EU treaty change: “I can see it happening in the context of enlargement”

INTERVIEW: The change from unanimity to qualified majority voting in the foreign policy won't radically transform the EU. But it could help forge a faster policy and actions, argues SWP EU expert Nicolai von Ondarza.
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Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin thinks that the current framework allows for more QMV in foreign policy. Midary/Shutterstock

Mr. von Ondarza, in reform debates about EU foreign policy, the issue of voting rules often pops up, and some suggest majority-voting could be the solution to the EU’s woes. What is your take – and could we see such reforms by the year 2030?

I remain a bit sceptical. The requirement for adopting qualified majority voting (QMV) is unanimity on that question, in other words an agreement by all member states to give up their veto. And foreign policy, or tax policy, are very sensitive areas. They are core powers of member states, and hence they will be reluctant to give them up. I can see treaty change in the context of EU enlargement – if and when Ukraine, Moldova and part of the Western Balkans are admitted to the EU. Perhaps by 2035, I could envisage that, but probably not earlier.

This means that reforms will have to wait until enlargement happens?

What I sense in Berlin, but also in the Franco-German partnership, is that they are moving towards having both of these processes in parallel – institutional reform and enlargement of the Union. And in a way, institutional reform is to be decided at least before the next enlargement. These two discussions are intertwined. In 2035 it will be more realistic to have a full-scale reform of majority-voting. And it will probably include some kind of “emergency brake” with respect to qualified-majority voting, i.e. a veto as an ultima ratio in order to safeguard the national interest in very sensitive areas.

"In 2035 it will be more realistic to have a full-scale reform of majority-voting"
Ondarza von Nicolai presse
Nicolai von Ondarza
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

What about the so-called “passerelle clauses” already contained in the EU Treaty?

The “passerelle clauses”, in other words the decision to move to QMV without treaty change, are increasingly being talked about. However, there are still many member states that signal to the others that they are reluctant to go there. In some cases, there is outright hostility, e.g. in the case of Hungary. Budapest made it very clear they would not give up their veto. I can imagine though that passerelle clauses might be used in a symbolic areas, such as the adoption of human rights declarations by the EU or the extension of existing sanctions.

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Debate with the French President Emmanuel Macron on the Future of Europe. Mathieu Cugnot/European Union 2018, Source : EP.

Would QMV not undermine the fact that the EU needs to act as one on the international stage? Would it not appear weak and divided?

Two arguments are important: One, you cannot solve political problems by institutional means alone. The issue of unity cannot be solved by changing to qualified-majority voting. An EU that would constantly outvote several member states on foreign policy issues would be weak rather than strong to the outside world. For me, QMV would be a tool that should be used sparingly in areas where member states misuse or abuse their veto power, e.g. when they want to exert pressure or basically blackmail other member states on something completely unrelated. It would help in circumstances where you have one or two member states trying to veto an EU decision in order to extract something else from the others.

No QMV will get you unity. In most areas, even if there is qualified-majority voting, countries strive for consensus and a unified position. Everyone knows they could be on the losing side in majority-voting next time. The second point is, QMV changes the nature of the negotiations. If you have a veto system, countries that don’t agree with the majority position can say, “Okay offer me something”. Then the others have to buy them off, have to find a solution. With QMV, from the outset countries know that they have to find a coalition that is at least large enough to form a blocking minority – and thus directly enter into the consensus-building negotiations.

"Qualified majority voting would be a tool that should be used sparingly"
Ondarza von Nicolai presse
Nicolai von Ondarza
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

Is qualified-majority voting really that important?

It could help foreign policy to become quicker and more consensus-oriented than it currently is. Considering this, I think that QMV could help the EU in foreign policy, but it will not radically transform it into a different actor. The EU would still need to build a strategic culture, develop unity of purpose and of strategic positioning in order to facilitate good and fast decision-making. An example is the area of migration where we have had qualified-majority voting still a lot of the core issues remain unresolved. That is because member states are essentially in three different camps that each big enough on their own to block decisions. So, QMV would neither solve the division nor produce a more efficient system.

Would QMV risk alienating Central and Eastern European states that are more favourable to EU enlargement but reluctant to treaty change? And how can these two things then be reconciled between the West and East in the EU?

They can be combined if countries come to a sort of big agreement. Further EU enlargement will shift the centre of gravity in the EU more eastwards, towards Central Eastern Europe and the Balkans. At the same time, countries like Poland which are sceptical of institutional change, do understand the argument that an EU of 30 or 35 members needs more majority voting. The more veto players you have inside the club, the more difficult it will be for the EU to function properly, even in core areas.

I am optimistic that there can be an agreement mid- to long-term with Poland on the need to combine enlargement with institutional reforms. Hungary, however, is a different matter. On the one hand, they are not as strongly in favour of enlargement, in particular when it comes to Ukraine. On the other hand, since Brexit, Hungary has been by far the most outvoted country in the Council in recent years.

So, for better or worse, the Orbán government feels it could be isolated in the Council if it does give up its veto powers. Hungary will probably be the last country to be brought on board both for enlargement and institutional reform.

To read the first part of the interview on European security and defense challenges, click here.

Dr. Nicolai von Ondarza is a political scientist and researcher. He has been with Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) for more than a decade. Since 2020, he has been the Head of SWP’s EU/Europe Research Division. Ondarza’s focus areas include the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the European Union as well as EU institutions and integration.

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