The retention of the national veto will bring the enlarged Union to a halt

European Council conclusions (picture European Commission)

Federalist Letter to the Intergovernmental Conference

Issue number 14, 20 November 2003

The retention of the national veto will bring the enlarged Union to a halt

It cannot be said too often that the forthcoming enlargement of the European Union will change the EU beyond all recognition. The accession of ten new member states on 1 May 2004 requires new thought about the way in which decisions are taken and implemented. This is nowhere more true than in the case of the national veto.

Allowing each member state the right to block decisions will very rapidly bring decision-making to a halt.

The simple mathematics of the situation shows that an additional ten member states will increase the number of permutations of governments 1,000-fold. Fortunately, national governments do not decide on their policies purely at random (despite the impression they give sometimes) but nevertheless the growing number of member states will make unanimous decision-making harder than ever before.

There are two reasons for this.

First of all, there is the simple fact that there are more member states and therefore more member state interests to be taken into account. A unanimous decision requires every member state to be in agreement with every aspect and every detail of the proposal. If this is hard with 15, it will be harder still with 25.

Secondly, there is the question of what happens when a national government changes its mind. The agreement that has been carefully assembled and stitched together comes apart; the need to find unanimity means that it must, equally carefully, be rebuilt. As the number of member states grows, the frequency that one of the national governments will change its mind will grow too, for the simple reason that every member state is a democracy. National elections will from time to time change the political colour of a government in a member state. Such changes can be expected to have an impact on politics at the European as well as at the national level.

It is worth being clear on the scale of the potential problem in the future European Union. If there are 25 member states (a number which is sure to grow) and each government lasts on average five years (we will be generous), a member state government somewhere in the Union will change hands every ten weeks (five will change each year). That spells trouble.

No sooner will a unanimous deal be reached on an issue than a new national government minister will attend a meeting of the Council and demand a change.

As an aside, national governments will change over more frequently than the European Council meets. It will be rare for the European Council to have the same composition from one summit to the next: so much for the idea that it can provide the Union with strategic direction.

Richard Holbrook, the distinguished American diplomat, once observed that if he could change anything in the EU’s system of decision-making, he would synchronise the timing of general elections within the member states. Clearly, that isn’t going to happen, but something else must.

The answer is clear. Move away from unanimity towards majority voting. No individual member state should be able to block decisions of the overwhelming majority. The double majority system in the Council (a decision requires a majority of member states representing 60 per cent of the population) ensures that the majority in favour of a decision must be very large indeed: the end of the veto is not the end of national diversity.

And majority voting must be made general so that it applies to all decisions rather than kept only for some of them. If any decisions remain subject to the veto, there is always the temptation to “package” issues together: a threat to veto one unanimous decision is issued as a blackmail threat to win votes over a majority voting issue elsewhere. This may seem a theoretical threat, but it really happens. It must be ruled out in future.

We regret it is probably too late for this concept to be written into the constitution agreed in the IGC and ratified next summer. Majority voting is widespread but not universal in the current text; it should be adopted in place of unanimity wherever the draft permits. And the next Convention – which needs to be held no later than 2008 – should ensure that majority voting becomes the absolute rule. Without it, decision-making in the EU will grind to a halt.

Anyone who cares about the future of the European Union should back majority voting. It is what made the single market possible, and it is what will make enlargement work. Without it, the EU will slowly lose the ability to take effective decisions and, with it, the support of the citizens. The unification of our continent must never be allowed to lead to that.

This “Federalist Letter” is issued by the Union of European Federalists as part of the “Campaign for a European Federal Constitution”. For further information and support:
UEF – Chaussée de Wavre 214 d B-1050 Brussels, Tel: + 32-2-508.30.30 – Fax : +32-2-626.95.01, E-mail: – Website: With the financial support, but not representing the opinions, of the European Commission.

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