Editor’s note: After reading this first edition of the newsletter Brussels Dispatches, we decided to reach out to Wilf King and Pierre Minoves, respectively working for the European Parliament and Commission, who together started it. Their motivation, as Wilf wrote, “was born out of numerous conversations with friends and family. When explaining my job or the city in which I work, I often get asked questions such as ‘What do you actually do though?’ or ‘Does any of this actually impact me?'”.

Of the big three EU institutions, the European Council is arguably the least well understood. While the European Commission and Parliament often actively seek media attention, the Council tends to speak in hushed tones.

It is not a surprise then that it often comes in for flak in debates about how the EU works. Having spent some time getting to know the working methods, I will give my own personal perspective what the benefits are to the current model.

After a year of nearly-but-not-quite job applications, in September of last year I finally landed in Brussels to start as a Policy Officer for the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU. I was excitedly telling friends in Dublin that I was off to work in the ‘PermRep’, as it is known in diplomatic lingo. The conversation usually went something like this:

“The… PermRep? Who’s that when they’re at home?”

“The Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU (it is a mouthful in fairness)”

“Oh, what will that involve? Is it like an embassy?”

“Ehhh, sort of, it is Ireland’s link into the EU. Mainly it is about representing the country in the Council of the EU.”

“Aha, they’re the people who can’t agree on anything aren’t they?”

If people know anything about what happens in Brussels, they tend to have this perception. The Council is seen as the place where decisions go to not get made. Since arriving here, I have heard time and again about how this needs to change, for some reasons. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an increase in geopolitical tensions, in general, has put the set-up of the EU’s institutions back in the spotlight.

People across the continent are looking to the EU to do more in areas it has previously steered clear of, especially in defence and foreign policy. On top of that, Russia’s invasion has re-energised the enlargement process with as many as nine countries, including Ukraine, now banging on the door to be let in and the genuine prospect of a Union with well over 30 members.

So what actually is it? Very briefly: the Council is where the representatives of the 27 EU member states meet to negotiate and agree on European legislation. It is made up of diplomats based in Brussels and Ministers who travel to Brussels on a semi-regular basis. It makes most of its decisions based on consensus (a proposal will only be adopted if all member states are in agreement) although, in more and more areas, this is done by qualified majority voting (a threshold above a simple 50 percent is needed, but not consensus).

With all this in mind, there is a lot of debate in Brussels about the way the EU should change to be ready for what comes next. The Council has come in for special attention as the institution where things seem to get held up the most. A recently adopted European Parliament report argued, “EU… decision-making mechanisms, especially in the Council, are unfit for a Union with an increased number of Member states.”

It would be hard to argue that there is no need for change and there have already been a number of proposals about how to do so. The European Parliament has even voted in favour of amending the European Treaties.

With all that said, the last six months have given me a new appreciation for some of the benefits of how the Council currently works and they bear repeating in conversations about reform. Namely, the Council in its current form has an arguably unique ability to build consensus among 27 independent Member States. It is a consensus-building machine that manages to corral 27 countries, sometimes with very different positions, into a common view on virtually everything.

How does this actually work in reality?

To get an idea of how this works in practice, let’s consider the Digital Services Act (DSA) that has recently come into force across the EU. It requires online platforms to carry out risk assessments about the possibility of harmful or illegal content circulating on their platform and make plans for removing it. If they are deemed to have failed in their duties to remove this content, they face heavy fines. It is a big step in bringing the rules and norms of the physical world into the virtual one.

At the very top is the European Council, where 27 Heads of State fly in from each Member State to sit in a big, bright, colourful room and set the priorities for the EU as well as dealing with some of its crises. At the other end of the pyramid, you have Council working groups, where the real work gets done.

Every day, diplomats (known as attachés) from 27 PermReps march in from Avenue Cortenbergh and Rue de la Loi to sit in similar, but more dreary rooms and hash out the nitty-gritty of legislative proposals on anything from fishery quotas to space policy.

All the while, they receive instructions from government departments in their capitals on what is desirable, what is possible and what is off-limits. In the example of the DSA, this included examining how to set up authorities within Member States to enforce the rules and the way these authorities would cooperate across borders. The kind of thing that probably won’t make front-page news, but the devil is in the detail.

Attachés try to agree as much as they can at this, what is called the “technical”. level. However, sometimes it is not possible to agree here and things get pushed up to the next level (new EU jargon alert) COREPER, or the Committee of Permanent Representatives. This is where the Permanent Representatives of each Member State, equivalent to Ambassadors, meet to either nod things through for agreement or deal with the thornier issues on a file. On the DSA, Ambassadors dealt with issues like the thresholds for meeting the definition of a “Very Large Online Platform”. This was a particularly sensitive issue due to criticism from the US that this was aimed at their tech giants.

With any luck, COREPER will reach a consensus on an issue and can pass it on to Ministers, who work at a ‘political level’ to rubberstamp an agreement. Ministers meet in different ‘configurations’; so all 27 Foreign Ministers meet in the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and all ministers of finance meet in the economic and financial council (Ecofin). With sometimes limited knowledge of the technical details and the glare of the public spotlight, it is difficult for Ministers to overcome disagreement on important issues. Usually, their discussions give political direction to the lower levels on how they should take the issue forward. They give clarity on what they want to achieve; the attachés and Ambassadors set about trying to reach an agreement that makes it happen.

All of this is to say that when the Council agrees on something, you can expect that the political leadership and state machinery of 27 governments are behind it. That is quite a powerful thing. This makes the consensus-driven approach of the Council all the more important because it means there is greater buy-in from governments once a decision is made.

As you approach the most fundamental parts of government policy, like the level of support to provide a country at war, or what the rate of taxation should be, more member states are wary of giving up control. Ultimately, it is the national governments and ministers that will be the ones to face the political consequences. The more this pushes up against core principles in a member state, the harder it is to accept. If that consensus starts to fray, it could have damaging consequences for the Union.

Listening to the debates about how the EU should reform over the last six months, I think this point is often lost. There is a clear trade-off between lowering the obstacles to reaching an agreement and the ultimate power of any agreement that is reached. It is important to recognise this and the risks that come with moving away from the Council’s emphasis on consensus. This is particularly true for smaller Member States who face a more than realistic chance of losing out on one of these big decisions.

I am far from the first person to make this observation, it has consistently re-emerged as European integration has progressed. However, it is well worth revisiting as we envisage the future of the EU. Whatever shape the European Parliament and Commission takes after the upcoming elections, they will face hard choices about how to make the EU ready for the challenges it may face.

They shouldn’t forget the power that comes with consensus.

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