The European Council: Organization and Function

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  • 0:02 European Council
  • 0:37 History
  • 1:58 The Body
  • 2:33 Scope
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the European Council, an important and relatively recent institution of the European Union composed of the member states' leaders.

European Council

When you were a kid, did your parents ever call a 'family meeting?' Usually meant to discuss or explain some big decision or life-altering change to the family, family meetings were important so that everyone could have their input into whatever issue was at hand and everyone could arrive at a single direction for the family together. In some ways, the European Council performs a very similar function for the European Union (EU). The European Council meets several times a year, often voicing its opinion on the major issues facing EU member states and setting the course for future EU institutions and decisions.


The European Council has only recently been normalized as an institution. In the early days of the European Union (when it was still called the European Economic Community), the European Council did not really exist. The first meetings of an organization reminiscent of today's European Council occurred in the mid-1970s. They were called in order to promote discussion between EU leaders concerning the direction and priorities of the EU.

After the 1970s, the European Council met informally and according to need, only meeting when the EU was confronted with a major geopolitical situation or a major decision concerning the future of EU institutions. For example, two of the most important treaties in the history of the EU, the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht, were both created and instituted only after a meeting of the European Council.

In the 21st century, meetings of the European Council became more and more frequent as Europe integrated even further with the introduction of the Euro and the EU faced difficult situations like the 2008 financial collapse. In 2009, as part of the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Council became an official institution of the European Union. Its meetings were henceforth regularized to at least two meetings every six months, though additional meetings could be called by the president of the European Council according to need.

The Body

The European Council itself is composed of the heads of state or government of the 28 various EU member states. The president of the European Commission also attends each meeting, as does the president of the European Council, who is the body's chair. The chair of the European Council as of June 2014 is the Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, who will hold the post until November 2014. The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also attends, although he or she and the Council and Commission presidents have no voting power in the European Council.

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