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.
European integration theories help us understand the actors and mechanisms that drive European integration. Traditionally, European integration scholars used grand theories of integration to explain why integration progresses or stands still. Born out of assumptions that are prevalent in realist international relations theories, intergovernmentalism was first developed as a theory in opposition to neofunctionalism. In a nutshell, intergovernmentalism argues that states (i.e., national governments or state leaders), based on national interests, determine the outcome of integration. Intergovernmentalism was seen as a plausible explanatory perspective during the 1970s and 1980s, when the integration process seemed to have stalled. Despite the fact that it could not explain many of the gradual incremental changes or informal politics, intergovernmentalism—as did various other approaches—gained renewed popularity in the 1990s, following the launch of liberal intergovernmentalism. During that decade, the study of European integration was burgeoning, triggered in part by the aim to complete the single market and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty that launched the European Union (EU). Intergovernmentalism also often received considerable pushback from researchers who were unconvinced by its core predictions. Attempts to relaunch intergovernmentalism were made in the 2010s, in response to the observation that EU member states played a prominent role in dealing with the various crises that the EU was confronted with at that time, such as the financial crisis and the migration crisis. Although intergovernmentalism is unable —and is not suited—to explain all aspects of European integration, scholars revert to intergovernmentalism as a theoretical approach in particular when examining the role of member states in European politics. Outside the EU, in the international arena (such as the United Nations), intergovernmentalism is also observed when studying various forums in which member states come together to bargain over particular collective outcomes in an intergovernmental setting.
Together, the European Parliament (EP) and the Council of the European Union form the bicameral legislature of the European Union (EU). However, as the analysis of voting behavior shows, decision-making is structured differently in the two institutions. In the EP, competition takes place between European party groups along a left-right and a rising pro-anti EU integration dimension. In the Council, ideology and party politics play a minor role. Voting behavior of ministers is determined by different national interests on an issue-by-issue basis. Furthermore, voting in the Council is dominated by the so-called culture of consensus. Despite the extension of qualified majority voting (QMV) to most areas of EU decision-making, many legislative proposals are adopted unanimously. Even if there is dissent, it is usually only one or two member states voting against the proposal. This makes it difficult to discover patterns of conflict and coalition formation through Council voting data. At the same time, consensus-seeking is something the Council and the EP have in common. In the EP, voting cohesion is high not only within groups but also in the EP plenary as a whole, with a grand coalition between Social Democrats and Conservatives forming frequently, often including the Liberals as well as parties on the left side of the political spectrum. Notwithstanding signs of a decline in consensual decision-making in the wake of the financial and the migration crisis, voting cohesion dominates within the Council and the EP, as well as across institutions in bicameral decision-making.
The Single European Act (SEA) of 1986 was the first major reform of the founding treaties of the three original European Communities, the forerunners of the European Union (EU). The main purpose of the SEA was to facilitate implementation of the Single Market Program by the end of 1992, notably by making it possible for national governments to enact the necessary legislation in the Council of Ministers by means of qualified-majority voting (QMV). To complement the shift of decision-making from unanimity to QMV, the SEA also increased the legislative authority of the European Parliament by introducing the cooperation procedure. This was intended to help close the EC’s perceived democratic deficit, or at least to prevent it from widening. The SEA included changes in other policy areas as well as the single market, such as cohesion policy, environmental policy, research and technology policy, and intergovernmental cooperation on foreign policy (European Political Cooperation). The SEA, and the Single Market Program with which it is closely associated, became synonymous with the acceleration of European integration in the late 1980s. Procedurally and substantively, the SEA set a precedent for other, far-reaching treaty reforms, especially the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Jacques Delors, who became commission president in 1985, is widely credited with having engineered the SEA. The leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom may have played a more important role, especially as the SEA emerged out of a complicated intergovernmental conference, which culminated in a meeting of the European Council in December 1985. From the perspective of more than three decades later, with the EU facing serious setbacks, the SEA looks like a shining light in the history of European integration.
The expression “the Lisbon Treaty” (LT) is a shortcut to the treaties upon which the European Union (EU) has been based since December 1, 2009. During the “reflection period” that lasted from June 2005 to December 2006 three options were available: remaining with the European treaties as amended by the Nice Treaty; starting new negotiations in order to adopt some changes deemed technically necessary; or trying to get “the substance” of the Constitutional Treaty (CT) of 2004 approved in the form a new treaty. Most member states and the EU institutions were in favor of the third option. The negotiations that led to the adoption of the LT in December 2007 departed from the usual treaty amendment scenarios. The content of the LT is to a large extent similar to that of the CT, as most of the novel provisions of that treaty have been taken over as they were written in the CT and introduced in the existing European Community (EC) and EU treaties. Apart from a few institutional innovations such as the Permanent President of the European Council and the new voting system in the Council, most innovations with regard to the European communities are to be found in the details. The ratification process of the LT was difficult, as it was slowed down by the necessity to hold two referenda in Ireland, and to overcome the resistance of the President of the Czech Republic, an overt Euroskeptic. The negotiations of 2007–2009 shed some light on the importance in EU policy-making and especially in treaty negotiations of the epistemic community of legal experts and, more precisely, of experts in EU law. Events in the years 2010 and 2011 led to minor treaty amendments, shaping the present content of what is usually referred to as the LT. Whether Brexit and the EP elections of 2019 will lead to important changes remains unknown.
Frank M. Häge
The Presidency plays a crucial role in the management and organization of the Council of the European Union’s work and the institution’s interactions with third parties. Formally, the Presidency just chairs the meetings of Council bodies; but over time, member states have endowed it with a range of procedural prerogatives to structure the Council’s agenda and broker agreements, which post holders can potentially use to advance their own private interests. The potential for abuse of these powers raises two related questions: first, why would member states grant these powers to the Presidency, and second, is the Presidency actually able to use these powers to advance its own priorities and policy preferences? In response to the first question, functionalist theories suggest that member states delegate powers to the Presidency to reduce transaction costs and solve collective action. According to Tallberg, member states grant the Presidency procedural prerogatives and provide it with administrative resources to ensure an efficient management of the Council’s agenda, avoid inadvertent negotiation failure or suboptimal negotiation outcomes, and provide adequate representation of the institution vis-à-vis external actors. Kleine’s theory suggests that the Presidency acts as an adjudicator of the legitimacy of demands for concessions by member states that find themselves in the minority but claim to experience strong domestic pressures for non-compliance. By making impartial and thus credible recommendations about whether the formal voting rule or consensus decision-making should apply in these situations, the Presidency contributes to the long-term sustainability of international cooperation. The two explanatory accounts disagree about whether the growing role of the Presidency reflects an incremental accumulation of powers over time in response to new tasks or just an extension of already existing powers into new areas. Historical research on the development of Presidency powers could shed more light on this topic. Responses to the second question about the actual influence of the Presidency can be distinguished according to whether they relate to the Presidency’s scheduling power or to its proposal-making power. Control over the schedule and agenda of meetings, as well as the time devoted to different issues during a meeting, allows the Presidency to affect the relative allocation of attention to different policies. Allowing the Presidency to structure the agenda according to its own priorities comes with tangible collective benefits while resulting in little redistributive costs for other member states. In contrast, the Presidency’s exercise of proposal-making power, through its first-mover advantage, control over the negotiation text, and its privilege to call a vote or declare consensus, leads to biased negotiation outcomes with little or no benefits for member states but direct and tangible redistributive consequences. Thus, the Presidency’s prerogatives are largely based on informal norms and behavioral practices, which can always be superseded by recourse to formal rules. However, member states have little incentive to do so when the Presidency exercises its scheduling power but ample incentive if it exercises its proposal-making power. Existing empirical research provides clear evidence that the Presidency can exercise both scheduling power and proposal-making power at least to some extent and under certain conditions. Interesting questions for future research relate to the overall size and prevalence of the effects of the Presidency’s powers, the mechanisms through which these effects are generated, as well as the conditions that explain their variation over time, across policy areas, and across member state characteristics.
Ana Bojinović Fenko and Marjan Svetličič
Despite having fought for their bare survival against hostile foreigners, after finally reaching their independence and international recognition in 1991–1992, paradoxically, even before fully assuming statehood Slovenians were eager to engage in yet another international integration—the European Union. This historical and societal wager, rather than merely political elites’ driven perspective, dominates as the prevailing reason for pursuing European Union (EU) membership; thus security assurance to a small geopolitically transit state, economic benefits of a larger common market in conditions of economic globalization, and cultural proximity of Slovenian to European society explain Slovenian general identity-related elements favoring membership in the EU. There is also a more immediate time-space related explanatory factor for this, namely, the collapsing of the socialist Yugoslavia starting by the end 1980s and a view of assuring the democratic political life and market-lead economy via integration with Western European countries rather than South Slavic nations or following other alternative scenarios like full liberalization with all partners’ strategy. Authors critically evaluate where and why during the effort of becoming an EU member state and performing excellently as one during the first four years, the state fell short of capability-building and/or seizing the opportunities of EU membership. As the latter has been most brutally exposed via the effects of the 2008–2014 economic and financial crisis, of key importance for Slovenians before the COVID-19 crisis stood a self-reflection of its development strategy and enhancing competitiveness. A novel problem introduced by the 2020–2022 government and revealed to the European and international public during the Slovenian 2021 Presidency to the Council of the EU was the country’s rapidly deteriorating performance in implementation of until-then unequivocal engagement toward EU values, particularly liberal democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, and observation of human rights.. After the April 2022 general election, in which liberal democratic and social parties won a large majority, the central challenge remains how to overcome the small state hindrances and more effectively formulate and project national interest to the EU level. Some of the main questions of national interest within the EU concern assurance of social security to citizens; upgrading economic union to face more effectively global challenges, especially digitalization, the green transition, and interstate solidarity; refreshing enlargement policy for the remaining Western Balkans non-member states; and re-establishing Slovenian participation in the group of core states leading the European integration.
Troels Jacob Hegland and Jesper Raakjaer
The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is rooted in the Treaty of Rome. After its completion in 1983, the policy framework was gradually reformed through decennial reviews in 1993, 2003, and 2014. Due to geopolitical, physiographic, and historical reasons, the EU implementation of the CFP is most developed in the North Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Baltic Sea, and less developed in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. However, the CFP applies throughout European Union (EU) waters, which that are treated as a “common pond.” The CFP has been heavily contested since its introduction, and over long periods was characterized as a management system in crisis. Historically, the CFP has arguably struggled to perform and the policy’s ability to meet its objectives has not uncommonly been undermined by factors such as internally contradictory decisions and inefficient implementation. Since the turn of the century, the policy has changed its course by incrementally institutionalizing principles for a more environmentally orientated and scientifically based fisheries management approach. In general, in the latest decade, fisheries have become increasingly sustainable in both environmental and economic terms. An increasing number of fish stocks under the CFP are being exploited at sustainable levels—a development that is likely to continue, as fish stocks are coming to be more commonly managed along the lines of science-based multi-annual management plans. Consequently, many fishing fleets, particularly those deployed in northern waters, have shown good economic performance in recent years. This development has been further facilitated by the introduction of market-based management principles; in most member states these have been implemented by granting de facto ownership to fishing rights for free in the name of ecological and economic sustainability. This has, however, in many cases also led to huge wealth generation for a small privileged group of large-scale fishers at the expense of small-scale fisheries and smaller fishing communities, as well as society at large; this situation has led to calls for both a fairer distribution of fishing rights—to protect the small-scale sector—and for a resource rent or exploitation fee to be collected for the benefit of society at large, which is the true owner of fishing resources. Consequently, social sustainability, understood as the improved well-being of fishing communities and a fairer sharing out of the benefits derived from fisheries resources, should be a subject for the CFP to consider in the future.