28th Sep 2023

EU stalls on veto system reform

Member states are still deeply divided over giving up their national veto in matters of counterterrorism and cross-border crimes, with the matter set to be discussed by EU leaders next week.

Although just over half of EU justice and home affairs ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (4 December) are against a push for scrapping the veto, Finland – the current holder of the EU presidency – will put the matter on the agenda at the 14-15 December summit.

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  • The EU justice and home affairs commissioner is "very disappointed" (Photo: EUobserver)

Both the European Commission and the Finnish presidency have strongly pushed for scrapping member states' national veto in decisions related to crime, the judiciary and immigration in order to boost effective EU policy-making in this area.

At the moment, all decisions on EU-wide judicial moves must be agreed unanimously by all 25 member states, which can lead to lengthy delays.

"We must somehow rid ourselves of unanimity," said Finnish justice minister Leena Luhtanen, adding that it is "a major hurdle in big and important decisions."

But some member states led by the UK, Germany and Ireland are deeply against taking the so-called "passerelle" up to EU leaders level.

The "passerelle" or "bridge" clause in the current EU treaty provides for the possibility of lifting the national veto in the area without actually changing the treaty itself – something the commission pushed for in a May proposal.

But some EU capitals see this move as "cherry-picking" from the shelved EU constitution, which also provided for justice-related decisions to be taken by majority decision rather than by unanimity.

"The constitutional treaty is no more – it is a diseased dead parrot," UK home secretary John Reid said after the meeting.

"There's a clear, and probably overwhelming majority, against using the passerelle," he said, adding that the issue should not be taken any further.

"We should not, by using weasel words, attempt to revisit this at a higher level when there's such a clear majority," Mr Reid stated.

Belgium on the other hand supported the Finnish presidency move saying that EU leaders have already signed up to the EU constitution, which was subsequently rejected by French and Dutch referendums in 2005.

Another Polish veto

The veto issue was clearly highlighted during the justice meeting itself when Poland blocked plans to set up an EU-wide prisoner transfer system, allowing offenders sentenced in foreign EU nations to serve sentences in their home countries.

Polish deputy justice minister Andrzej Duda explained Warsaw does not like the "automatic" nature of the repatriation process, saying "we would rather accept [prisoners], than be given them" Polish agency PAP reports.

But Danish justice minister Lene Espersen said the remaining 24 member states were puzzled by the Polish refusal, which "did not bow to any pressure" and which comes on the back of Poland's recent veto of EU-Russia treaty talks.

"It is a very disappointing approach by Poland. Very disappointing," EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini said.

"We can no longer accept that one member state stops for 24 others," he said, adding that the Polish position has only underlined the need for member states to give up their national veto so that justice and criminal decisions can be taken more swiftly.

To get rid of unanimity in justice matters you need unanimity however, Finland's Ms Luhtanen pointed out, with member states currently split about fifty-fifty on the issue.

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