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1st Oct 2022

'No decision expected' for EU decision on unanimous decisions

  • Swedish minister for European affairs Hans Dahlgren (l) and Mikuláš Bek, the Czech minister for European affairs at the Tuesday meeting (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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EU affairs ministers meeting on Tuesday (20 September) have achieved little movement on using majority voting instead of unanimity on sanctions or human rights issues.

Swedish minister for European affairs Hans Dahlgren told EUobserver after the meeting that this was a first discussion on using the so-called "passarelle clause", a workaround for the EU treaty, to move toward qualified majority decisions.

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Dahlgren said "there were some very hesitant voices" around the table, but added that he "did not hear anybody who slammed the door" on the possibility.

"The more examples we have where we need the EU to be more effective, the stronger the argument will be. Hopefully it will not take too long, but I am not convinced this will happen in the next year or so," Dahlgren said.

Mikuláš Bek, the Czech minister for European affairs, whose country heads the EU council's rotating presidency, said enlargement and changes to decision-making are politically interlinked.

He said his presidency will try to put together an "attractive set of items" on institutional reforms, and there could be "limited progress".

The idea to have a majority vote in foreign affairs issues, particularly when it comes to human rights and sanctions, has been floating around for years.

Former EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put it forward in 2018 in his annual state of the union speech, arguing that it would "improve our ability to speak with one voice" on the world stage.

The initiative found a new momentum since Russia's war in Ukraine highlighted Hungary's reluctance to back some parts of the sanctions against Moscow.

However, smaller member states, fearing they would be outvoted by larger countries, have been opposed to moving away from unanimity for years.

Some central European countries feel particularly edgy about qualified majority voting.

In 2015, when the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia were outvoted on migrant-sharing quotas, it prompted boycotts and legal challenges.

The EU's top court eventually said the procedure was correct, but politically the damage was done.

Arriving at the ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, Hungary's justice minister Judit Varga said they wanted to "safeguard the unanimity".

"Every member states' vital and serious interest should be taken into account when we are sitting at the negotiating table," Varga said.

She added that "we would like to come back to the spirit of cooperation at the EU".

Hungary has been frequently blocking agreements to water down the consensus, most recently in a sanctionspackage against Russia and refused to back a joint EU call for a UN investigation into war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.

Ireland's state minister for EU affairs Thomas Byrne was also lukewarm about the idea arriving to the Brussels meeting.

Byrne said the Dublin government's focus priority was to make sure that "people can stay warm for the winter at a reasonable price".

"But if we get sidetracked into issues of procedure, issues of intra-institutional relations, I think citizens wont thank us for that," he said.

"Make no mistake, if we were to start to have a discussion on qualified majority voting, it will have no impact on sanctions discussions over the coming months," the state minister warned.

What is the qualified majority voting?

In 2019, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen once repeated calls for qualified majority voting (QMV) in areas such as sanctions and human rights.

In the council of member states, reaching a qualified majority has two conditions: 55 percent of member states vote in favour — so 15 out of 27 — and it has to be backed by EU countries representing at least 65 percent of the total population of the bloc.

A so-called blocking minority must include at least four council members representing more than 35 percent of the EU population.

What is the passarelle clause?

One idea is to use the so-called passarelle clause, a mechanism that allows EU countries to shift on some very specific topics to majority voting without changing the EU treaty.

However, EU governments need to agree unanimously to switch to majority voting in some areas.

The mechanism also allows for an "emergency break", cancelling a vote for vital reasons of national policy.

Scholz wants majority voting for EU sanctions

In a speech about the future of Europe, the German chancellor argued for majority voting in some policy areas — and institutional reform to prepare for enlargement eastwards.

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