On September 28, we will talk with diplomats, government officials, entrepreneurs, scientists, and environmentalists about Bulgaria's preparations for one of the key international forums this year - the UN Climate Summit COP 26.
For months now, the media has been buzzing about the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), which will officially commence with an opening ceremony on 11 January 2018. With the streets of Sofia getting busier and with blue EU flags popping up everywhere, it is evident that the country is actively preparing for an unprecedented, high-level and significant six months ahead. Citizens across Bulgaria have reacted to the upcoming Presidency diversely: while some are sceptical about its significance both from a national and EU perspective, others are more enthusiastic about how our country will perform, and how it will deliver when given the opportunity to lead in the European arena. In order for one to objectively comprehend, assess and even participate in the Presidency as part of civil society, there needs to be a clear and common understanding of what the Council of the EU is, how it operates in the larger EU context, what the role is of the presiding country, and how this can be linked to the Bulgarian context.
The many Councils of Europe
The most common and fundamental of misunderstandings emerges when we try to establish the basic principle of exactly which EU institutions Bulgaria is presiding over.
The Council of the EU is sometimes confusingly referred to as simply “the Council” or the “Council of Ministers” because of its composition: national ministers and representatives of each EU Member State. Such ministers meet in different configurations based on their policy area. Thus, for example, environment ministers from each EU Member State meet in the Environment Council, the ministers for foreign affairs meet in the Foreign Affairs Council and so on.
What does the Council of the EU do then? The main functions of the Council of the EU are the following:
- The legislator: the Council of the EU is one of the key EU institutions, alongside the European Parliament and the European Commission, which is involved in the legislative process. If the European Commission has the power to initiate legislation, then it is up to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU to negotiate on such legislation, reach a compromise and adopt the legislative acts.
- The coordinator: the Council of the EU coordinates the policies of the European Member States in specific fields, which can be done through monitoring policies, adopting policy frameworks, setting priorities and offering guidelines and recommendations.
- The external actor: the Council is also tasked with defining and implementing the common foreign and security policy of the EU, in areas such as defence, trade, relations with neighbouring countries and humanitarian aid. It is important to note, however, that this is done based on the guidelines of the European Council (explained later on) and under the supervision of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (currently Federica Mogherini).
- The negotiator: when it comes to international agreements (such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, for example) the Council of the EU, alongside with the European Parliament needs to sign off and ultimately approve the final decision.
- The budgeteer: once again, in coordination with the European Parliament, the Council adopts the EU budget for the year ahead and can also have a role in deciding on the multi-annual financial frameworks (with the next one starting in 2021).
Council of the EU is a separate institution of the European Union
It constitutes of the 28 heads of state of the Member States and which, unlike, the Council of the EU does not have a legislative function. Rather, the European Council sets the overall political direction and priorities of the EU, trough conclusions reached at European Council summits, which are chaired by the European Council president (currently Donald Tusk). The European Council is often confused with the Council of the EU not just because of the similarity in their names, but also because of their close cooperation throughout the history of the EU. Formally a separate institution since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, the European Council sets the strategy and overall direction of EU policy, upon which then, the Commission initiates legislation which is negotiated by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament.
The Council of Europe is an international organisation which is separate from the European Union and focuses on democracy, human rights and rule of law, and should not be mistaken with either the Council of the EU or the European Council. Inter alia, the Council of Europe is also the organisation which drafted international Istanbul Convention which aims to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence.