Global Agenda

Nine EU countries want to abolish unanimity in EU foreign policy decisions. What are the countries’ positions, and is it even realistic?

Timotej Kováčik

The group of nine Member States of the European Union (EU) has unveiled its latest initiative to streamline EU foreign policy, which is, once again, based on changing unanimous voting to qualified majority voting (QMV). Poland promptly opposed this initiative since it did not see any reason for such a change. However, the last decade and an analysis of the decisions taken in the Council of the EU show that unanimity actually delays or completely prevents the adoption of prompt findings, which weakens the EU’s position as a foreign policy actor.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has brought various problems and consequences in different areas for different actors. The EU and its Member States are, after Ukraine and Russia, one of the most involved members of the international community in the conflict. Rapid reaction and prompt decision-making following the Russian attack are not given at the EU level. In the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), decisions are taken by unanimity, which means and has been shown in the past, that even a single Member State can block an initiative by the entire bloc. Changing the way foreign policy decisions are made is an evergreen of debates about the functioning of the EU, and the move to QMV has provoked robust academic or political debate.

The latest contribution to the debate is an initiative by nine EU member states in early May 2023 to form a “Group of Friends on Qualified Majority Voting in EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.” Germany leads the group and aims to improve the efficiency of the decision-making process and speed up the whole process. Belgium, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain also participate. They are motivated by Russian aggression and the challenges the EU faces in the international environment. Qualified majority decision-making requires that at least 55% of the countries (15 out of 27), which account for 65% of the population of the EU, agree to a proposal. This favours large countries such as France or Germany, which find it easier to achieve a blocking minority – at least four countries that disagree or abstain.

Opinions vary on the modification of the vote. It is clear which countries can imagine a QMV in the CFSP. After the initiative’s launch, one of the big countries, Poland, immediately spoke up, seeing no reason for such a change and stressing the importance of unanimity on foreign policy and defence issues. It is also clear from studies by think tanks such as GLOBSEC and the Jacques Delors Centre that the number of countries that are sceptical or undecided about changing the way they vote in the CFSP is still high, approaching ten. It is primarily the small member states that insist on maintaining unanimity. Their biggest fear is that they could be outvoted on foreign policy issues. Therefore, their national interest could be in jeopardy. In contrast, the EU institutions are in favour of a QMV. This theme was presented by the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her State of the Union report as well as by her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker.

It needs to be added that the ‘Group of Friends’ statement is concise but contains a critical passage that states will seek to find ways to improve the effectiveness of CFSP decision-making based on existing provisions in the Treaty on the EU. The Treaty, in the section on foreign policy, scilicet Article 31(3), contains the so-called passerelle clause, which stipulates that the Council may take a decision to vote on CFSP-related acts by a qualified majority. Such change would require a unanimous decision which is the biggest obstacle. On the other hand, the positive aspect is that the shift in voting through the passerelle clause would not require a change of the Union’s founding treaties, which necessitate referendums to be held in the Member States.

When examining the proposal modifying the unanimity vote in the CFSP to a QMV, it is essential to point out that such a change would likely not apply to all decisions. Since the CFSP includes the Common Security and Defence Policy, which is responsible for, for example, EU civilian and military missions, it is unrealistic to expect a change in this policy. In particular, decisions on sanctions and opinions on human rights are often mentioned in calls for a change in voting. For instance, von der Leyen brought up such an alternative.

When analysing the blocked or significantly slowly taken decisions in the CFSP, it is possible to observe that some states are taking EU foreign policy hostage to their interests or are acting as Trojan horses of foreign powers. In 2020, Cyprus delayed the decision to impose sanctions on Belarus by three weeks, and Hungary is a regular blocker of the Union’s united stance. In such cases, a QMV would be an effective means of achieving the desired result more quickly and without protracted negotiations. If the EU wants to become a truly global player, a change in established practices is inevitable. However, this does not necessarily mean a modification in the decision-making process in the CFSP, which should not be seen as the ‘silver bullet’ of all the problems of European foreign policy action. However, even in the conflict in Ukraine, the EU is presenting itself more as a regional actor beyond whose borders the war is raging and is therefore aware of the gravity of the situation. However, the process of streamlining the CFSP will take a long time. In the current period of crises and democratic vulnerability, European politicians will have to make a considerable effort to agree on a course of action that all countries can agree on together.

Photo credit: PES