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20th Jan 2019

Small states reluctant to give up EU foreign policy veto

  • Jean-Claude Juncker with German leader Angela Merkel, who earlier backed the voting idea (Photo: Consilium)

The EU should in future impose sanctions and make other foreign policy decisions by vote instead of unanimity, the European Commission has said.

The idea, put forward in Strasbourg on Wednesday (12 September), would put small member states at risk of being railroaded by big ones such as France and Germany.

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  • France's EU affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau said taxation vetoes were more urgent than foreign policy ones (Photo: Council of the EU)

It also comes amid mounting euroscepticism in some quarters of Europe.

But it was needed, commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament (EP), to "improve our ability to speak with one voice" on the world stage.

"The geopolitical situation makes this Europe's hour: the time for European sovereignty has come," he said, referring to heightened tensions between Europe, the US, Russia, and China.

Sanctions, as well as human rights declarations, for instance at the UN, and the launch and operation of civilian overseas missions, but not military ones, should be covered by the new method, Juncker said.

The change would be introduced via a so-called 'passerelle clause' in the EU treaty, he explained, rather than by altering the treaty itself, which would require cumbersome talks and ratifications.

That clause says EU states can shift policy areas from one decision-making method to another.

Even the smallest of EU countries would still be able to object in a quasi-veto called an "emergency brake" if they felt their national interests were at risk, Juncker conceded.

EU leaders will discuss his proposal at an informal summit in Salzburg, Austria, next week, but they should make up their minds by the time they meet again in Sibiu, Romania, next May, Juncker said.

France and Germany

For their part, the German and French leaders already expressed broad support for the change when they met in Meseburg, Germany, in June.

The French EU affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, who was in Strasbourg on Wednesday, told press that Juncker might have been better off focusing on change in matters that "affected people's everyday lives, such as taxation" rather than foreign policy, but did not object to the concept.

A diplomat from another large EU country told EUobserver: "The overarching interest is for the EU to speak with one voice. The smaller member states share that."

"If you want to move it forward, now is the time to do so," the diplomat added, echoing Juncker that it ought to happen before the EU elections next May, so as not to risk delays.

Some medium-sized EU states, such as Belgium, are also favourable.

The Netherlands has a "positive attitude" toward starting talks on the subject, but remains "neutral" on the proposal at the stage, a Dutch diplomat told this website on Wednesday.

"We understand the imperative that the EU acts with one voice. Fast and effective decision-making is a prerequisite for that," he said.

A diplomat from another medium-sized country said: "Sometimes capitals block [foreign policy] decisions by making a link to a completely unrelated file ... it can be quite frustrating."

"Nobody has broken solidarity on sanctions in recent times, but we've seen lots of threats to do so," the diplomat said.

The EU once already invoked legal niceties to take a foreign policy decision by majority instead of unanimity, when it appointed a 'special representative' for the Sahel in 2015.

It recently moved ahead on defence integration using a treaty clause that allowed small groups of countries to join together on military projects.

It also has a long tradition of doing foreign policy via informal 'coalitions of the willing', which usually involve big countries, such as the French and German 'Normandy Format' on the Ukraine conflict.

Frosty Slovakia

But even if Juncker's proposal did not come out of the blue, it risked a negative reception in some quarters.

The EU also has a long tradition of taking decisions by consensus even in areas where votes can already be called.

It took 80 percent of its decisions in vote-able areas in this way in 2015 and 90 percent in 2016, according to a study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a think tank.

Meanwhile, EU voting got a dirty name for some in 2015 when the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia were outvoted on migrant-sharing quotas, prompting boycotts and legal challenges which continue to rumble on.

"Slovakia has always emphasised that to reach unity on important issues, we need to decide by consensus of all member states. This will help us prevent creating dividing lines among member states," the Slovak government told EUobserver in reaction to Juncker on Wednesday.

A diplomat from another medium-sized country said: "This does not favour us if we have a strong position on something and we don't want to give way. It's not really in our favour".

Juncker's idea, which further centralised EU powers, might be more popular if he had been less "arbitrary" in the way he handled European politics, a diplomat from a small EU state added, alluding to the commission's decision to weigh in on rule of law violations in some states, such as Poland, but not in others.

"It's a matter of trust," the diplomat said.

Most diplomats to whom EUobserver spoke on Wednesday said their capitals needed more time to analyse Juncker's proposal before they took a position.

The main theme of his speech, on "European sovereignty", prompted heckles from eurosceptic politicians in the EP and on social media.

It risked upsetting nationalist-populist governments in Hungary, Italy, Poland and further afield.

It even prompted concern among some friends of Europe, who feared that voting on human rights, sanctions, and civilian missions might be the thin end of the wedge.

Juncker's wedge

"Where would we end up if we start with these three fields now and then they expand, for instance, to military missions in future?", a diplomat from one EU-friendly administration said.

But Italy, for its part, ignored Juncker's foreign policy gambit in order to welcome what it saw as his tougher line on sharing the migrant burden.

"I listened with great interest to president Juncker's speech on the state of the union, containing a series of messages that agree with us," Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said.

"We reaffirm the need to draw a common line that leads to a more equitable and supportive union, with a greater responsibility for our European partners. Europe today has the opportunity to turn the page," he said.

Juncker calls for 'global' Europe

In his final State of the Union address, Jean-Claude Juncker warned of "exaggerated nationalism" in Europe - and said the EU should play a more dominant role in shaping world events, as the US withdraws from the global stage.

Trump pledges US-first foreign policy

Economic protectionism and war on Islamist terrorism will form the heart of US foreign policy, Trump has said. He did not rubbish Nato, but indicated interest in a new Russia alliance.

Merkel calls for 'real, true' EU army

Angela Merkel's much-anticipated speech to the European Parliament was brief and to the point. Her message: Europe is alone in the world, the EU should be more united on defence, but not on the economy.

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