Deep divisions have long been threatening to turn the EU’s foreign policy into a toothless tiger. Nevertheless, abolishing the principle of unanimity is not necessarily the solution.
With 27 players in one room, of course there are divisions, stemming from different analyses of the problem, conflicting national interests or different external influences.
But the longer there is disagreement, the more the EU’s “credibility is at stake”, as some Brussels diplomats kept religiously repeating over the past few weeks, marked by indecision or lack of unity in three foreign policy challenges: Belarus, Turkey and Russia.
It is no coincidence that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen once again called for establishing qualified majority voting in EU foreign policy, this time especially in sanction matters.
“Why are even simple statements on EU values delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives?” von der Leyen asked. “When member states say Europe is too slow, I say to them ‘be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting.”
Under QMV, a vote would need 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the total EU population to pass in the Council. This would allow the EU to act without the increasingly onerous process of securing unanimity among the EU27.
To most foreign policy pundits, it is a long-overdue step.
If the EU wants to be taken seriously, it needs to act faster than it did in the past few years, and much more quickly than it currently does. The crisis and emergencies since the start of von der Leyen’s mandate have particularly proved that.
QMV could indeed increase the EU’s efficiency by ensuring that a single state or a small group cannot block decisions, allowing the bloc to respond to acute external challenges.
But even so, qualified majority voting could actually risk creating more animosities than there already are. Take the following example:
Cyprus blocked the proposed EU sanctions against Belarus on Monday (21 September), citing the bloc’s inaction over Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Some painted Nicosia’s veto as ‘hostage taking’, a not-so-rare case of a blackmail attempt in EU decision-making.
For others, it was a desperate act by a small country to make fellow member states care about a threat that does not look too existential to most other members.
To be honest, if it were Germany or France asking for support, we would have probably moved forward with sanctions more quickly.
Which is why for small or less powerful member states, an extension of QMV to foreign policy raises fears that the bigger EU players will always be able to overrule them and ignore their problems.
The Commission seems keen to extend QMV to three foreign policy areas – sanctions, human rights promotion and launching civilian missions – with sanctions in pole position to become testing ground.
Love it or hate it, this is how Europe’s founding fathers set the rules.
Whether they will change in the future, as so many other crucial things in Brussels, is up to – oh, irony – the member states.
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