The council is the EU's principal legislative body, a role it shares with the EP in some cases. It has greater powers to block and to facilitate commission proposals than the EP.
Once a proposal from the commission is received by the council's general secretariat, it goes through two stages before reaching the Council of Ministers itself.
The first stage is initial examination by one or more working party, which may be permanent or constituted specially for the purpose at hand. The general secretariat aims to keep meetings of the working party to a maximum of three on any one proposal. About 70 per cent of council business is agreed at this level.
The second stage is referral to COREPER (or the SCA). The aim of this stage is to reach agreement between the member states on as many matters as possible, so that only the most controversial and important remain to be decided at the third stage, the actual ministerial meeting. If agreement has been reached on a proposal at the working party stage, it is likely to pass through COREPER fairly quickly. If agreement has not been reached, referral to COREPER escalates the situation: COREPER can then either try to resolve the matter itself, refer the matter back to the working party with suggestions or pass it on upwards. A further 15 to 20 per cent is agreed at this level.
Formal adoption of a proposal is only possible at the third stage, the ministerial meeting. Agendas presented to the council meetings comprise a list of 'A points' – those agreed at working party or CORPER stage and which are usually approved without debate – and 'B points' – which remain controversial but which are accompanied by a formula for agreement for ministers to consider.
For non-controversial matters (typically A points) to be approved, it is not necessary for a proposal to await the next council meeting on that subject. Such matters can be approved at the next meeting, whatever policy area that council meets to discuss.