7 May 2019

The UK’s planned withdrawal from the EU will leave the EU27 with several unanswered questions about the future of the EU’s role in the world. The changing global environment and the search for a raison d’être create pressure for the EU to be able to respond to crises with a more coherent and consistent common foreign policy.

An informal European Council summit will take place on 9 May in Sibiu, Romania, where the remaining 27 leaders will discuss the post-Brexit path of the Union. In his 2018 State of the Union speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker set out a number of ‘potential initiatives’ to be discussed at the meeting.

The Commission has proposed extending QMV to some foreign policy decisions

One of these initiatives was the proposal to introduce qualified majority voting (QMV) – requiring the approval of 55% of member states representing 65% of the EU population – for certain Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) matters: sanctions regimes, EU positions on international human rights issues in internal fora, and decisions to launch EU civilian missions.

In some areas, the EU has already embarked on projects where members are allowed to opt into initiatives and voluntarily collaborate in various formats, for instance in the framework of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

However, most foreign and defence policy decisions are taken unanimously, effectively giving all member states a veto and making the procedure cumbersome and subject to substantial negotiations.

The Commission’s objective is to strengthen the EU’s global role and its capacity to act more coherently, consistently and quickly when responding to global crises. Juncker explained,

By Sibiu I want to make visible progress in strengthening our foreign policy. We must improve our ability to speak with one voice when it comes to our foreign policy.

While the proposal is not new, recent events strengthen the arguments for those supporting using QMV. The EU’s voting rules have prevented the bloc reaching agreement on a number of issues:

  • No joint statement was made on recognising opposition politician Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, as Italy reportedly blocked the draft.
  • There was no common reaction to the crisis of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, because some EU governments were opposed to the wording on Russia.
  • Hungary blocked the recent EU- Arab League Summit declaration in order to exclude the Global Compact on Migration from the statement.

There have also been increasing threats, particularly from the Italian government, to block renewing sanctions against Russia. Unanimity rules make such threats more viable and visible to external actors.

Another argument for the changes proposed by the Commission is that they would be limited and not applied to all areas of foreign policy. The Treaties already allow the suspension of the unanimity rule in CFSP (excluding decisions related to military and defence matters). For instance, there is a ‘passerelle clause’ which allows the European Council to decide unanimously to vote by QMV on a particular case.

The Commission proposes extending this clause to the spheres mentioned above, therefore avoiding the procedure of treaty changes. The question is whether member states are willing to agree to effectively reduce their own veto rights.

Last week, a Hungarian veto over an EU statement on Israel at the United Nations Security Council meeting was de facto ignored, suggesting that in some situations member states are willing to consider bypassing the unanimity rule and adopting different positions, especially for topics like human rights issues. However, in areas such as sanctions, decisions need to remain collective. To put it simply, Hungary could opt out of a common EU position on human rights – but it cannot opt out of restrictions placed on EU trade with Russia, because that would undermine the integrity of the single market.

Extending QMV would be controversial

As the UK has traditionally been one of the member states opposed to further foreign policy/defence integration, some have suggested that Brexit would mean progress on that front. However, the UK’s departure will not be a silver bullet by any means.

For leaders seeking further European integration, the proposal is not necessarily controversial. In their Meseberg Declaration from June 2018, France and Germany state that the EU should “explore possibilities of using majority voting in the field of the CFSP in the framework of a broader debate on majority voting regarding EU policies.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also considered the possibility to reform the rules, asking other EU leaders to “give serious thought to enabling qualified majority voting for specific, defined cases.”

However, Eurosceptic governments such as Italy and Poland are likely to resist the move, which they would see as further integration.

Smaller member states also question whether this format will play out in their favour. They fear that the extension of QMV would reduce their ability to pursue their own foreign policy interests, and allow larger member states to outvote them in the European Council. With the UK leaving, QMV voting in the Council will strengthen the positions of the most populous countries, specifically France and Germany. This will strengthen the narrative that a ‘Franco-German axis’ is directing the EU’s foreign policy agenda.

Ultimately, the political conditions which would facilitate an increased use of QMV are lacking. First, member states need to have a lowest common denominator about the strategic direction of the CFSP in general – what is its purpose in the changing international context?

If smaller member states are often outvoted in key decisions, it also undermines the EU’s external image as a collective actor, as the decision no longer becomes a common, unified position of the EU.

Domestically, QMV creates accountability issues. In this system, member states most often vote along with the majority even if they do not agree, in order to maintain the image of EU unity. Going along with the consensus on foreign policy matters, which tend to be sensitive, can create a domestic backlash. On the other hand, voting against the consensus risks leading to a member state being consistently outvoted – which is also difficult to justify at home.

Could a new institution help?

In his proposals for the future of the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a European Security Council (ESC), a new institutional structure with one of its goals being to facilitate deliberation and make decision-making faster.

This is also not a new idea – it was mentioned in the Meseberg Declaration, as well as by German Chancellor Merkel and her successor as CDU party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. However, the format and functioning of such an institution remains unclear, as nobody seems to agree on the details.

One idea is a committee where Germany and France hold permanent seats, while smaller states join on a rotating basis. Merkel’s proposal suggests a smaller group of member states  with rotating membership which would be distributed geographically, while allowing space for observers. Macron seems to be supporting a flexible format, possible even with the UK as a member after Brexit.

The crucial part of such an institution remains decision-making. If the ESC also functions with unanimity rules, and has representatives of member states with different national interests, it will not be much more effective than the current system. And so, the discussion goes back to square one about changing voting rules.

Conclusion

For the Commission and several member states, strengthening the EU’s ability to be quick and effective on the global stage, especially after the UK leaves, is a priority. However, this issue has been on the agenda for several years and several member states – even with the UK gone – remain reluctant to make institutional changes. Even if they do it at a time when political conditions are favourable, taking decisions by QMV can lead to further issues which EU governments are not willing to face.