On the Brink of Irrelevance: Unanimity and the Future of EU Decision-making

, by Olga Tcirkina

On the Brink of Irrelevance: Unanimity and the Future of EU Decision-making
Interior of the Europa Building, seat of the Council of the European Union. Credits: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/license...> , via Wikimedia Commons

As the negative consequences of requiring unanimity for EU foreign policy decisions become increasingly apparent, growing calls for change from European citizens and diplomats fill the media. Yet, the alternatives to unanimous decision-making carry significant dangers as well. The outcome of the debate on European mechanisms of governance will determine the future relevance of the EU on the global arena.

The conference on the Future of Europe concluded on 9 May 2022, producing a detailed report of 49 proposals and 320 concrete measures envisioning the future trajectory of EU institutions. Amongst discussions on climate change and health, figured a recurring thorn in European democratic governance - the unanimity principle.

The unanimity principle is a central form of European decision-making in ‘sensitive’ policy areas such as Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), taxation and membership enlargement. While its impact on the functioning of the union has been debated since the EU’s official creation, the requirement of unanimous consensus has especially come under criticism in recent years, gaining pertinence in the context of shifting global power structures and the rise of aggressive authoritarian attitudes at Europe’s front door.

The demands of citizens are clear. The Future of Europe report urged the EU to progressively move away from the unanimity principle in favor of qualified majority voting (QMV) - a mechanism which requires the approval of 55% of member states representing 65% of the EU’s population for a passing vote. The aim? To “improve [EU’s] capacity to take speedy and effective decisions” as a means of maintaining its relevance in the world order.

Skepticism, however, remains. Can unanimity requirements truly not coexist with a Europe capable of cohesive and efficient action? And is qualified majority voting really at the heart of the solution?

Unanimity as a threat to the credibility and security of Europe

The fears that the unanimity principle is transforming the European Union into a “soft power” on the brink of irrelevance are not entirely unfounded.

The need for unanimity has historically prolonged European decision-making, driving it into a stalemate over often urgent and acute issues. As was exemplified by Hungary’s month-long veto blockade of the 6th package of sanctions against the Kremlin, the ability of member states to individually block majority supported decisions constitutes a serious handicap on effective response in times of conflict. In addition to being a strategic liability, delay in foreign policy weakens - in the word of Jean-Claude Juncker, ex-head of the European Commission – Europe’s “Weltpolitikfähigkeit” – a capacity to shape global affairs. Political inertia, thus, threatens the union’s ability to establish itself as a credible leader on the geopolitical stage.

The loss of international credibility can further be tied to the development of a system of “vetocracy” in European institutions, where veto privileges and the resulting concentration of a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the minority render foreign policy vulnerable to national self-interest and issue-linkaging. This was especially evident in the 2020 ‘Cypriot rebellion’.

In 2020, Cyprus - a member state with less than half of Berlin’s population - vetoed an EU sanction package against the Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to force the introduction of sanctions against Turkey over a bilateral marine border and energy resource conflict. What followed was an embarrassing political standoff resulting in partial compliance of the EU with Cyprian demands - a worrying proof of the weakness of EU decision making. The ability of member states to withhold a vote in one policy area as a means to push national agenda in another is poisonous to the union’s credibility, especially in the realm of human rights. Afterall, the EU, taken hostage by the demands of the minority, becomes impotent in the face of serious violations, which is profoundly incompatible with the union’s self-proclaimed role as a global leader in democratic and humanitarian values.

The question of unanimity in European politics does not, however, only hold importance vis-a-vis the union’s reputation, but it is also increasingly pertinent to the subject of its security. Requiring unanimity renders the EU increasingly vulnerable to external “divide and rule” tactics, as third parties are able to exploit friendly bilateral relations with member states to weaken and manipulate the union. This was the case in 2017 when, after considerable external pressure, Greece vetoed the EU decision to issue a statement condemning China’s human rights violations at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), sparking outrage worldwide.

The threat of international interference in EU policy is particularly relevant in the context of the on-going conflict in Ukraine and the close affiliations of certain member states, including Hungary, with the Kremlin. While it would be outrageous to suggest that any meddling in internal European politics is currently taking place, one must consider the real possibility of this scenario and the disastrous consequences that could follow.

As such, the dangers of unanimity extend beyond the impact of the mechanism on the internal credibility of the union and have greater implications for European security as a whole.

Qualified Majority: the light at the end of the tunnel for European diplomacy?

In her first State of the union address (2020), Ursula von der Leyen - the president of the European commission - suggested that adapting to contemporary challenges would require member states to “be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting” either through treaty change or by activating existing passerelle clauses. These mechanisms of decision-making have largely dominated the debate on the future of CFSP, providing a viable alternative to the unanimity requirement. Yet, the governance transition has been opposed by a variety of actors.

The primary concern of political analysts with regards to the application of QMV has been the threat of a more “fragmented and weakened union” as a result of majority-approved decisions. The inability of the EU to present a common front on certain areas of foreign policy would not only tarnish the union’s image as a cohesive policy actor, but would also, more importantly, have severe implications for EU’s internal legitimacy.

Internally, the complete transition to QMV in CFSP makes it possible for heads of governments to be outvoted on acute foreign policy issues - historically viewed as matters of high national concern. This, in the eyes of many, would fundamentally alter the meaning of national sovereignty within the union, placing the interests of 65% of the EU population above that of the locally distinct outvoted minority. Considering the recent growth of Eurosceptic attitudes and the existing crisis of democratic legitimacy over EU intervention in national affairs, the abandonment of the unanimity principle could lose Europe its internal support, strengthening the Eurexit movement.

What further complicates the application of QMV in the EU is the absence of a strong enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance of the outvoted member states with the decision of the majority. This was exemplified by the 2015 EU resettlement scheme, which aimed to relocate 160,000 refugees across the union on a quota basis and to which Hungary refused to comply despite the approval of the proposal by QMV.

Although Hungary’s non-compliance was dealt with by the European Court of Justice in 2020, intervention of European institutions in monitoring policy implementation cannot be considered a sustainable solution to the rebellion of the outvoted minority. Afterall, enforcing compliance is not only incredibly costly, but also very time consuming, defeating one of the biggest advantages of the QMV transition - time efficiency. Decisions made by unanimity, on the other hand, breed “lasting commitment” - according Charles Michel, the President of the European Council - and are, thus, a net positive, despite the initial time lag required for obtaining a unanimous agreement.

The strongest source of opposition to qualified majority voting stems, however, not from the critics of QMV impact on EU credibility and efficiency, but rather from small EU states. This is because, for this particular group, a movement away from unanimous decision-making constitutes a rising possibility of being left at the mercy of the majority. Given the role of population size in determining the relative decision-making power of states within the QMV framework, the fears of smaller countries are well-founded. Qualified majority inherently favors more populous members, allowing them to form coalitions and to surpass the majority threshold more easily, without necessarily seeking agreement of smaller member states. Despite the fact that Article 31(2) allows countries to activate an “emergency break” and veto a majority vote in CFSP “for vital and stated reasons of national policy”, concerns still remain that the smaller members of the union will be isolated from European governance if unanimity is abandoned.

What is next?

The debate on unanimity is likely to remain in the global consciousness as the union considers expanding its membership to its Eastern neighbors - a development that would result in further rise in the number of veto holders in EU decision-making, thus exacerbating the existing issues with the unanimity practice.

For now, however, it is highly unlikely that any change in the unanimity principle will be approved. The integration of qualified majority voting through passerelle clauses or treaty alterations requires a unanimous vote by the Council, making it very probable that any proposal of change would be blocked by those who benefit from the current system’s strengths and those who profit from its weaknesses.

In the meantime, however, experts argue that the EU should start a gradual reformation of its governance with less revolutionary measures. Joseph Borrell - the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy - suggested that, while a complete implementation of the QMV mechanism is currently unfeasible, member states should agree to abolishing single-country vetoes in favor of a dual or triple veto requirement.

The call for ‘steps in the right’ direction was further echoed by journalists and political scientists who have pointed out the necessity of tackling the absence of a common strategic culture among EU members before considering a change of voting procedures. It has been argued that the unique national interests of member states, cultivated by their distinct historical, economic and cultural backgrounds, prevent the union from unanimously deciding on strategic threats and priorities of the union as a whole. As such, to free itself from the “foreign-policy deadlock” Brussels should make a greater effort to get “a grasp of Member States’ interests and limits”, encouraging compromise and cooperation.

Europe is at crossroads, with no real wide-spread consensus on the direction that the union must take to maintain its relevance on the global scale. It is unclear whether softer measures will suffice in enhancing the EU’s efficiency in the current turbulent and hostile environment or if the coming years will see a complete revolution of EU decision-making. What is apparent, however, is that the debate on the unanimity principle is far from over.

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