Help Print this page 

Summaries of EU Legislation

Title and reference
The Council of the European Union

Summaries of EU legislation: direct access to the main summaries page.
Languages and formats available
HTML html ES html DA html DE html EL html EN html FR html IT html NL html PT html FI html SV
Multilingual display

The Council of the European Union


A Protocol on the institutions with the prospect of enlargement has been annexed to the EU Treaty and to the Treaties establishing the European Communities. It lays down a number of institutional conditions that will have to be met at the next enlargement and provides for another Intergovernmental Conference to be convened before the membership of the European Union exceeds twenty. The present structure is the legacy of an organisation designed for six member states and although it has been adjusted to take account of the accession of new members, it still operates today on the same institutional principles.

The Council is facing two main questions:

  • weighting of votes of Member States' representatives;
  • the scope of qualified majority voting.

The Protocol on the institutions incorporates in a common framework the questions of the weighting of votes in the Council and the size of the Commission, the underlying idea being to revise the Community system so that the relative influence of the small and medium-sized countries should not one day become disproportionate to the size of their population.

The question of the weighting is particularly important owing to the extension of qualified majority voting, since that method of decision-making applies to most of the new provisions introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam. At the same time, qualified majority voting has also been extended to a number of existing provisions.

The General Secretariat of the Council now also has a special role to play in the context of common foreign and security policy.


Re-weighting of votes or the introduction of a dual majority are two of the options between which the Member States will have to choose before the next enlargement of the European Union. Re-weighting would mean that the proportion of votes allocated to the large countries would be increased in relation to those of the small States. A dual majority, on the other hand, would not, in theory, alter the present weighting but would provide that, for a decision to be adopted within the Council, it would not only have to obtain a number of votes representing a qualified majority, but also correspond to a threshold, yet to be decided on, of the population of the European Union.

The Protocol on the institutions links these questions affecting the Council with the reform of the Commission. In practical terms it requires that, on the date of entry into force of the first enlargement, the Commission will comprise one national of each of the Member States, provided that, by that date, the weighting of the votes in the Council has been modified, whether by re-weighting of the votes or by dual majority, in a manner acceptable to all Member States.


Use of qualified majority voting has been extended to cover the following provisions of the EC Treaty (the article numbers reflect the new numbering):

  • the coordination of provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action providing for special treatment for foreign nationals (right of establishment, Article 46(2));
  • the adoption or amendment of the framework programme for research (Article 166);
  • the setting-up of joint undertakings for research and technological development (Articles 171 and 172).

Qualified majority voting also applies to the following new areas introduced into the EC Treaty:

  • guidelines on employment (Article 128);
  • adoption of incentive measures for employment (Article 129);
  • adoption of measures to strengthen customs cooperation between Member States and between them and the Commission (Article 135)
  • measures to combat social exclusion (Article 137 (2));
  • adoption of measures to ensure the application of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women (Article 141 (3));
  • promotion of public health (Article 152 (4));
  • the determining of general principles governing the right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents (Article 255);
  • measures to combat fraud affecting the financial interests of the Community (Article 280);
  • adoption of measures on the establishment of statistics (Article 285);
  • establishment of an independent supervisory body responsible for monitoring processing of personal data (Article 286);
  • laying down the conditions governing the application of the EC Treaty to the outermost regions (Article 299);

Qualified majority voting is now also used in two cases relating to the common foreign and security policy (Title V of the EU Treaty):

  • when adopting decisions implementing a common strategy decided on by the European Council;
  • when adopting any decision implementing joint actions or common positions adopted in advance by the Council.


The Secretary-General of the Council now serves as High Representative for the common foreign and security policy, while the running of the General Secretariat is handled by a Deputy Secretary-General who, like the Secretary-General, is appointed by unanimous Council decision.

The High Representative for the common foreign and security policy assists the Presidency and the Council, in particular by contributing to the formulation, preparation, and implementation of policy decisions. He also fulfils a representative function and is assisted by a policy planning and early warning unit under his responsibility.