Setting the EU's political agenda

European Council

The European Council is one of the 7 EU institutions. However, it is not one of the EU's legislating bodies, so does not negotiate or adopt EU laws. Instead its main role is to determine the EU's general political direction and priorities - essentially setting the policy agenda for the EU. 

Traditionally, this is done by adopting conclusions during each European Council meeting. These conclusions identify specific issues of concern for the EU and outline particular actions to take or goals to reach. European Council conclusions can also set a deadline for reaching agreement on a particular item or for the presentation of legislative proposal. In this way, the European Council is able to influence and guide the EU's policy agenda.

More recently, the European Council adopted a 'strategic agenda' of priority areas for longer-term EU action and focus.

A strategic agenda for the EU

At its meeting in Brussels on 27 June 2014, the European Council agreed on five priority areas to guide the EU's work over the next five years. These priorities are set out in a document called the 'Strategic agenda for the Union in times of change'. This strategic agenda will be used to plan the work of the European Council and also acts as a basis for the work programmes of other EU institutions. 

1. Jobs, growth and competitiveness

The European Council outlines the need to encourage growth, increase investments, create more and better jobs, and encourage reform to increase competitiveness. Specific actions include:

  • completion of the digital single market by 2015
  • improving SME's access to finance and investment
  • improved infrastructure investment
  • completion of the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) by 2015
  • increasing euro area governance and economic policy coordination

2. Empowering and protecting citizens

The European Council highlights priorities that would unlock opportunities for EU citizens, as well as deal with issues such as poverty and social exclusion. Particular actions include:

  • continuing the drive against youth unemployment
  • action to deal with tax evasion and tax fraud

3. Energy and climate policies

The European Council underlines the need to lower dependency on fuel and gas imports and to build affordable, secure and sustainable energy within the EU. The main priorities include:

  • completion of the EU energy market
  • diversification of EU energy supplies and routes and the development of energy infrastructure
  • setting ambitious climate change targets for 2030 and continuing to lead the fight against climate change 

4. Freedom, security and justice

The European Council emphasises the importance of good EU cooperation on security issues like terrorism and managing migration flows. Specific priorities set by the European Council include:

  • better management of all aspects of migration, including irregular migration, asylum and border management
  • preventing and combating organised crime, corruption and terrorism
  • improving judicial cooperation between EU countries

5. The EU as a strong global actor

The European Council calls on the EU to ensure its strong engagement in world affairs, highlighting in particular the following priorities:

  • ensuring consistency between member states' and EU foreign policy goals
  • promoting stability, prosperity and democracy in the countries closest to the EU
  • engaging global partners on a wide range of issues such as trade, cyber security, human rights and crisis management
  • strengthening the EU's common security and defence policy

Policy guidelines

European Semester

The European Semester is a cycle of economic and fiscal policy coordination within the EU

As well as setting the EU's political priorities through the strategic agenda and through its conclusions, the European Council has a formal role to play in the EU's annual European semester process. This is the EU's yearly cycle of economic and fiscal policy coordination.

In its annual March meeting, the European Council assesses both the economic situation in the EU and progress towards the Europe 2020 targets. It then gives policy orientations on fiscal, economic and structural reforms. In its June meeting, the European Council endorses the final country-specific recommendations, which set out priorities for each member state for the next 12-18 months.

Strategic guidelines for justice and home affairs

These guidelines, adopted by the European Council, define the priorities for the coming years

Under article 68 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), the European Council is responsible for defining strategic guidelines for the area of freedom, security and justice.

This was put into practice for the first time with the latest guidelines, adopted in June 2014. They have been developed in line with the strategic agenda priorities and cover aspects such as border control, migration and asylum policy, and police and judicial cooperation.