Written by Ralf Drachenberg, Annastiina Papunen and Rebecca Torpey with José Ernault.
Established as an informal summit meeting in 1975, the European Council became a formal European Union institution, with a full-time President, in 2009, on the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. It consists of the Heads of State or Government of the 27 EU Member States, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission (Article 15(2) of the Treaty on European Union, TEU). The latter two individuals have no voting rights. Meetings of the European Council are normally also attended by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The President of the European Parliament is ‘invited to speak’ as the first item on the European Council’s agenda, followed by an exchange of views (Article 235(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, TFEU). At its formal meetings, normally four per year, the European Council adopts ‘conclusions’ that are aimed at identifying policy priorities and action to be taken by the Union as a whole.
Agenda-setting and crisis management
The European Council’s role is to ‘provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and define the general political directions and priorities’ (Article 15(1) TEU). It cannot exercise legislative functions. At the beginning of the 2014-2019 and the 2019-2024 institutional cycles, the European Council adopted an agenda of strategic priorities, designed to guide the work of the European Union over the five-year period.
Reflecting the direction taken by the 2017 Rome Agenda set out on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties, the 2019-2024 strategic agenda, adopted by the Heads of State or Government at their meeting in June 2019, defines migration and the protection of citizens as the top priorities for action in the upcoming five years. Then, comes the development of a stronger economic base, including the fight against unemployment, followed by climate change and social issues. Finally, it looks to increase the EU’s influence and defend its interest in the world. The four core priorities set out in the 2019-2024 strategic agenda broadly correspond to the concerns of EU citizens at the time, as reflected by the 2019 standard Eurobarometer.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 and the prospect of a protracted economic recession of unknown length and severity has, however, prompted EU Heads of State or Government to review the above priorities in order to provide for a coordinated approach and joint action to tackle the crisis. They met virtually on a number of occasions, with their attention shifting from the initial pandemic-related crisis management to the more medium-term recovery process.
At their first video-conference dedicated to the management of the health crisis, on 10 March 2020, the 27 EU Heads of State or Government, alongside the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Central Bank and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, agreed to work together along four main axes, with a view to: i) limiting the spread of the virus; ii) providing medical equipment; iii) promoting research, for instance on development of a vaccine; and iv) tackling the socio-economic consequences of the crisis. The EU leaders underscored the need for a joint European approach and close coordination with the European Commission in combating the pandemic.
Given the serious human, economic and social consequences of the health crisis, criticism has been directed towards the lack of overall preparedness in combatting the pandemic across the EU, and the lack of coordination among Member States at the start of the outbreak. Indeed, EU leaders have acknowledged that the EU needed to become better at ‘developing its executive capacity and at managing crises in a coordinated fashion’.
Following the immediate crisis-management phase, the European Council therefore shifted its focus more towards the medium-term recovery process, with the aim of relaunching and transforming the EU’s economies. In a ‘Joint Statement of the Members of the European Council’ adopted on 26 March 2020, EU leaders mandated the Presidents of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to put forward a roadmap for recovery.
Submitted on 21 April, the recovery plan places particular emphasis on the opportunities offered by the green transition and digital transformation, which are expected to foster new forms of growth and contribute to a more innovative and resilient EU. This dual transformation has been given a central role in the EU’s medium- to long-term action, and forms part of a broader ambition aimed at achieving ‘European strategic autonomy‘. Charles Michel mentioned the concept of strategic autonomy several times over the year 2020; most prominently, on 28 September, when he stated that ‘European strategic autonomy – these are not just words. The strategic independence of Europe is our new common project for this century. It’s in all our common interest’. This concept was then formally endorsed by the European Council, which presented it as ‘a key objective of the Union’ in its 1-2 October 2020 conclusions. Recent developments in Afghanistan are likely to give new impetus to the debate on the EU’s strategic autonomy, as events in August 2021 have highlighted once again the need for the EU to strengthen its defence cooperation.
As regards the funding for the EU recovery process, this will come from the Next Generation EU (NGEU) recovery fund, set up as a temporary mechanism and linked to the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework (MFF). Yet, it was only after months of remote meetings that the European Council was able to convene again in person to discuss the financial package, and an intensive four-day meeting was needed on 17-21 July, to reach political agreement on the 2021-2027 MFF and NGEU. Together, the two instruments amount to €1 824.3 billion, with €360 in loans and €390 billion in grants making up the latter. After several negotiation meetings between European Parliament and Council representatives, a political agreement on the package was reached on 10 November 2020. However, following the refusal by Hungary and Poland to endorse the outcome, citing concerns with the rule of law mechanism, it took the European Council another two meetings, a video-conference on 19 November and a meeting in person on 11-12 December 2020, to finally agree on clarifications to the rule-of-law conditionality mechanism, thus paving the way for the adoption of the MFF and the NGEU.
One and a half years after the outbreak of the crisis, boosting the EU economy and ensuring its future resilience remain the key priority of the EU. An improving health situation – coupled with increasing vaccination levels – allowed for the gradual restart of EU economies, which in turn led to a brighter economic outlook, with GDP forecast to grow by 4.8 % in 2021 in the EU. However, the speed of recovery varies by Member State and by sector.
Thus, immediately after the Commission’s first-ever bond issuance to feed the Recovery and Resilience Facility, the June 2021 European Council pushed for swift adoption by the Council and rapid implementation of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans, with the aim of ensuring balanced recovery throughout the continent.
Hence, despite an evolution in the ranking of European citizens’ priorities for EU action as identified in the most recent standard Eurobarometer, the horizontal policy orientations set by the European Council in its 2019-2024 strategic agenda appear to remain fully relevant and in line with the expectations of citizens, who now consider the economic situation as their top concern at EU level.
Specific Treaty-based role
In addition to its horizontal priority-setting role as defined in Article 15(1) TEU, the European Council is also tasked with identifying the Union’s strategic interests, determining the objectives of, and defining general guidelines for common foreign and security policy (Article 26 TEU). Following a request by EU leaders, the then High Representative, Federica Mogherini, presented an EU global strategy, which the European Council welcomed in June 2016. The strategy sets five broad priorities for the EU external action in coming years: the security of the Union, state and societal resilience to the east and south, an integrated approach to conflict and crisis, cooperative regional orders, and global governance for the 21st century.
Furthermore, the European Council defines the strategic guidelines for legislative and operational planning in the area of freedom, security and justice (Article 68 TFEU). For the period until 2019, the priorities for the European Union in the area of freedom, security and justice, were to ‘better manage migration in all aspects; prevent and combat crime and terrorism; [and] improve judicial cooperation among EU countries’. Following the outbreak of the migration crisis, and a series of terrorist attacks on European soil, key strategic documents, notably the European agenda on security and the European agenda on migration, were adopted in 2015, either at the request of or with the endorsement of the European Council. A new set of ‘strategic guidelines for legislative and operational planning’ were expected to be adopted by the European Council at its meeting of 26‑27 March 2020. Since the ordinary spring European Council meeting had to be postponed because of the coronavirus crisis. However, more than a year and a half later, and despite the 15 European Council meetings held in the meantime, EU leaders have still not complied with this Treaty obligation, nor is the topic mentioned in the indicative Leaders’ Agenda 2021-2022.
The European Council has also to ‘consider each year the employment situation in the Union and adopt conclusions thereon, on the basis of a joint annual report by the Council and the Commission’ (Article 148 TFEU).
Decision-making procedures and working methods
The European Council’s decisions are taken mainly by consensus, but in certain cases, the European Council can also decide by qualified majority. For example, the President of the European Council is elected by qualified majority vote for a once-renewable term of two and a half years. The President’s role is ‘to ensure the preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council in cooperation with the President of the Commission’, chair its meetings, ‘facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council’, and to ensure ‘the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’ (Article 15(5) TEU). The first two full-time Presidents of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy and Donald Tusk, served five years each between 2009 and 2019. The third permanent President of the European Council, Charles Michel, began his mandate at the beginning of December 2019.
While not directly accountable to the European Parliament, the President of the European Council presents a report to the Parliament after each (formal) meeting of the Heads of State or Government (Article 15(6)(d) TEU). Usually this takes the form of a declaration in person, followed by a plenary debate.
One of the most striking development in recent years has been the substantial evolution in the working methods and formations of the European Council. As a result of the series of crisis of the last decade, we have witnessed an exponential increase in the number and types of meetings. All meetings are indeed meetings of Heads of State or Government, but not all meetings are formal European Council meetings.
Over recent years, members of the European Council have met in seven different formats:
Next to 1) regular meetings of the European Council on a quarterly basis (Article 15(3) TEU), mentioned earlier, the President can convene 2) special meetings of the European Council ‘when the situation so requires’ (Article 15(3) TEU). In principle, conclusions are also adopted at these special meetings. But, there can be exceptions, e.g. the special meeting of February 2020 on the MFF.
In addition, 3) informal meetings of Heads of State or Government take place traditionally twice per year in the country holding the rotating presidency of the Council, such as for instance the Porto meeting on 8 May 2021, in connexion with the social summit.
As a result of, inter alia, the financial crisis, the UK’s decision to leave the Union, the Leaders’ Agenda proposed by the previous President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, in 2017, and the coronavirus pandemic, meeting formations have evolved substantially.
The financial crisis has led to the increase in the number of special European Council meetings as well as to the establishment of the 4) Euro Summit, created as an informal gathering in 2008 and formalised in 2012 with the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the EMU. In principle, Euro Summits include the EU Member States which have adopted the common currency, currently 19 countries. However, more and more meetings take place in an inclusive format, i.e. with the participation of all 27 Member States. This was the case for instance of the June 2021 Euro Summit. This broad involvement could be linked to the fact that the Euro Summits are not crisis meetings anymore; they now aim at bringing forward the reform of EMU, which is of concern for all the Member States.
From June 2016, following the UK referendum, EU leaders felt the need to discuss a number of things among the 27. Thus, a number of informal meetings of Heads of State or Government at 27 took place without the UK to discuss the future of Europe, notably in Bratislava in 2016, Rome in 2017 and Sibiu in 2019. On those occasions a series of landmark declarations were adopted, which were not formal conclusions. Once the UK had triggered Article 50 and notified its intention to leave, then a new formal format was set up, the 5) European Council (Article 50), which adopted formal conclusions.
As for 6) Leaders’ meetings, they were set up under President Tusk in 2017 and aimed at discussing sensitive issues in an informal way. Such discussions were based, not on draft conclusions, but on short notes prepared by the President. The idea is to have an open, relatively unstructured debate on controversial but highly consequential issues, with a view to facilitating agreement at a follow-up European Council meeting.
The 2019-2024 strategic agenda was prepared in very much the same way, by using the working method developed under the Leaders’ Agenda. Just ahead of the 2019 European elections, the EU‑27 met on 9 May 2019 in the Romanian city of Sibiu to assess the implementation of previous policy objectives and to reflect informally on future EU action over the coming five years. The EU leaders’ discussion was informed by President Tusk’s Leaders’ Agenda note, ‘Strategic agenda 2019-2024 – Outline’, which provided a first overview of the topics for future action. The 2019-2024 strategic agenda was then adopted at the June 2019 formal European Council meeting.
The process consisting of first holding an informal or inconclusive discussion on a topic and then seeking to adopt conclusions at a subsequent meeting has been kept in the Leaders’ Agenda 2020-2021, put forward by President Charles Michel at the special European Council meeting of 1‑2 October 2020 and then in the new indicative Leaders’ Agenda 2021-22, presented in June 2021. The idea is that, ‘where no immediate conclusions are drawn, the outcome of the debates will be reflected in later conclusions’. Designed to provide an important structuring framework for the European Council’s activities, both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 Leaders’ Agendas outline the planned meetings and main policy topics that EU Heads of State or Government are called to address in the months ahead. The third edition of the Leaders’ Agenda however, the indicative nature of which is specified in the title, appears to be less detailed and less comprehensive when compared to the first and second editions. Moreover, whilst maintaining the Leaders’ Agenda framework, Mr Michel seems more recently to have dropped the practice of preparing special notes and of organising an informal meeting to discuss sensitive issues.
Moreover, a number of EU priority topics appear to be missing in the listing of issues for discussion outlined in the latest Leaders’ Agenda. This is the case of migration for instance. Owing to the sensitivity of the issue and because EU leaders have not thus far been able to agree on the distribution of migrants beyond the Member State of arrival, migration has been absent from the European Council’s meeting agendas in 2019 and 2020. However, EU discussions on migration have resurfaced recently: the issue was debated at length at the October 2021 European Council meeting and is likely to feature among the highly sensitive topics of the coming months.
The newest feature of meetings of Heads of State or Government are video-conference meetings. In a context of lockdown, this new form of meeting has enabled EU leaders to take joint action to tackle the crisis. Video-conference meetings are clearly linked to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. However, it can be assumed that they be a lasting feature. Indeed, next to the coronavirus pandemic, other topics were often touched upon at video-conference meetings, thus using the opportunity of a virtual meeting to move forward on other pressing or even less pressing issues.
Obviously video technology enables urgent meetings to take place, and for the EU to take action if needed between physical meetings. Thus, given there is the necessary political will, the use of video-conferences could provide a new dynamic to the European Council, increasing its adaptability and reaction capacity.
Nevertheless, even if video-conferences are a good vehicle for rapid consultation, this type of meeting has its limits: Video-conferences are inappropriate to discuss sensitive issues, such as foreign affairs or budgetary matters. In such a format, EU leaders tend to be more cautious and to keep to their written statements, because the confidentiality of discussions is not ensured and participation is (de facto) broader than in formal physical meetings. Moreover, considering the particular nature of the European Council, small bilateral or side-meetings are crucial for achieving agreements on sensitive issues. We have witnessed it in the context of the negotiations on MFF in July 2020, when a physical meeting was necessary to enable political agreement to be reached on the MFF, and with the postponement of the discussion on Russia at the March European Council, which had to be held online due to the public health situation.
Altogether, the European Council has been active during the coronavirus crisis, and the institution has taken a digital leap. But video-meetings are unlikely to replace physical meetings fully when crucial decisions are on the agenda.
Read the complete study on ‘Key issues in the European Council: State of play in September 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.