European Council, institution of the European Union (EU) responsible for defining the EU's general political direction and priorities. It is composed of an elected president (who serves a two-and-a-half-year term), the heads of government of the EU nations, and the president of the European Commission; the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part in its work, and the government heads and Commission president may be assisted by government ministers and a Commission member, respectively, in specialized discussions. It meets at least twice every six months.
Meetings of the European Council have from its beginnings often emphasized political as well as economic cooperation among EU nations; for example, the impetus for the move to have the members of the European Parliament elected directly by universal suffrage came out of an agreement reached at the first meeting of the European Council in 1974. The council was given legal definition by the Single European Act (1987) and became an official instituion of the EU with the ratification (2009) of the Lisbon Treaty.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.