A brief explanation of Germany's Presidency of the Council of the European Union
Every six-months the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union passes from one member state to the next. The Council of the European Union is also known as the Council of Ministers. All EU member states are represented by the relevant ministers.
Depending on the matter in hand, the Council can meet in one of ten different configurations, such as the Environment Council or the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council. Meetings are generally chaired by the relevant minister of the country that holds the Presidency. During Germany’s Presidency, for instance, the Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze will chair the Environment Council and the Federal Education Minister Anja Karliczek will chair the Education Council.
The main responsibility of the Council is to consult on and adopt EU directives and regulations on the basis of proposals submitted by the Commission, in most cases together with the European Parliament. Preparations for Council meetings are handled by the Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union (COREPER) headed by Germany’s Permanent Representative and Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU and by working groups within which member states are represented by civil servants from the relevant ministry.
The Council of the European Union is often confused with the European Council. The European Council consists of the heads of state or government of EU member states and meets at least four times a year. It does not adopt legislative acts but defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU. The President of the European Council is elected for a period of two and a half years. The Belgian Charles Michel has held the post since December 2019.
In view of the current situation, the meetings of the heads of state or government of the EU member states are taking the form of video conferences. It is obviously preferable to talk face to face, but regular video conferences also make for an intensive dialogue, which is very important in the face of the massive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
You will find more information about the EU institutions here.
The Council of Europe by contrast is not an EU institution. It is an international organisation that fosters the rule of law, human rights and democracy across Europe. It has 47 European member states, including the 27 EU member states. From 18 November 2020 to 21 May 2021 Germany will also be assuming the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
The Presidency of the Council of the European Union is a huge responsibility for the nation holding the Presidency. It organises and chairs all Council meetings. In a six-month period that can involve over 1,500 meetings. Alongside the meetings at ministerial level, there are about 200 working groups and committees.
The nation holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU represents the Council vis à vis the other EU institutions, in particular the Commission and the Parliament.
The Council Presidency may also represent the EU at the international level, although responsibilities within the EU also lie with or are shared between the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the President of the European Council and the European Commission.
The Presidency of the Council of the EU plays a neutral role as mediator. It must act as an "honest broker" to try to achieve compromises and solutions among the member states in the Council. The individual positions of the nation holding the Presidency must take second place to the nation’s role as mediator in which it tries to bring together the positions of the 27 EU member states.
The success of a Presidency thus cannot be gauged in terms of the extent to which a nation manages to force through its own interests, but rather in terms of the unity and the common stance taken by member states in the Council. The major goal of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is thus to have the 27 member states achieve common results. Nevertheless, the country holding the Presidency can of course set its priorities.
The German Presidency will no longer be as originally planned, because there will be one overriding issue: the COVID-19 pandemic and its health, economic and social impacts. The overarching goal will be to master the challenges posed by the pandemic together in a way that equips the EU for the future. Germany will have a special responsibility. It will dedicate all its energy to ensuring that Europe emerges from the crisis stronger than before.
At the same time other issues will be addressed that are very important for the future of Europe. They include climate action, digitalisation and Europe’s role in the world. These issues will also be important in efforts to address the acute crisis in hand.
Germany’s Presidency will not only chair meetings of the Council in Brussels and Luxembourg. Germany will also host informal meetings of ministers. These give ministers an opportunity to discuss topical EU matters. Originally, the meetings of ministers were to have been held in a number of different towns and cities in Germany. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic all meetings in July and August will either be postponed or held as video conferences.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a major challenge for the EU. It is important that the member states can meet to discuss things within the different Council configurations and bodies in this situation, and that decisions can be made. This currently takes the form of video conferences. It is obviously preferable to talk face to face, but decisions can be taken. Important measures have recently been discussed and adopted within a very short space of time.
The nations holding three consecutive Presidencies of the Council of the European Union together form what is known as a trio – Germany will form a trio with Portugal and Slovenia for the period 1 July 2020 to 31 December 2021. Portugal will take over at the helm from Germany in January 2021, followed six months later by Slovenia. The three states have elaborated priorities which they will be proposing to the other member states as a programme for the consultations of the Council over this 18-month period.
In 2020 Germany will hold the Presidency for the 13th time since the signing of the Treaties of Rome in 1957. It last held the Presidency in the first half of 2007. The Presidency of the Council of the European Union has changed in many ways since then. The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in 2009, significantly extended the use of the "ordinary legislative procedure".
Under this procedure the Council and the European Parliament are equal legislators within the European Union. Representing the Council vis à vis the Parliament is one of the most important responsibilities of the nation holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU. That makes it important for that nation to maintain contacts to the European Parliament at all levels. Since the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect, the Foreign Affairs Council has been chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, while the European Council has been chaired by the President of the European Council.