On the basis of the original Treaties, the Council was the only legislative authority of the Community and this was the main reason for the then existing democratic deficit of the Community [see section 9.5]. Subsequent amendments of the Treaties have joined, ever more closely, the European Parliament in the decision-making process, thus making the Council one of the two legislative authorities [see section 4.3] and reducing, consequently, the democratic deficit. Going a step further, the Treaty of Lisbon (following the draft Constitutional Treaty) specifies that the Council shall, jointly with the European Parliament, exercise legislative and budgetary functions, playing the role of a Senate or High Chamber, representing the governments of the Member States (Articles 14 and 16 TEU). However, in addition to its legislative and budgetary functions, the Council ensures coordination of the general economic policies of the Member States [see section 7.3.] and plays an important role in defining and implementing the common foreign and security policy (CFSP).
The Council is composed of a representative of each Member State at ministerial level, authorised to commit the government of that Member State (Article 16 TEU). While it is usually referred to broadly as "the Council" or "the Council of Ministers", it actually consists of ten specialised configurations regrouping several related areas, e.g. general affairs, foreign affairs or economic and financial affairs [Decision 2009/878]. The new Treaty (like the stillborn Constitutional Treaty) separates the Foreign Affairs Council, which elaborates the Union's external action, from the General Affairs Council, which ensures consistency in the work of the different Council configurations and prepares and ensures the follow-up to meetings of the European Council, in liaison with the President of the European Council and the Commission. The separation of the former ''General Affairs and External Relations Council'' put an end to the strange tradition of having the Ministers responsible for foreign affairs oversee the internal affairs of the Union.
Actually the ten Council configurations are: General Affairs, Foreign Affairs (including European security and defence policy and development cooperation); Economic and Financial Affairs (including budget); Justice and Home Affairs (including civil protection); Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs; Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry and Research, including tourism); Transport, Telecommunications and Energy; Agriculture and Fisheries; Environment; Education, Youth and Culture (including audiovisual affairs) [Decision 2009/878].
The Treaty of Lisbon stipulates that the Council shall meet in public when it deliberates and votes on a draft legislative act. To this end, each Council meeting shall be divided into two parts, dealing respectively with deliberations on Union legislative acts and non-legislative activities (Article 16 TEU). Each Council configuration is composed of the ministers with responsibility in the matter, but several ministers may participate as full members of the same Council configuration, e.g. the ministers responsible for health and social policy. Although Commission proposals are discussed inside the specialised Council configurations, decisions agreed by all the Member States can be taken without a debate (as "points A" in the agenda) by any Council configuration and this is often the "General Affairs Council"
The new treaty specifies that the Presidency of all Council configurations, other than that of Foreign Affairs, is held by Member State representatives on the basis of a system of equal rotation, defined by a European Council decision adopted by a qualified majority (Article 236 TFEU). It is therefore the Minister of the country holding the Presidency who chairs each Council meeting [Decision 2009/908, last amended by Decision 2016/1316]. The rotation of the Presidency has the advantage of giving each country a chance to prove its efficiency in promoting common policies, on the basis of Commission proposals, thus encouraging emulation among the Member States in the advancement of European integration. In order to obviate the problem of differing priorities of twenty-seven presidencies in the enlarged Union, its legislative work is henceforth based on a three-year strategic programme adopted by the European Council. In its light, an annual operating programme of Council activities is adopted by the General Affairs Council in December each year and is accompanied by six-monthly indicative agendas for the various Council configurations.
The Council is assisted by a General Secretariat, consisting of "Eurocrats" of all the nationalities of the Union, separate from their counterparts in the Commission but organised in a similar way. The Council is also assisted by many working parties of national civil servants, which examine the proposals of the Commission and report to the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER), which is responsible for preparing the work of the Council and for carrying out the tasks assigned to it by the Council" (Article 240 TFEU, ex Article 207 TEC). The Coreper sits in two parts. Coreper Part 1, which is composed of the Deputy Permanent Representatives, examines technical questions on the whole. Coreper Part 2, which is composed of the Ambassadors themselves, deals with political questions on the whole. The European Commission participates in all the meetings of the working parties of national experts, of the Coreper and of the Council itself to explain its positions and assist the Presidency in reaching agreement on its proposals. After examining an issue Coreper either submits a report to the Council, preparing the ground for its discussions by drawing attention to the political aspects which deserve particular attention, or, if unanimous agreement has been reached between the Permanent Representatives and the Commission representative, Coreper recommends that the Council adopt the prepared text "as an 'A' item", i.e. without discussion. In both cases the Council's work is facilitated thanks to Coreper's intervention.
In order to understand the decision-making process within the Council, it is worth identifying the major stages of a Council meeting [See the Council's Rules of Procedure]. Each Minister arrives in Brussels with a highly technical dossier prepared by his department, which has followed the proceedings in the working party of administrative experts and in the COREPER. Each Minister sets out his position, which is normally a starting point for negotiation, in other words extreme. After several rounds of comments the meeting is adjourned to give the Commission and the Presidency the opportunity to draft a compromise. The Commission may amend its proposal to take the compromise into account, and the round of comments resumes. So as not to part empty-handed, Ministers are often obliged to sit until very late at night or to extend the meeting for several days, in which case it becomes a "marathon session".
Despite its composition of representatives of national governments, which are naturally inclined to defend national interests, the Council manages to play well its role as a European Union institution seeking and ultimately finding the common denominator of problems and policies. Every Council decision is tangible evidence of the Member States' will to develop common policies and measures. That will is not the fruit of chance, but of a good knowledge of each other's problems and interests. That knowledge is gained especially in the Council. At their numerous formal meetings, held usually in Brussels and three months a year in Luxembourg, and during their informal meetings, held at the invitation and in the territory of the country holding the Council Presidency, Ministers form friendships and make alliances for the defence of common interests. Hence, the Ministers participating in a Council formation form a multinational human network, which is very important for the European integration process [see section 9.4].
Those friendships and alliances are formed also in the very numerous specialist working parties on the various subjects, composed of members of the national civil services, which discuss the Commission's proposals and prepare Council decisions. The numerous meetings each year of senior officials of the Member States, responsible for agriculture, industry, transport, economic affairs, etc., help to align points of view and facilitate the multinational integration process. An influential human network is thus built among the civil servants who attend the work of the committees, which prepare the decisions of the Council. The influence of this network, which is somehow penetrated by European spirit, on their colleagues back home is all the more important, since national administrations remain the most ardent defenders of national causes and measures, as each brick added to the communal house removes a little of their own power and authority. Since national, regional and even local interests are not swept away by multinational integration, there is and will always be a need to reconcile common and national interests in order to develop workable common policies. The human networks formed inside the Council at all levels help answer this need.