Begun on an informal basis as "Summit meetings" in the early 1960s, the European Council is now formally established as institution of the EU by both the TEU and the TFEU treaties. The European Council is made up of the Heads of State (the President of the French Republic and the Presidents of the Republics of Cyprus, Latvia and Lithuania, responsible for foreign and European affairs) or of Government (the Prime Ministers of the other Member States) of the EU, as well as its President and the President of the European Commission. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy takes part in its work [see section 8.2.1]. When the agenda so requires, the members of the European Council may decide each to be assisted by a minister and, in the case of the President of the Commission, by a member of the Commission. The European Council meets normally twice every six months, convened by its President, but when the situation so requires, the President may convene a special meeting of the European Council (Article 15 TEU).
Except where the Treaties provide otherwise, decisions of the European Council are taken by consensus, i.e. by unanimity, which means that if one head of State or government disagrees, no decision is taken. Where the European Council decides by vote, its President and the President of the Commission do not take part in the vote. Where a vote is taken, one member of the European Council may also act on behalf of only one other member. Abstentions by members present in person or represented do not prevent the adoption by the European Council of acts which require unanimity (Article 235 TFEU, see also Rules of Procedure of the European Council).
The European Council is the architect of European construction. It provides the Union with the necessary impetus for its development; it defines the general political guidelines thereof and resolves the most important problems of the construction. The European Council is above all a forum for free and informal exchanges of views between the responsible leaders of the Member States. Its strength is its spontaneity and its informality, which bring about a sort of "esprit de corps" on the part of Europe's political leaders. Being a venue where package deals can be struck, and thus being free from the rigidity that sometimes paralyses the proceedings of the Council of Ministers, the European Council often acts as an appeal body for politically and economically important business which is deadlocked at ministerial level. It has resolved several issues, which threatened the EC/EU's solidarity and progress, it has provided the impetus for new common policies and it has established the collective responsibility of the leaders of European diplomacy vis-à-vis the major European and world problems.
It should be noted, however, that the Heads of State or Government do not adopt legal acts formally binding the Member States [see section 3.3]. Their deliberations result in the publication of declarations containing guidelines and general directives for future EU action. These declarations have undeniable political value, but no legal binding force. They give the political impetus necessary for common policies, but the latter are constructed with European acts adopted subsequently in accordance with the procedures laid down in the Treaties. The situation is quite different in the sphere of the common foreign and security policy where the European Council, in addition to adopting common strategies, can decide upon joint actions or common positions, which bind politically, if not legally, the Member States [see section 8.2.2].
The Treaty of Lisbon (following the stillborn Constitution) establishes a permanent President of the European Council, who assumes the work previously assigned to rotating presidencies. He or she are elected by qualified majority of the European Council, for a term of two and a half years, renewable once (Article 15 TEU = Article I-22, Constitution). This new institutional arrangement is designed to lend a degree of visibility and stability to the Presidency of the European Council. The Permanent President necessarily has the same nationality as one of the members of the European Council, but does not participate in the voting procedure within this institution. Since he or she does not hold a national office, the President has the freedom of time and spirit to conduct the necessary discussions and negotiations with the twenty-seven heads of government, usually in their respective capitals, before the meetings of the European Council. Thus, the President is expected to facilitate cohesion and consensus and drive forward the work of the European Council. In addition, the President of the European Council ensures the external representation of the Union on issues concerning common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the responsibilities of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It remains to be seen how these two personalities will share their responsibilities on the external representation of the Union.