Written by Suzana Anghel, Izabela Bacian, Ralf Drachenberg and Annastiina Papunen,

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Established as an informal summit meeting in 1975, the European Council became a formal European Union institution, with a full-time President, in 2009, on the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. It consists of the Heads of State or Government of the 27 EU Member States, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission (Article 15(2) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)). The latter two individuals have no voting rights. Meetings of the European Council are normally also attended by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The President of the European Parliament is ‘invited to speak’ as the first item on the European Council’s agenda, followed by an exchange of views (Article 235(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, TFEU). At its formal meetings, normally four per year, the European Council adopts ‘conclusions’ that are aimed at identifying policy priorities and action to be taken by the Union as a whole.

The European Council’s role is to ‘provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development and define the general political directions and priorities’ (Article 15(1) TEU). It cannot exercise legislative functions. At the beginning of the 2014-2019 and the 2019-2024 institutional cycles, the European Council also adopted an agenda of strategic priorities, designed to guide the work of the European Union over the five-year period.

Reflecting the direction taken by the 2017 Rome Agenda, set out on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties, the new 2019-2024 strategic agenda, adopted by the Heads of State or Government at their meeting in June 2019, defines migration and the protection of citizens as the top priorities for action in the forthcoming five years. Next comes the development of a stronger economic base, including the fight against unemployment, followed by climate change and social issues. Finally, it looks to increase the EU’s influence and defend its interests in the world. The four core priorities set out in the 2019-2024 strategic agenda broadly corresponded to the concerns of EU citizens at the time, as reflected in the 2019 standard Eurobarometer.

Read the complete study on ‘Key issues in the European Council: State of play in December 2020‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

The role of the European Council is to ‘provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development’ and to define its ‘general political directions and priorities’. Since its creation in 1975, the European Council has exercised considerable influence over the development of the European Union, a process enhanced by its designation as a formal institution of the Union under the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
The European Council Oversight Unit within the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) monitors and analyses the activities, commitments and impact of the European Council, so as to maximise parliamentary understanding of the political dynamics of this important institution.
This EPRS publication, ‘Key issues in the European Council’, which is updated every quarter to coincide with European Council meetings, aims to provide an overview of the institution’s activities on major EU issues. It analyses twelve broad policy areas, explaining the legal and political background, the main priorities and orientations defined by the European Council and the results of its involvement to date, as well as some of the future challenges in each policy field.