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The Institutions of the European Union

The Institutions of the European Union (5th edn)

Dermot Hodson, Uwe Puetter, Sabine Saurugger, and John Peterson
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date: 13 April 2024

p. 513. The European Council

the Union’s supreme decision-makerlocked

p. 513. The European Council

the Union’s supreme decision-makerlocked

  • Luuk van Middelaar
  •  and Uwe PuetterUwe PuetterProfessor in Public Policy, Europa-Universität Flensburg


This chapter discusses the central role of the European Council in European Union (EU) politics and policymaking. Even though it was not listed among the EU’s core institutions until the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Council regularly intervenes in EU decision-making to make other institutional actors follow its guidance. Initially, it was meant to be predominantly an informal institution for direct exchanges between the heads of state or government of the member states. Yet it assumed responsibility for landmark decisions which paved the way for key steps in integration, such as EU enlargements and the euro. The European Council has arguably saved the Union from break-up by acting as its ultimate crisis manager and, at times, has skirted the boundaries of EU law by finding institutional compromises and fixes. The institution plays a guiding role, especially in relation to the Commission and the Council of the European Union, which was formerly known as the Council of Ministers. The European Council devises strategic guidelines for policy development, shapes processes of institutional reform, and breaks impasses when agreement cannot otherwise be found. Since the Treaty of Maastricht, European Council intervention has become a routine in new EU policy areas, such as euro area economic governance and foreign policy. The Treaty of Lisbon assigns the European Council its own full-time president and places the institution right after the European Parliament (EP) in the list of EU institutions. Even though it has shaped European integration since 1975, the European Council did not find much recognition in traditional theories of European integration. This has changed more recently, with renewed debate about intergovernmentalism in EU politics.

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