Presidency of the Council of the European Union - what does it mean?

Every six months a different EU Member State takes over the Presidency of the Council - i.e. the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This is also called the Council of Ministers, as the EU Member States are represented there by ministers responsible for specific areas.

The Council meets in ten different configurations depending on the subject being discussed. For example, there is an Environment Council. It is usually chaired by the minister whose country holds the Presidency. During the German Council Presidency, the minister responsible for environment will be Svenja Schulze.

The main task of the Council is to deliberate and decide with the European Parliament on EU directives and regulations based on proposals from the European Commission (regulations are directly applicable in the member states).

The Councils are primarily prepared by the Permanent Representatives Committee, which brings together the ambassadors of the EU member states. During the Council Presidency the Permanent Representatives Committee will be headed by the German EU Ambassador, or his or her deputy. Prior to this, the legislative proposals are discussed in working groups in which the member states are represented by officials from the relevant ministries.

Council of the European Union and the European Council – how do the two institutions differ?

The Council of the European Union is often confused with the European Council. EU Heads of State and Government meet at least four times per year in the latter. They do not pass laws, but rather provide important input and set the political course for the EU. The European Council is chaired by a permanent President who is elected for two and a half years. Since December 2019, this position has been held by the former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.

In light of the current situation, the EU Heads of State and Government are currently meeting by video conference. Of course, face-to-face meetings are preferred for discussions on policy issues. With regard to the limitations caused by the crisis, these regular video conferences are the best means for enabling in-depth exchange, which is essential in view of the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By the way, the Council of Europe is not a body of the European Union, but rather an international organisation that promotes the rule of law, human rights and democracy throughout Europe. Forty-seven European states belong to the Council of Europe, including the 27 EU member states (from 18 November 2020 to 21 May 2021, Germany will incidentally also assume the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe).

What are the tasks of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union?

A Presidency involves a great deal of responsibility for the country concerned.

  • The Presidency organises and chairs all Council meetings. Over six months this can mean more than 1,500 meetings from the expert to the ministerial level. In addition to the meetings of the ministers, there are about 200 working groups and committees.
  • In addition, the Council Presidency represents the Council vis-à-vis the other EU institutions, above all the European Commission and the European Parliament, with which it also conducts what are known as trialogue negotiations, i.e. the negotiations between the three institutions for the adoption of legislative acts (ordinary legislative procedure).
  • The Council Presidency may also represent the EU at the international level, although responsibilities within the EU also lie with or are shared between the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the President of the European Council and the European Commission.

What is the role of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union?

The Council Presidency has a neutral, mediating role. As an “honest broker” it must work towards compromises and solutions among the member states in the Council. This means that the national position takes a back seat in favour of a mediating role between the positions of the 27 EU member states.

The success of a Council Presidency is therefore not shown by the extent to which it has asserted its national interests, but by the cohesion and united stance of the member states in the Council of the European Union. The Presidency's ultimate goal is therefore for the 27 Member States to work together to achieve the best results for the European Union and its citizens. Nevertheless, the Council Presidency can of course also set priorities in terms of policy.

What priorities will Germany set?

The German Presidency of the Council of the European Union will take a different course than originally planned, as there will be one dominant topic, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and its health, economic and social consequences. The overarching goal is to tackle the challenges of the pandemic together with a focus on the future. Germany has a special responsibility in this respect. It will do its utmost to ensure that Europe emerges stronger from the crisis.

At the same time, topics of great importance for the future of Europe will also play a role: for example, the next multiannual financial framework, climate protection, digital transformation, the rule of law and Europe's role in the world. These topics will be particularly important in overcoming the current crisis. The negotiations to shape the EU's future relationship with the United Kingdom also fall within this period.

What are Informal Ministerial Meetings?

The German Presidency not only chairs the Council meetings in Brussels and Luxembourg, it also hosts Informal Ministerial Meetings, which give ministers the opportunity to discuss current EU affairs.

It was originally planned that the ministerial meetings would take place in various cities in Germany throughout the Presidency. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings at least in July, will now be postponed or held in the form of video conferences.

How will the meetings be conducted in light of the coronavirus pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic poses major challenges to the EU. It is important that member states continue to be able to exchange views and take decisions in the various Council bodies. At the moment, member states are doing this in the form of video conferences. Face-to-face meetings are, of course, better for consultations on key political issues. But decision-making processes amongst bodies are still guaranteed. Important measures to solve the crisis have recently been discussed and decided within a very short period of time.

What is a Trio Presidency?

Three successive Council presidencies form a Trio Presidency. Germany forms a Trio Presidency with Portugal and Slovenia, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 31 December 2021. Portugal will take over the Presidency from Germany in January 2021. Six months later, in July 2021, it will in turn be succeeded by Slovenia. The three countries have worked out priorities in advance, which they propose to the other member states as a programme for the Council’s deliberations over the course of 18 months.

What has changed since the last German Presidency in 2007?

In 2020, Germany will hold the Presidency for the 13th time since the signing of the Treaties of Rome in 1957. The last time Germany held this role was in the first half of 2007.

The Presidency has changed significantly since then. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in 2009, the ordinary legislative procedure has been greatly expanded. This means that the Council and the European Parliament are equal legislators in the European Union. Representing the Council vis-à-vis the European Parliament has become one of the most important tasks of the Council Presidency. It is therefore important for the Presidency to liaise with the European Parliament at all levels. Furthermore, since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council have each had their own presidencies (see above: the Council of the EU and the European Council).