The European Council primarily takes decisions which are politically (not legally) binding, such as Presidency Conclusions, declarations and guidelines. Its mode of operation can be seen as consensus seeking. Basically, the political texts can be watered down until consensus is reached.
One of the tasks of the new President of the European Council would be to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council.
In the Treaty of Lisbon, Article 15(4) of the amended Treaty on European Union (TEU) presents the main rule for decision-making:
Article 15(4) (Lisbon Treaty)
4. Except where the Treaties provide otherwise, decisions of the European Council shall be taken by consensus.
(OJEU 9.5.2008 C 115/23)
Consensus or unanimity?
Is there a real difference between consensus and unanimity? Unanimity may evoke feelings of a harsher requirement, but abstentions by members present in person or represented shall not prevent the adoption by the European Council of acts which require unanimity (Article 235(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; TFUE).
Consensus can seem softer, since it can generally denote both unanimity and ‘the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned’. But as far as I understand, consensus is interpreted as the absence of specific opposition, which makes it practically equal to the definition of unanimity above.
The Lisbon Treaty employs both terms in conjunction with the European Council.
My preliminary feeling is that the differences mainly concern nuances, with consensus seeking seen as a general approach to reach mutual understanding, whereas unanimity denotes more formal situations (acts), where explicit abstentions can pave the way for decisions.
People wiser than me have delved into these questions, so I am grateful for viewpoints from readers.
In the following posts we are going to look at how the terms consensus and unanimous (by unanimity) have been employed in the Lisbon Treaty. Are there obvious differences?