Saturday

23rd Jan 2021

Opinion

Now's the time to give QMV a chance in EU foreign policy

  • Could qualified majority voting - ie, ending any country having a unilateral blocking vote - be the missing piece of the jigsaw? (Photo: Wikimedia)

The loudest applause from MEPs during Ursula von der Leyen's one hour-long plus speech State of the Union speech came as a response to her call for EU member states to move to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in foreign policy, at least on human rights and sanctions implementation.

QMV is already the most widely used voting method in the EU Council, which decides on foreign policy.

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A qualified majority is reached if a proposal is supported by at least 55 percent of EU member states (i.e., 15 out of 27) and if the supporting member states collectively represent at least 65 percent of the Union's population.

Von der Leyen's QMV call stems from the EU's inability to sanction Belarusian authorities over the country's fraudulent presidential election on 9 August, and from the regime's violent crackdown on peaceful protesters that followed.

Cyprus is holding up those sanctions because it believes that the Union isn't doing enough to move forward with its planned sanctions on Turkey, aimed at compelling Ankara to cease its drilling activities in Nicosia's Exclusive Economic Zone in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus argues that both sanctions should be taken forward at the same time.

The idea of moving to QMV in EU foreign policy, an area where unanimity decision-making is the rule, is not new.

Article 31(3) of the Treaty on EU allows the council to act by QMV in foreign policy, if the European Council, the forum of EU heads of state and government, decides so by unanimity. This doesn't apply to issues with military or defence implications, which can only be decided by unanimity.

The previous commission of president Jean-Claude Juncker also called for the EU to move to QMV in foreign policy.

In 2018, it proposed that, in addition to human rights and sanctions implementation, QMV should be used to launch and implement the EU's civilian crisis management missions. The Juncker Commission's proposal was therefore more ambitious than that of von der Leyen.

So far, the EU has been unable to implement QMV in foreign policy.

Although some member states - including Germany - support QMV in EU foreign policy, the majority of members are either ambiguous about, or outright opposed to the idea. Their opposition is driven by a fear that QMV would decrease their ability to influence foreign policy at the EU level, and that it would allow larger countries to dictate what the Union should do on the world stage.

These are valid concerns, but the EU should nevertheless give QMV a chance in foreign policy.

Von der Leyen proposed a highly-limited introduction of QMV in only two areas: human rights issues and sanctions implementation.

Moving forward with this would facilitate the "normalisation" of foreign policy as an EU competence, as QMV is already the rule in most EU policy areas. It would also help the EU react faster and more effectively to international challenges when they emerge.

QMV would prevent any one member state from throwing a wrench into the EU's foreign policy machine, thereby completely jamming it.

Killing the 'Trojan Horse' problem

Strategically, QMV would also reduce the risk that an adversarial third country could exploit the unanimity rule in EU foreign policy, by using a sympathetic member state as a 'Trojan Horse', undermining EU policies it considers harmful to its own interests from within the Union.

If introducing QMV to the implementation of sanctions is too much to swallow for most member states from the perspective of national sovereignty, QMV could initially be introduced only for human rights issues.

This would be natural, as human rights are one of the basic values on which the EU is founded. It would remove the necessity for every member state having to formulate a national position towards every human rights violation around the world.

However, QMV would not be a silver bullet, solving all of the EU's foreign policy woes. We have seen other policy areas where the EU may become gridlocked despite QMV. In economic policy, for example, blocks of like-minded member states have emerged, such as the 'New Hanseatic League' and the 'Frugal Four'. Such blocks may be unable to block EU policies, but they can severely slow down and complicate the Union's decision-making.

It is therefore likely that, if QMV is introduced, it will facilitate the emergence of new kinds of blocks in the area of EU foreign policy as well.

Even under unanimity, certain member states who have developed a close economic relationship with China have jointly blocked hawkish language in EU Council conclusions that might irk Beijing. Such blocks would likely proliferate under QMV.

Despite the issues mentioned above, the member states should give QMV a chance.

The EU will not be seen or treated as a serious power by the outside world if it is unable to act when facing challenges on its own doorstep, such as Belarus or the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A prolonged gridlock also risks alienating larger member states, and encourages them to prioritise and further develop non-EU forums such as the E3, which could unintentionally weaken EU foreign policy.

Author bio

Niklas Nováky is a research officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the official think-tank of the European People's Party.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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