Arguably the European Council already is the politically most powerful (influential) body of the European Union. Formally the Lisbon Treaty would retain the description of the European Council’s general tasks almost as they are, but the heads of state or government have increasingly taken over the leading role from the Community institutions. The Treaty of Lisbon would see the European Council among the EU institutions in a formal sense as well (Article 13 TEU).
In the consolidated Treaty of Lisbon, Article 15(1) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), replaces the first paragraph of the current Article 4 TEU. In the amending treaty, the general political guidelines become the general political directions and priorities. The clarification is added that the European Council does not exercise legislative functions (but it comes awfully close) (OJEU 9.5.2008 C 115/23):
1. The European Council shall provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and shall define the general political directions and priorities thereof. It shall not exercise legislative functions.
Role of European Council
Paul Craig and Gráinne de Búrca describe the role of the European Council in a few well chosen sentences (with added explanations and examples):
• The European Council is central to the very development of the Community and Union itself.
• The European Council will often confirm important changes in the institutional structure of the Community.
• The European Council can provide the focus for significant constitutional initiatives that affect the operation of the Community and Union.
• The European Council will frequently consider the state of the European economy as a whole.
• Conflict resolution is another issue addressed by the European Council.
• The European Council plays a role in the initiation or development of particular policy strategies.
• The European is also central in external relations.
• The European Council will also consider new accessions to the Community.
(Source: Paul Craig and Gráinne de Búrca: EU Law ─ Text, Cases, and Materials; pages 56 to 57; Fourth edition, Oxford University Press)
Communication: Presidency Conclusions
The European Council communicates its political guidelines through Presidency Conclusions, issued at the end of each meeting.
The next ones are expected tomorrow, after the spring European Council.
The European Council does not have the Rules of Procedure necessary according to the Lisbon Treaty (one of the implementing tasks to prepare), but the General Secretariat of the Council has published Rules for the organisation of the European Council (January 2007):
12. The conclusions, which shall be as concise as possible, shall set out policy guidelines and decisions reached by the European Council, placing them briefly in their context and indicating the stages of the procedure to follow on from them.
13. An outline of the conclusions shall be distributed on the day of the European Council meeting in good time for the start of proceedings. The outline shall distinguish clearly between those parts of the text which have previously been approved and which are not in principle subject to discussion and those parts of the text which the European Council is to discuss with a view to reaching final conclusions at the meeting.
In addition, the European Council reports to the European Parliament.
Naturally, being central to includes the limits and limitations imposed by the European Council and by its decision making mostly based on unanimity or consensus.
The European Council is essentially free to set its own agenda, when it acts outside the specific decisions mandated by the treaties. It chooses independently how it deals with the political (non-mandatory) input from the Community (Commission) and intergovernmental (Council) feeding mechanisms. Thereby it becomes the most intergovernmental body of the European Union, sometimes concluding intergovernmental agreements outside the institutional framework, but with direct bearing on it.
On the other hand, most of the formal decisions are still taken by the ‘Community’ institutions.
Since the formal description of the general tasks of the European Council remain almost unchanged under the Treaty of Lisbon, most reports and comments on the amending treaty have concentrated on the obvious changes (President, High Representative, Presidential relations), while the incremental rise of the body have gone almost without remarks.