data from 2002–2004 and 2004–2006, Dehousse and Deloche-Gaudez (2009, p. 26, figure 4) find a considerable decline in “one-State minorities” (from 56% to 35% of all cases) and an attendant rise in multimember minorities of three or more states (from 5% to 27% of all cases). This has been interpreted as a sign that EU enlargement and the heterogeneity of members create a functional necessity for higher reliance on voting rather than mutual accommodation. But informal aspects of club rules counterbalance this trend. For example, there are new (or newly invigorated) procedural methods seemingly designed to create outlets for dissent without publically contested votes. Another good example is the surge in reading “formal statements” into the minutes (Hagemann & De Clerck-Sachsse, 2007; Hagemann, 2008). Statements in the minutes can be considered a close cousin to the practice of abstention under unanimity (as a kind of “mild dissent”).8 If 1999–2006 data are representative, the outlet of formal statements lowers the incidence of publically contested votes by something like 10%–20% per year, or even more (Hagemann, 2008). The appeal of statements is that “governments are able to enact a sense of ‘willingness to cooperate’ without at the same time sending a political signal of having deviated from their initial policy preferences” (Hagemann, 2008, p. 47). This inference is important in helping us understand the prevalence of consensus trends in Council decision-making. The use of statements shows the fiction of consensus as “outcome” (i.e., that everyone is equally pleased with the result) as opposed to consensus as “process,” which represents a social environment of collective standards for assessing individual preferences and delegitimating them in an atmosphere of cooperative bargaining (see the section “Understanding the Act and Art of Consensus” later in this article for more on this distinction). In addition, as mentioned previously, there are signaling and accommodation standards that operate at the group level that determine the extent to which the Council will “spend extra time” to find agreements everyone can live with.

The Pale Imprint of the Ioannina Compromise

If larger but still outvoted minority coalitions did become the new normal in Council politics, there would likely be a higher reliance on or invocations of the so-called Ioannina Compromise. First invented at an informal meeting of the EU foreign ministers in 1994 (in the Greek city of Ioannina), the basic concept is to establish a formal mechanism to delay adoption of a decision when there is a near–blocking minority.9 The device was really a face-saving accommodation for Britain, who worried how QMV practices might change with enlargement and a higher weighted threshold for blocking minorities (at the time, a blocking minority was 23 votes against; following Nordic enlargement, the minimum would be raised to at least 26). According to Dinan (1998, p. 298): “Ostensibly, Britain feared being outvoted on sensitive issues; in reality, the government was responding to strong anti-EU sentiment on its own back benches in parliament.”

It might be considered an experimental form of emergency brake, but it was never clear whether using it would actually prevent a majority decision from being made. The language of the rule is to delay a decision and to reach a “satisfactory solution” within a “reasonable time.” Perhaps the best description of the Ioannina formula’s meaning is provided by Hayes-Renshaw and Wallace (2006, p. 13), where they note, “The Council agreed to be patient with dissenting minorities that were significant, but below the threshold technically empowered to block agreement.” But the implications of the formal rule to everyday practices are not much clearer than the more famous Luxembourg Compromise (LC; discussed next). So Ioannina is a formal way to “informally” deal with near-misses under indicative voting (which is itself an informal practice) as an attempt to placate those who are in the minority but fall short of an actual blocking coalition.

The Ioannina Compromise was included as a Declaration to the Amsterdam Treaty, but following the reform of QMV with the Nice Treaty and the reweighting of votes in light of enlargement, it was allowed to lapse as of January 1, 2005.10 However, during the 2007 negotiations over voting rules (which ultimately produced the new LT double majority system described previously), a concession to Poland was to resuscitate the Ioannina mechanism (some call this “Ioannina II”) for near-blocking minorities, which was included as Declaration to the Lisbon Treaty (see Declaration 7). The activating percentage of the new Ioannina Compromise is at least 55% of the 35% minimum EU population threshold for a blocking minority (i.e., 19.25%) or at least 55% of the number of member-states required for the same (i.e., between 7 and 11 members in the EU28) (Eur-Lex, Glossary of Summaries).11 Whether this will ever be formally invoked or used much in practice is anyone’s guess at this point.

As far as the record shows, the original Ioannina Compromise was invoked only on a few occasions, such as the 1996 directive on postal services and the 1995–1996 agricultural price package (both initiated by the United Kingdom), which led to some concessions and an eventual compromise (Hayes-Renshaw & Wallace, 2006, pp. 274–275). The fact that the Ioannina Compromise is extremely rare and barely used in Council discourse at all can be interpreted as a sign that informal club rules like the acceptability of so-called glossy statements or finding responsive forms of mutual accommodation have been effective thus far at dealing with contestation under the “shadow of the vote.” One could conclude from this that trying to formalize a rulebook for dealing with near-misses in Council blocking votes is much less effective than the informal social conventions that might apply in such circumstances. A potentially more interesting case, and one steeped in a great deal more drama, is the invocation of “very important interests” and the legacy of the Luxembourg Compromise (LC), a subject that we turn to next.

The Legacy Status of the Luxembourg Compromise

The single best case for examining the historical relationship between formal and informal decision-making rules in the Council is the miasma of understandings (and misunderstandings) regarding the infamous Luxembourg Compromise (LC). To begin with, the legal standing of the LC is a curious one: it is not and has never been part of the acquis communitaire. How could it be, when the whole procedural ingenuity of the meetings in Luxembourg in January 1966 to resolve the empty chair crisis were posited by the Belgian permanent representative van der Meulen as a special session without the Commission’s presence and “thus outside the formal Council framework” (Davignon, 2006, p. 17). Boiled down to its procedural essence, the LC is a “set of non-binding conclusions” with “a difference of opinion on what precisely would happen when a complete resolution of a dispute within the Council was not achieved” (Teasdale, 1993, p. 569). It was, in short, a politically (but not legally) binding agreement to disagree on the need for unanimity in cases involving very important interests. In a fundamental sense, the LC was an informal social convention, not a formal rule at all. This distinction is confirmed time and again by official Council replies to written questions regarding the status of the LC. The Council even goes to great lengths to avoid using the terminology as such. Instead, the Council refers to the LC as “the conclusions of the extraordinary Council meeting in Luxembourg on 17, 18, 27 and 28 January 1966.”12 One close participant also punctures the myth of the LC’s formal standing by asking, “Was this a Treaty amendment by stealth? No—the proof of this lies in the fact that it was not included in the ‘acquis communitaire’ that was sent to the new member states at the time of the first enlargement of the Community in 1973” (Davignon, 2006, p. 18).13 So it does not have formal juridical standing in the way that some have regarded it, as a kind of ultimate emergency brake where very important interests are concerned.

At the same time, the LC has never been formally revoked.14 An informal group of member-states (sometimes referred to by practitioners as the “Luxembourg club”), including Denmark, Greece, and Britain, protects the formal principle of “very important interests.” During the Dooge Committee deliberations on institutional reform (which contributed to the 1986 Single European Act), the final report contains a footnote reference insisting that the LC was not a negotiable point of reform (Wallace & Winand, 2006, pp. 40–41).15 In fact, the formal status of the LC constitutes the one place in the entire report where a “broad consensus” did not exist (Dooge Report, 1985, p. 7). The draft of the Dooge Committee, presented to the European Council in December 1984 as an “interim report,” refers to a member-state’s right to “plead a vital interest” during a transition period to majority voting, but several delegations placed a reserve on the whole issue of the “form of the invocation of the vital national interest” (Dooge Interim Report, 1984, p. 20, fn. 4). However, by the writing of the final report three months later, the language had subtly changed. The majority view was the “general principle that decisions must be taken by a qualified or simple majority.” The minority view (supported by the aforementioned “Luxembourg club” of Denmark, Greece, and Britain) accepts a higher usage of majority voting, greater use of abstention in cases of unanimity, but also “when a Member State considers that its very important interests are at stake, the discussion should continue until unanimous agreement is reached” (Dooge Report, 1985, p. 27).

The careful wording and shifting language underscore the point that delegations were not in agreement on how to deal with the legacy status of the LC. Ireland wanted even stronger assurance than the so-called Luxembourg club. Ireland supported the principle of majority voting but “felt unable to support the text” because it did not include “any explicit reference to the protection of vital national interests in exceptional circumstances” (Dooge Report, 1985, p. 27, fn. 2). So nominally, at least 4 of the 10 member-states at the time would not accept QMV reform affecting the status of the LC. This does not mean the context of invoking LC claims had not evolved considerably since the 1960s. Extremely telling from the perspective of social norms is the British statement that anyone invoking “very important” interests need justify the argument and subject demands to a group deliberative process. Specifically, the British entered a statement into the footnotes of the report holding that “in order to prevent abuse, a member of the Council insisting that discussion should continue in this way should, through a special procedure of the Council, explain fully and formally why his government considers that a very important interest is at stake” (Dooge Report, 1985, p. 27, fn. 4).

Formal and informal decision-making rules can become inextricably intertwined, as the tricky legal footing of the LC clearly shows. The LC was never really a “formal rule” at all, even if it has long held such mythical status. To operate, the LC requires an informal rulebook: who can invoke the rule, under what circumstances, and when and how the group will affirm what constitutes “very important interests” all depend on the exact circumstances and the social environment in which these rules operate. Those accounts that treat the LC as a constant over time—most simply, that it is a generic, ultimate emergency brake on the legislative process—miss this point entirely. Even in 1966, the compromise hinged on a deliberate form of incomplete contracting in formalizing how the Council would proceed in the event of a very important interest claim. As Héritier (2012, p. 341) notes in general, “ambiguous rules will need to be redefined in the course of their application.”

The patchy unevenness of when the LC has been invoked and whether it was successful attests to the social order in which it operates. By Teasdale’s calculations, the LC was formally invoked maybe 10 times in the 15 years after 1966 and became essentially unusable by the latter 1980s (Teasdale, 1993, pp. 570, 578). One key reason that its use deprecated in practice is that it was highly uncertain to work and could result in a “vital interest” claim being rejected by the group. This happened on several occasions to agricultural ministers who attempted to wield it during the 1980s, including Greece and Germany (Teasdale, 1993). Teasdale states that the British government contemplated the LC during 1992–1993 social policy negotiations for both parental leave and working time, “but rejected it on the grounds that the exercise might backfire” (Ibid., p. 578). This point is especially interesting in light of the Dooge Report statement by Britain (cited previously) that a delegation must transparently explain to the group why an LC claim is justified.

Anecdotally, it appears that the British are among the more clever in assessing the informal dynamics of when, why, and how to use LC discourse in EU negotiations. For example, a senior diplomat at the British permanent representation described to me his country’s bargaining tactics related to the controversial EU art resale directive completed in 2001. Some EU delegations were under the impression that the United Kingdom gained derogation concessions by invoking the LC, but this British official (with a wry smile) quickly clarified the record. In his words, “We did not invoke the Luxembourg Compromise on art resale. But we did say that very important national interests were involved. We didn’t invoke the Luxembourg Compromise because . . . [it] is a very uncertain weapon. We weren’t sure it would work.”16

A more recent incarnation of the LC discourse was Poland’s attempt to invoke it during the February 2006 reform of the sugar sector, which was explicitly rebuffed by the AGFISH Council (Jakubek, 2008, p. 97). The Polish agricultural minister, Krzysztof Jurgiel, attempted to block the deal with an overt threat of the LC veto, but the group rejected the validity of the argument. The risk of “backfire” mentioned by Teasdale seems to apply to this case, in harming Poland’s reputation. In her detailed interview evidence, Novak singles out the “case of a non-conforming Polish delegation” that was repeatedly cited by Council participants for not behaving “in accordance with the Council’s norms” (Novak, 2013, p. 1098; Heisenberg, 2012, p. 387).

Over time, the procedural sophistication of QMV practices seems to have hollowed out the validity of successfully invoking a LC-grade infringement of national interests. The tangled history of the LC’s legacy status offers a great application of Rebecca Adler-Nissen’s (2014, p. 61) innovative use of the concept “diplomatic capital” as a group-legitimated form of social power. The contrasting British and Polish examples tell us that who might have the diplomatic capital to invoke a LC claim as “valid currency” (Adler-Nissen’s term) cannot be determined apart from the social field in which the claim operates.17 But whether there still lurks a “Luxembourg club” that takes some reassurance in the principle of such an emergency safeguard is still an open question, or at least one that cannot be ruled out.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the ambiguous legal footing of the LC gives the Council plausible deniability in when and how it is used. Since it is not part of the acquis, but instead results from the written minutes of an extraordinary session, there is no record of who invokes it. In response to a 2002 EP question about the use of the LC, the reply notes that “the Council does not keep records of possible occasions on which the so-called ‘Luxembourg compromise’ might have been invoked.”18 Whenever the question of whether the LC still exists comes up, the official answer is that it has the same formal status it has always had, without any additional detail on how it is actually practiced. In 2002, the Council’s reply to a written question confirms that the LC conclusions “have not been amended or rescinded.”19 Another Council reply to a written question regarding the status of the LC after the Nice Treaty simply confirms that “its status will remain the same,” without providing any detail as to what that status consists of.20

So in formal terms, the LC has a bizarre ambiguity surrounding it—more of a “cryptic plan,” as Golub (2006, p. 280) describes it. Looking at the formal rules, one could hardly understand how the LC works at all. To understand the LC as part of the Council’s social order, we thus need to account for informal rules and practices. Only once we acknowledge the entangled connections between formal and informal rules in Council decision-making can we gain insight into a central unresolved debate among scholars: what explains the historical stability of consensus patterns? The next section addresses this debate by focusing on the fundamental nature of the Council as a “consensus machine” (Kleine, 2013, p. 90).

Understanding the Act and Art of Consensus

The available record of voting and consensus practices is extremely uneven prior to the Council transparency reforms of 1993. Since the pioneering study of Hayes-Renshaw, Van Aken, and Wallace (2006), we have a clearer picture of where contested voting occurs in the Council and how often. Based on data from 1994–2004, the Council produced consensus outcomes in nearly 85% of all legislative acts (Hayes-Renshaw & Wallace, 2006, p. 259). Contested voting (which, as already discussed, includes no votes and abstentions under QMV) tends to cluster in a few policy areas, such as AGFISH, trade, and the internal market. These areas account for more than 60% of all contested votes between 1995 and 2010 (Van Aken, 2012, p. 34). Between July 2009 and June 2012, contested voting under QMV rose to 35%, with economic and monetary affairs, the environment, and public health at the top of the list for public votes (VoteWatch Europe, 2012, p. 8). Still, overall, in the same sample of 343 voting acts, the percentage of all possible votes in favor was at the 98% mark, which reiterates the scarcity of contested votes in Council practices (ibid., p. 9, figure 4). What is surprising from the aggregate data is how durably institutionalized the consensus trends are in the face of all kinds of important change: new treaty reforms, new issue areas, new members, new levels of politicization, new crises, changes in government, and so on. Given the available macro-voting and consensus patterns, the idea that the Council promulgates a corporate culture of consensus-seeking is much less contested than it once was. But there is still a good deal of academic dissonance in making generalizations about Council consensus patterns and what sustains them.

A general weakness in Council research lies in understanding the historical record of consensus patterns and what they mean. For starters, not everyone agrees on what consensus is: Is it equivalent to unanimity? One important distinction is the difference between consensus as outcome and consensus as process (Smeets, 2015; Lindell, 1988, pp. 40–45). A consensus outcome might or might not reflect unanimity. Minimally, what we can say is that a consensus outcome reflects the “absence of explicit opposition” (Novak, 2013, p. 1094; Urfalino, 2007). By implication, consensus does not necessarily mean unanimous support in favor. Consensus certainly does not mean that everyone is happy with the outcome or that a well-balanced compromise where all benefit equally has been brokered.21

Consensual outcomes might actually veil participants who are not in favor but wish to avoid broadcasting this fact. As Novak (2013) documents, many consensus outcomes actually reflect a “silence” of the ministers to display disagreement publicly via formal voting. Smeets agrees with this formulation, and as he puts it, “the way towards such a consensus thus does not lead through convincing, but rather through silencing the opposition” (Smeets, 2015, p. 38). Here, we see norms and instrumentality as tightly coupled coconspirators. Silent opposition is proscribed by an informal norm of “non-public dissent” motivated by peer ostracization, but strategically, it also fulfills a pattern of domestic “blame avoidance” for being on the losing end of a public vote (Novak, 2013, p. 1094).

Interviews with Council insiders frequently reveal a discourse of accommodation to “bring everyone on board” (see Lewis, 2003, 2005 for examples), but using this reasoning, what that might actually mean is quite vague. Some mention that it is extremely rare for a move to formal voting to occur without first gaining the consent of the potential “noes”—if we code this as being “on board,” we have a very different meaning than one where every delegation is happy with the outcome. As an outcome, consensus might simply mean “procedural acquiescence” (Smeets, 2016, p. 35). In his account of Balkans negotiations, keeping everyone on board basically meant building a sufficiently high level of “constructive ambiguity” into a set of Council conclusions between the drivers and brakemen (Smeets, 2015). In some cases, the resulting language is so ambiguous that neither drivers nor brakemen could easily determine if the outcome worked in their favor. The Council’s debate over Croatia’s accession, for example, was “a succession of seemingly identical verbal exchanges, in which even insiders could not note any progress” (Smeets, 2015, pp. 187–188).

As a process, consensus has a different meaning. The process of consensus-seeking is commensurate with the normative and deliberative environment of Council negotiations, often depicted as an informal expectation of mutual responsiveness or a cooperative decision-making style (Lewis, 2010; Heisenberg, 2012, 2007; Aus, 2008; Niemann, 2006). The process of consensus “entails a certain spirit or atmosphere which will have positive effects on the international interaction” (Lindell, 1988, p. 41). The intangible essence of this is a shared sense of responsibility to find collective solutions and keep the process going. There is a “logic of accommodation at work within the Justus Lipsius, a logic of picking your battles, while allowing others to take the lead in theirs” (Smeets, 2016, p. 26), but this is certainly not the same as being willing to “make generous concessions” (Naurin, 2015).22 Studying consensus as process involves treating the Council as a social environment—one where the implications of club membership include the “pooled sovereignty” idea that individual positions become subject to a group deliberation and legitimation process. There is now broad but not universal agreement that the Council as a social order produces a distinctive “culture of consensus” (Smeets, 2015, p. 1), albeit one that varies by specialized configuration (Wallace & Reh, 2015, p. 80).

The process of consensus-seeking is typically invoked by Council participants as a basic, enduring feature of how Brussels works. To take a heavyweight example (one of Milward’s original “European saints”), the Belgian foreign minister Paul-Henri Spaak stressed that the consensus mode of decision-making was one of the EU’s truly distinctive traits. In his words, the EU’s “essential feature” rested in the “abandonment of the absurd rule of unanimity . . . which . . . is the plague of international organizations and the cause of their partial paralysis” (Spaak, 1971, p. 250). The early neofunctionalists offered the first sustained examination of this culture, which they frequently referred to as the Council’s procedural “code” (Haas, 1958, chap. 13; Lindberg, 1963, pp. 280, 286–287; Lindberg & Scheingold, 1970, pp. 95–97).

There is clear and convincing archival evidence that the psychological trauma of the empty chair crisis had significant knock-on effects for the process of consensus-seeking in Council settings and in deepening the levels of mutual trust that this relies on to work (Ludlow, 2006; Davignon, 2006). The process of consensus is thus the “result of path dependencies developed early on in the Council, which in turn have self-reinforcing properties” (Heisenberg, 2007, p. 70). New member-states undergo socialization to the club rules, especially during the now-formalized “active observer” period, when there are group mimicry expectations for novices to learn the ropes.

During interviews with Eastern European newcomers to the Council in 2003–2004, Coreper-level officials cited examples of both “extra patience” by existing members and moments when they learned this was a “tough bargaining environment,” where you cannot simply expect sympathy from the group. The rotating presidency also performs a socialization function in reexposing national administrations to the Brussels bubble, with active preparations beginning at least 18 months in advance and the EU permanent representations growing in staff by 25% or more to cope with the chair’s workload. In 2015, for example, the PERMREPs for Latvia and Luxembourg tripled in size to facilitate the presidency rotation.

The practices of consensus-seeking are tied to an appropriateness logic of “the right thing to do” in a given institutional context, and works by self-enforcing social convention. Héritier (2012, p. 338) explains the logic behind this: “Since the informal rule is beneficial to all concerned actors, it is expected to be self-enforcing.” Puetter (2003, pp. 121–122), for example, shows how the informal consensus culture of the Eurogroup draws stability from the “self-discipline” of participants. But learning the hard edges of the Council’s consensus culture is certainly not all sweetness and light. Exactly because a group is clublike, inappropriate conduct can meet with social sanctions ranging from shaming to exclusion or status diminution and psychological discomfort.23 The stigma of legal opt-outs, for instance, can act as a “discrediting mark” on national representatives who engage in various forms of compensatory strategies to participate in discussions anyway and appear as “constructive insiders” like Denmark in JHA negotiations (Adler-Nissen, 2014, pp. 3, 139–140). There are a number of interesting cases of nonconforming appropriateness violations, such as Sweden’s first year in the Council, where they just read out their instructions and were routinely marginalized and outvoted (Lewis, 2008, pp. 176–178); the abovementioned examples regarding Poland; and the 1996 British noncooperation policy over the beef export ban, which was generally viewed as unacceptably obstructionist.

But pro-norm, role-playing socialization is not all this culture appears made of. In addition, consensus practices have a deeper anchor, a taken-for-granted quality that fits Bourdieu’s (1977) sociological concept of “habitus.” The habitus is “the unconscious adoption of rules, values, and dispositions gained from an individual and collective history. It functions like the materialization of collective memory and is a disposition to act, perceive, and think in a particular way” (Adler-Nissen, 2014, p. 53). In this viewpoint, the Brussels bubble is akin to a world of its own, with its own forms of diplomatic capital in a social field where tacit understandings and shared meanings about consensus-seeking constitute a sens practique, or feel for the game, that “define agency and make action intelligible” (Adler-Nissen, 2008, p. 668; see also 2014, p. 47). Vincent Pouliot (2008, p. 257) argues that habitus is a distinctive “logic of practicality,” or the “inarticulate know-how that makes what is to be done self-evident or commonsensical.” This differs from the active reflection of what “ought to be done” in the role-playing appropriateness logic described previously. Ted Hopf (2002, p. 12) explains the key distinction between pro-norm compliance and habitual action, noting that “generally, norms have the form ‘in circumstance X, you should do Y,’ whereas habits have a general form more like ‘in circumstance X, action Y follows.’” The concept of habitus helps to account for the durability of consensus practices that much of the qualitative research on the Council has found across its many and varied institutional settings. Arguably, this is a missing dimension in the “new intergovernmentalism” theory since it tends to emphasize the new consensus-generating potentialities of the Council’s venues in a post-Maastricht era (Bickerton et al., 2015, pp. 29–30). Habitus researchers would stress instead that today’s “permanent consensus generation” (Puetter’s term; see Puetter, 2014, p. 5) rests on a deep store of habitualized practices that make this possible in the first place and have become instinct, ingrained into the social field of how things are done.

The process of consensus is highly lubricated by informal settings of in camera deliberation among like-minded policy specialists who develop trust and see themselves as a cohort of professionals with a responsibility to deliver collective results (Bostock, 2002). The entire politico-administrative substructure of the Council is an institutionalized band of preparatory committees like Coreper I and II, the EFC and Eurogroup Working Group, and the PSC that operate under permanent unwritten instruction to find solutions and work by consensus.24

A representative example of a more obscure group that speaks volumes for the general pattern is Bickerton’s (2012, p. 31) description of Civcom, a preparatory group for civilian crisis management missions under ESDP that advises the PSC: “participants judge their own professional conduct in terms of their ability to achieve an agreement amongst themselves.” But the administrative infrastructure of the Council is even more holistic in capturing and enmeshing national-level officials in a thick web of committees and working groups that run the gamut of domestic policy and infuses them with a “problem-solving instinct” (Wessels et al., 2015, pp. 274–278; Fouilleux, de Maillard, & Smith, 2005; Egeberg, Schaefer, & Trondal, 2003). Many of these are Brussels-based, seconded to the EU permanent representations, while some shuttle between the Brussels and the capitals. What really stands out is the density and scope of national officials who regularly engage cohorts inside the Brussels bubble to jointly design and make policies. The technocratic professional and engrenage qualities of these relationships are aptly described by Weiler’s concept of “infranationalism” (Weiler, 1999, pp. 272, 283–284).

The idea of a “social spillover” dynamic constituted by the quality of interaction and complex learning in small-group settings that Arne Niemann (2006, pp. 37–42) articulates is quite complementary to this view as well. Such regularized, face-to-face encounters produce trustworthy relationships that foster mutual responsiveness and understanding; this is the art of consensus as process. As Maja Rasmussen (2016, p. 710) puts it, “working in the ‘Brussels bubble’ is a way of life.”

In the “new intergovernmentalism” theory of the Council, consensus as process becomes an “end in itself” (Puetter, 2014, p. 58), and the institutional reengineering of ministerial networks since the 1990s is geared toward this kind of permanent consensus generation. At the aggregate level, one concrete empirical indicator is the ingrained reliance on informal meetings of the ministers. The pattern is documented in granular detail regarding the finance ministers’ networks, especially the working methods of the new-age Eurogroup, which even shuns press releases, or the infamous ECOFIN breakfast meetings, which can sometimes go longer than the formal sessions (Puetter, 2003, 2006). But overall, we see a reliance on informal Council sessions as a built-in component of the rotating presidency’s leadership and brokerage functions (see Table 6).

Table 6. Informal Ministerial Meetings of the Council, 2006–2016

Year

Member-State Presidency

Informal Ministerial Meetings

2017

Malta

14

2016

Slovakia

13

Netherlands

15

2015

Luxembourg

17

Latvia

10

2014

Italy

17

Greece

15

2013

Lithuania

15

Ireland

13

2012

Cyprus

17

Denmark

9

2011

Poland

20

Hungary

21

2010

Belgium

17

Spain

21

2009

Sweden

14

Czech Republic

14

2008

France

19

Slovenia

12

2007

Portugal

14

Germany

14

2006

Finland

15

Austria

14

Average

15.22

Source: EU member-state presidency websites available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu; author’s calculations; Malta figure based on provisional agenda as of November 2016.

What began experimentally, such as the informal Gyminch meetings for the foreign ministers in the 1970s to discuss foreign policy under the aegis of European Political Cooperation (EPC), is now a highly routinized practice among ministers’ clubs. Puetter (2014, pp. 152–153) documents how “informal working formats” are a “sustained trend” for holding confidential face-to-face policy debates without the wider public looking in or even assistants since they are typically a minister-plus-one formula. Establishing this in camera setting is a “precondition for consensus generation within the context of intergovernmental policy coordination” (ibid., p. 153).

The weight of informal ministers’ meetings in the Council’s legislative calendar is clearly in tension with the formal rules of procedure, which set limits on the number of these sessions. Specifically, the 1999 Helsinki European Council conclusions states, “Informal meetings of Ministers . . . are not Council sessions and cannot replace the Council’s normal activities . . . A maximum of five informal Ministerial meetings may be held during any Presidency” (Presidency conclusions of the Helsinki European Council, December 10–11, 1999, Annex III, Section E). As Table 6 reveals, the formal limit to informal meetings is not enforced. In fact, instead, we see that on average, over 12 informal meetings per presidency rotation is a stable, informal convention.

The Lisbon Treaty also formalized a new, mixed leadership regime for Council clubs. Several venues were excised from the regular, six-month rotating presidency (Tallberg, 2006). The European Council now has a permanent president. The Foreign Policy “High Representative” chairs the FAC Council and staffs the chair role for the PSC and related foreign policy working groups. This pattern is not entirely new, as the Monetary Committee (now the EFC) had a tradition of internally selecting the chair, a practice that was grafted into the Eurogroup in 2004. Even the rotating presidency has been restructured, with a more formal “trio” coordination over an 18-month cycle. The trio presidency began in 2007 as a way of establishing more continuity in the rotation, leading to a more intensive set of coordination contacts between member-states, especially at the preparation stages (Jensen & Nedergaard, 2014).

It is unclear at this point whether the reengineered leadership posts enhance the consensus-generating potential of the Council, but the new fixed chairs seem to be well endowed with informal authority and discursive resources to summarize group discussions around consensus outcomes (Puetter, 2014, pp. 164–167, 177–181). Thus, we see conscious efforts by member-states to use informal conventions alongside formal restructuring as a way to make the Council’s clublike venues adhere to a consensus-seeking process.

To sum up, we can refocus the discussion around the core puzzle: why does the Council have such an affinity for consensus? Unlocking the answer has three complementary layers of explanation.

The first layer in the explanation is a strategic, rational one. Namely, insulated decision-making by negotiators in repeat, face-to-face encounters is more likely to produce a steady stream of legislative results than transparent bargaining and formal voting. Consensus-seeking is a procedural device to keep the decision-making system from legislative logjams and bargaining breakdowns. Daniel Naurin (2007a) draws a very helpful distinction between the different behavioral logics of the “public frontstage” and the “private backstage.” Transparency is “shunned” by rational agents who wish to avert “pandering” and “posturing” by negotiators to their home audiences (Stasavage, 2004, pp. 668, 670–671). The unending payoff of consensus-based outcomes is precisely that they are outcomes “that all involved can claim as their own” (Smeets, 2015, p. xix). Still strategic in explanatory power are the range of instrumental calculations possible within the Council’s long “time horizons” to not drive each other to the fringe of the Pareto frontier on any given issue (such as forcing a vote when only one or a few delegations are isolated), to patterns of mutual accommodation that can instill more diffuse understandings of reciprocity, and even to an institutional memory of goodwill among Council actors. In this explanation, consensus-seeking is a strategic choice from a repertoire of bargaining strategies that vary according to both member-state characteristics (Dür & Mateo, 2010) and the particular issue characteristics under discussion (McKibben, 2010).

The second layer of explanation is informed by sociological institutionalism. Here, the emphasis is on the Council as a distinct social order. The institutional context matters since it is invested with collective standards of legitimacy and norm-based procedures (Weber, 1998, p. 81; Hurd, 1999). Context also matters in establishing meaning through shared principles (fairness, making special pleas, expecting justification for demands, etc.) and institutional memory, a kind of “corporate culture” that “says how things are done, and how they are meant to be done in an organization” (Kreps, 1990, p. 93). The institutional context supplies social conventions for collectively legitimating or rejecting individual claimants’ demands. This is not uniform, though, as the Council’s varied settings exhibit different scope conditions for the degree of insulation, the range of issues covered, the interaction intensity among negotiators, and the normative density of rules (Lewis, 2010). There are socialization dynamics for novice participants to learn the ropes and acclimate to the rules. Those who do are generally rewarded with status and social influence. Those who do not are subject to stigmatization and opprobrium effects (Adler-Nissen, 2014; Rasmussen, 2016). From this perspective, deviant behavior (obstructionism, demands without justification, opt-outs, etc.) provides a window into how club rules bind participants and fix meanings. Deviance helps socialize a society to what “normality” looks like through stigmatization and public sanctioning. By stigmatizing someone who breaks a social norm, the group “reinforces the concept of normality” (Adler-Nissen, 2014, p. 64). Maintaining relationships and principled interests (to never be isolated, to always show some readiness to compromise, etc.) are not secondary to the particular issue under discussion but are part of a sense of “constitutive belonging” to the club with “clearly identifiable appropriate and inappropriate behaviours for securing negotiator preferences” (Clark & Jones, 2011, p. 360). The available empirical evidence is more consistent with a “role playing” form of socialization than with a more thickly internalized “normative suasion” pattern (see Checkel, 2005, for the conceptual and operational differences between the two types).

The third layer of explanation is the role of the habitus imprinting tacit understandings about how Brussels works in the everyday, face-to-face interactions that occur across the Council’s many venues. Consensus practices are tied to a practical logic of how things are done inside the Brussels bubble, which in turn rests on shared background knowledge and the collective memory of what competent performances look like (Adler & Pouliot, 2011). Tied to Bourdieu’s concept of “field,” this practical logic functions by generating its own “unarticulated common sense” (Adler-Nissen, 2014, p. 63), a sens practique about how to operate within the unspoken rules of the game. There is a ritualistic aspect of belonging to different Council clubs by like-minded specialists meeting regularly and operating within a social field. In other words, it is not the Coreper meeting next Wednesday or last week’s meeting of finance ministers that is important, but the 2,574th meeting of Coreper and the 3,481st Council meeting. In her innovative study of the Council as a “social field,” Adler-Nissen (2014, p. 4) depicts it as “an autonomous social system comprising a pattern of practices and shared meanings, where certain rules and roles result in competent action.”

The subtle but important difference from a norm socialization view (as discussed in the second point here) is that in a given social field, habitus generates a logic not so much of internalizing norms than performing them as competent practices (Adler-Nissen, 2016, p. 93; Hopf, 2002). A society’s standards for competent performance are also reinforced through various compensatory strategies of “stigma management” by norm transgressors. This helps explain why Britain’s particular stigma of “outsiderness” (Adler-Nissen, 2014, chap. 4) can square with the available evidence of how savvy their operations are within the field (Rasmussen, 2016, p. 716; Naurin & Lindahl, 2010), at least historically prior to the Brexit rupture. The habitus attached to a social field also goes a long way toward accounting for the complicated legacy status of making “very important interests” claims under the LC. The meaning of what counts as a legitimate national safeguard claim is something that evolves over time through practices and informal understandings rather than fixed, formalized rules. In this third layer of explanation, consensus as process is seen as an informal and unspoken assumption that is rarely questioned. It is part of the “doxa,” the undisputed and taken-for-granted truth of how Brussels operates (Adler-Nissen, 2014, pp. 57–58).

Future research on consensus trends in the Council would likely find ample returns by thinking through more systematically how these layers of explanation connect. The “additive,” “domain of application” model of theoretical dialogue sketched out by Jupille, Caporaso, and Checkel (2003, pp. 19–24) would be one promising direction, especially since it would force one to think hard about the distinct value-add of the different layers of explanation. There are, however, basic access and method issues that outsider academics face in trying to understand life inside the Brussels bubble, which an additive approach cannot easily resolve and requires some commitment to qualitative empirical research and fieldwork.25 Overall, the potential payoff is nicely described by Sara Hagemann (2015, pp. 149–50), who notes: “Mixed-method research designs, combining qualitative, quantitative, and formal methods, have the advantage that they enable the researcher to analyze bargaining in the EU from more than one perspective and increase the validity of causal claims. This results in a stronger and more holistic picture of bargaining in the EU.”

Two other promising avenues are worth mentioning from the foregoing analysis. First, there is much yet to be done on the quality of Council networks and all that sustains them. Recent “network capital” research yields a range of important insights on actors’ perceptions of influence and trustworthiness (Naurin, 2007b; Naurin & Lindahl, 2010), and, like Panke’s (2010) research on small states, reveals an overall pattern where size, votes, and power are clearly not the straightforward stuff of “power politics” anymore. Being small but active or awkward yet informed can lead to credible negotiating capital and group status in Council networks. Another avenue to explore is the “between space” of meetings, which involves informal soundings and exchanges of views, a trend that many say has intensified since Eastern enlargement. The focus here would be the informal coalition building that occurs outside of formal Council sessions themselves.

For example, Arjan Uilenreef (2016, p. 440) develops the idea of “multiple bilateralism” to show how the Netherlands accessed a “wide network of bilateral ties, outside of the formal negotiations going in the Council” to coordinate and build a coalition behind the Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations. Second, Council research should not rest with cataloging norm after norm; we need to pay more attention to how they might rank and influence each other in relative terms. We also need clarity on how different legitimate norms might conflict, such as the presidency’s creative tension between honest brokering and legitimating a majority view, or, generally, patterns where, as Smeets (2016, p. 27) notes, “the norm of self restraint and the norm of keeping the process going can collide.”

The Council’s Hybrid Institutional Form

The Council is an institutional construct that exemplifies the potential hybridity of national control and collective action at the international level (Hayes-Renshaw & Wallace, 2006, pp. 2–7, 327–332). 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 (1998, p. 910) have called a “strategic social construction.” To function, it requires a “disaggregated” and “pooled” reconceptualization of how sovereignty works. Over time, the Council has produced an intricate meta-network of clublike bodies at the transnational level. Taken as a whole, the Council defies easy categorization (Wallace, 2002). To poach the puzzle from political economy—when neither market, nor hierarchy—what do you call it? The network organization of the Council’s design is more evocative of William Ouchi’s (1980) work on “clans” than either a decentralized market or a network hierarchy.26

Seen plainly for what it does, the Council is the epicenter of robust and durable transnational networks for shared knowledge production among national specialists and technical experts who form clublike settings closely resembling epistemic communities (Cross, 2011; Verdun, 1999). The evolutionary quality of collective learning found in epistemic communities from shared notions of validity and practice within a common policy enterprise is what really stands out in Council settings, rather than technical or scientific knowledge per se (Heipertz & Verdun, 2010, p. 88). These relationships can exist within levels of the Council such as Coreper (Cross, 2007), or in policy domains such as foreign policy (Smith, 2015). The key denominator, as Adler and Haas (1992, p. 385) explain, is “national policymakers can absorb new meanings and interpretations of reality, as generated in intellectual, bureaucratic, and political institutions, and therefore can change their interests and adjust their willingness to consider new courses of action.” As a network of clublike bodies, the Council also resonates with the “community of practice” concept found in the recent international relations “practice turn” (Adler, 2008; Adler & Pouliot, 2011). Equating the Council as a “community of practice” can open a rich conceptual toolkit for explaining how “the knowledge domain endows practitioners with a sense of joint enterprise” (Adler & Pouliot, 2011, p. 17) and the “like-mindedness” that Council clubs are known for.27

The Council, as an institutional environment, is a reflection of collective learning at the transnational level. Formal and informal rules cannot be neatly separated or rank-ordered in importance, given the interaction effects that this article has documented. By studying how formal and informal rules interact, and especially how the collective meanings of rules can change over time, we are able to gain insight into the practices that make consensus-seeking part of the Council’s social fabric—less a moment-to-moment calculative choice to cooperate (or not) than a taken-for-granted practical understanding about the rules of the game and how things work inside the Brussels bubble.

The Council as an ultimate repository of safeguards for the national interest is not set in stone; rather, it is subject to group legitimation, as the legacy status of the LC shows us. Likewise, the path dependencies and self-reinforcing returns to scale that consensus-seeking practices have engendered are not easily disrupted at this point of the Council’s institutional evolution. But at the same time, it would be a mistake to treat this form of transnational networking as somehow the end of the history, or the defanging of nationalism via enlightened technocracy. As a social order, the Council is continually reinventing itself through the practices of collective legitimation. As Helen Wallace (2002, p. 337) observes, “the relative weights of the national and the transnational elements are not defined in fixed or stable proportions.”

How durable is the Council’s “community of practice” in today’s era of EU politicization? Are there certain normative cores, comparable to Lijphart’s concept of a widely shared attitude for system preservation? Could today’s EU withstand a new age of spillbacks? Does one member-state’s exit from the club weaken or strengthen the remaining members’ sense of system preservation and joint enterprise? Between the angry populism of anti-EU discourse that can presently be found across the EU and the historic Brexit divorce process that has yet to really begin, the Council’s corporate culture faces an era of seemingly unprecedented challenges with potentially far-reaching implications. In the future, it is likely that scholars will need a healthier appreciation of differentiation dynamics to understand the Council universe, and it may make sense to begin depicting this transnational space as a set of subsocieties rather than a singular social field.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Andrew Jung, and the anonymous reviewers for extremely helpful and constructive comments on an earlier version of this work.

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Notes:

(1.) The estimate of 62,000 national officials who regularly meet in Brussels is based on Eurofacts (2008), cited in Genschel and Jachtenfuchs (2016, p. 45).

(3.) Council Financial Activity Report 2014, Section II European Council and Council (2015/C 359/06).

(4.) For a classic conceptualization of “input-oriented” and “output-oriented” forms of legitimacy, see Scharpf (1999).

(5.) The Sherpa network is organized and managed by the European Council President’s head of cabinet, although they rarely meet collectively as a group.

(6.) On the importance of informal politics in the EU, see Christiansen and Neuhold (2013); Kleine (2013); Stacey (2010); and Stacey and Rittberger (2003). See Puetter (2006) for a rewarding account of the informal context behind the Eurogroup’s economic governance authority, and Hodson (2011, chap. 3) for an analysis of how formalization of the Eurogroup’s working methods leads to politicization.

(7.) This practice challenges the image of the neutral chair in EU politics. For an analysis of the impartiality expectations of the EU presidency (to be “fair and even-handed”) and how this should not be conflated with the idea of neutrality, see Elgström (2003, p. 39). The honest broker functions of the presidency include discursive resources to show partiality toward an emerging majority in order to persuade isolated delegations to compromise and/or drop reserves (ibid., pp. 44–45). In a deliberative environment, this is a mechanism for collective legitimation.

(8.) William Nicoll (1993) notes that statements hold no legal value. But as an outlet of contestation, they serve to put “gloss” on what may have been a lost battle without a publicly contested vote. As Nicoll explains, statements “permit the delegation which made them to hold that its point of view was accepted . . . The delegation concerned can evoke its declaration—and its gloss—in dealings with its own constituents, notably in the form: ‘We have made it clear to our partners that we will (or will not) etc. etc.’ with the implication that the partners, thus advised, are content” (Nicoll, 1993, pp. 564–565).

(9.) See Council Decision 94/C 105/01, published in OJ C 105/1, April 13, 1994.

(10.) Council reply to a written question, OJ C 364 E, 20/12/2001, p. 48.

(12.) For example, see the Council reply to a written question, OJ C 217, 26/07/1996, p. 22.

(13.) Ironically, the opposite interpretation may have provided reassurance in the late 1960s British debates over joining as a secure, formal veto power for any and all sensitive subjects (Wallace & Winand, 2006, p. 40).

(14.) There is inconsistency on this in existing studies, such as Heisenberg’s point that the Luxembourg Compromise was “officially abolished” in the 1986 Single European Act (Heisenberg, 2012, p. 374). An excellent overview of the LC as a “legal and political myth” can be found in Cruz (2006).

(15.) For more on the Dooge Committee and the SEA, see Cameron (1992). For a full text of the Dooge Report, see http://aei.pitt.edu/997/

(16.) Interview with author, Brussels, May 26, 2000.

(17.) See also Kuus (2015).

(18.) Council reply to a written question, OJ C 134 E, 6/6/2002, p. 134.

(19.) Council reply to a written question, OJ C 134 E, 6/6/2002, p. 134.

(20.) Council reply to a written question, OJ C 364 E, 20/12/2001, p. 48.

(21.) As Jonathan Golub (2012) shows, “all states win equally” is just as easy to falsify as “large states beat small states” in the EU’s overall legislative process.

(22.) Arend Lijphart’s (1968) seminal study of Dutch politics offers an extended analysis of how the “spirit of accommodation” works, and nothing in it turns on making generous concessions. If you change a word here or there, you end up with a concept of EU-style consensus-seeking that could hardly be improved upon and is worth quoting here at length. In Lijphart’s (1968, pp. 103–104) words: “Dutch politics is a politics of accommodation. That is the secret of its success. The term accommodation is here used in the sense of settlement of divisive issues and conflicts where only a minimal consensus exists. Pragmatic solutions are forged for all problems, even those with clear religious-ideological overtones on which the opposing parties may appear irreconcilable, and which therefore may seem insoluble and likely to split the country apart. A key element of this conception is the lack of a comprehensive political consensus, but not the complete absence of consensus. Dutch national consensus is weak and narrow, but it does contain the crucial component of a widely shared attitude that the existing system ought to be maintained and not be allowed to disintegrate. The second key requirement is that the leaders of the self-contained blocs must be particularly convinced of the desirability of preserving the system. And they must be willing and capable of bridging the gaps between the mutually isolated blocs and of resolving serious disputes in a largely nonconsensual context.”

(23.) Ian Johnston (2008, chap. 3) refers to this as the “social influence” of groups, which involve a “class of microprocesses that elicit pro-normative behavior through the distribution of social rewards and punishments” (p. 79).

(24.) One interesting exception to this point is the SCA (see Lewis, 2000; Kleine, 2013, p. 92).

(25.) On the general research design issues at stake, see Heisenberg (2008); for a discussion of practice theory methods, see Adler-Nissen (2016).

(26.) See Lewis (2012, p. 325) for a discussion of this point.

(27.) For a more detailed exploration of the “community of practice” approach for Council studies, see Lewis (2015).