Right after the Brexit referendum one of the popular Internet searches was ‘What is the EU?’. The European political landscape is complex, and the political institutions might seem difficult to navigate. A perfect example is the three different ‘councils’ of Europe: the European Council, the Council of the European Union and the Council of Europe. Even if the names suggest otherwise, these three institutions are separate entities. Now more than ever, in the post-Brexit Britain, it is crucial to understand the difference. With Brexit the UK has lost representation in two of the ‘councils’ – the European Council and the Council of the European Union. Because both are the institutions of the EU.
- The European Council consists of the heads of state or government from the member states together with the President of the European Commission. Its main role is planning Union policy.
- The Council of the European Union is also known as the Council of Ministers. Its main role is adopting EU laws. Together with the European Parliament, the Council is the main decision-making body of the EU.
However, it needs to be remembered that the European Union is not the only political organisation on the continent. Just a short walk away from the European Parliament in Strasbourg resides the Council of Europe. The third ‘council’ which actually predates the other two for a few decades. There, the UK representation remains regardless of Brexit.
The Council of Europe was established in 1949 and the UK was one of its founding members. Currently the organisation has 47 member states. All members of the European Union are members of the Council of Europe. In fact, no country has ever joined the EU without first belonging to the Council of Europe. It is the leading human rights organisation in Europe. Its aim is to uphold democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. One of its most notable creations is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. The Convention inter alia protects the right to life, the right to fair trial, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression or protection of property.
To safeguard the rights set forth in the Convention, there is the European Court of Human Rights (known as the Strasbourg Court). Even though international judiciary can often seem detached from everyday lives of people, it is important to highlight that individuals can bring their cases before the ECHR alleging violations of the Convention. Cases can only be brought against States that have ratified the Convention, so that includes the UK (read more about applying to the Court). The ECHR is by far not the only human rights instrument developed by the Council of Europe. The institution has introduced over 200 treaties safeguarding different aspects of human rights.
Now that the UK has officially (bre)exited the EU it is important to remember that the country cannot leave Europe. For the UK, the Council of Europe remains an important platform to engage with its European neighbours. However, even though the European Union and the Council of Europe are based on similar values of human rights, peace and equality, they are two separate organisations. They have vastly different history, membership and powers. And it remains to be seen how the UK find its place on the European political landscape.