European Council

The European Council brings together the heads of government of the member states and the Commission at least twice a year, and typically four times a year (twice per Presidency). As such, each meeting of the European Council is often referred to as a 'Summit' or simply 'Council' – in conjunction with the name of the city in which the meeting is held.

Such meetings began to be held in 1974, and achieved a formal place in the structure of the EU in the Single European Act. Over this time, the role of the European Council has shifted – developing in the late 1980s into the current arrangement whereby the European Council provides broad strategic direction to EU affairs in a manner comparable to a company's board of directors.

The European Council is only vaguely defined in law and is largely free to decide what it wishes to do. Each European Council meeting is arranged by the incumbent Presidency, and as such, the items that appear on the agenda – and hence are discussed and therefore more likely to be the subject of action in future – are ultimately decided by the Presidency. As such, the significance of and controversy generated by each European Council is largely determined by the level of activism and radicalism of the member state occupying the chair, and its allies.

However, a number of items frequently appear on the European Council's agenda – including constitutional and institutional reform, EMU and the euro and EU enlargement. In addition, the European Council frequently focuses on major contemporary issues – eg reacting to failed referendums on Denmark and Ireland, BSE etc.

The European Council also has a specific role to play with regard to international affairs in general and with regard to Common Foreign and Security Policy in particular. The European Council has frequently issued 'soft' foreign policy announcements, and is required to set the framework within which CFSP is conducted by the Council of Ministers.

The development of the European Council as a significant institution has complicated the structure of the EU.

The 'agenda setting' pronouncements of the European Council interfere with the Commission's de jure monopoly on policy initiation.
A tendency that developed in the 1980s to 'refer up' major issues to the European Council has undermined the power and authority of the Council of Ministers.
The European Parliament has little or no input into the activities of the European Council.

The rise of the European Council has reinforced the intergovernmental character of the EU at the expense of the supranational, increasing the power of the member states. While it has little formal power, as the conclave of the highest political authorities in the member states – and one that pronounces purely on the basis of unanimity – the political force of the European Council's statements is virtually irresistible, and highlights the lack of democratic legitimacy enjoyed by the rest of the EU's decision-makers.