Council voting: Who are the EU hardliners and ‘yes men’?


VoteWatch Europe has released its first-ever report examining national voting trends in the Council of the European Union. The survey provides new insights into the main areas of disagreement and could help reveal which member states are ‘most difficult’.

Since 2009, VoteWatch has made a name for itself by reporting on European Parliament voting trends. Now it has published records on how government representatives from all 27 member states voted in the Council from July 2009 to the present.

Despite some notable disagreements and the extension of qualified majority voting under the Lisbon Treaty, most Council decisions were undertaken with unanimity – 65% of them.

VoteWatch explains that rather than voting against, member states prefer to register formal statements expressing their reservations over Council decisions.

In the report, economic, environmental, transport and budget issues were top of the Council’s agenda over the last three years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of those – environment and budget – were among the policy areas where there was the most disagreement, along with agriculture and regional development.

Compromise and consensus

No votes and abstentions are relatively rare during Council decisions. More often than not, member states express their reservations about a proposal before it goes to vote, so by the time it does a compromise has usually been reached.

But VoteWatch says: “Sometimes one or several member states find themselves defending a position that is so far removed from the emerging consensus that a compromise proves impossible.”

“Various anecdotes and hypotheses about which member states are the most ‘difficult ones’ circulate among practitioners, the media and analysts,” the report went on to say, without giving its own reasons.

However, VoteWatch observes that larger EU countries were most likely to oppose a proposal before 2004, but now, it says, this has changed to a “group of medium-sized countries.”

From the data, it is hard to extrapolate other trends, but for the most part it is the smaller nations that find themselves in the most ‘agreeable’ third. Italy, Poland, Germany and the UK – some of the largest nations in the EU 27 – are all in the bottom third.

The UK: a lack of engagement?

Few will be surprised that the UK bottoms the list, and by a relatively large margin. It is also the only country of the 27 whose share of ‘no’ votes or abstentions exceeded the number of statements.

In contrast, France and Lithuania were the only two countries to vote in favour of every Council proposal over the last three years.

British think tank Open Europe released a study earlier this year, which perhaps sheds light on those perceived voting habits.

Based on the European Court of Justice’s 2011 annual activities report, the study sought to answer the question ‘Who were the naughtiest Europeans of 2011?’ It compared judgments brought by the EU high court against member states for not fulfilling their obligations.

The UK lodges more ‘no’s’ or abstentions and formal statements than anyone else but it has one of the best records for implementing EU legislation after it has agreed to it.

Of the 27, only the UK, Bulgaria, Denmark, Latvia and Slovakia ended 2011 with a “clean sheet”, noted Open Europe.

Piotr Kaczy?ski, head of programme at the Centre for European Policy Studies, told EURACTIV  that the UK representatives only vote in favour if they are sure they want to carry through with a proposal. If the UK is not sure, Kaczy?ski said, they are “not engaged” in the legislation shaping process.

“They opt in whenever they feel like joining”, Kaczy?ski explained.

Kaczy?ski, responsible for EU institutional and political issues at CEPS, said the traditional British attitude was to be "reserved" in Europe, and that under the current Conservative government, "fewer things are negotiable."

Instead, the UK's policy has been to attempt to veto initiatives before they go to a vote, which is not always successful.

EU and new member states: a teacher-student relationship?

Lithuania appears to be the ideal European, voting ‘yes’ on every proposal last year and having a very good implementation record. Open Europe noted that new member states were better at implementing EU law than older ones.

Kaczy?ski said that many of the new countries had to be “very effective in taking on big chunks of EU law without negotiations” so were perhaps less questioning in implementing EU law than older member states.

Those countries, he said, were also “shifting from a Soviet style” to a more effective “Nordic style” of public administration.

As such, Kaczy?ski, an advisor at the Polish Robert Schuman Foundation, wished to dispel the notion that the new member states were “only takers”, having indeed vetoed some foreign policy initiatives, for example.

“I would not be to hard on them. They have an input, a say … It is not a teacher-student logic”, he said.

France: ‘Yes men’?

In contrast, last year’s other major ‘yeasayer’, France, has turned out to be relatively poor at “fulfilling its obligations”, notching up 36 court cases between 2007 and 2011.

France, Kaczy?ski said, had always used a “very specific approach” in adopting EU legislation. To the Gallic mind, “all law is politics” he said, and “implementation was not always the most important thing.”

With the European crisis, France has been changing its working methods and has started to improve its record in EU law implementation, Kaczy?ski said. 

Because of an “effective centralised public administration”, France had been able to influence policy initiatives at a very early stage and therefore negotiate compromises, Kaczy?ski said. France so often voted ‘yes’ to Council measures because it had a significant say in shaping those policies.

The French are “not takers, but makers”, he said.

Furthermore, if France opposes a proposal then it makes use of its “effective, centralised administration” to nip the process in the bud before it can go to a vote.

?'Champions of Europe'

In contrast, Germany comes to the negotiating table relatively late due to a “slow federal system”, Kaczy?ski added, which is why it often opposes Council actions (second only to the UK last year). The federal system means it has few opportunities to shape a new policy before it goes to a vote.

Kaczy?ski also told ??EURACTIV ?that Germany had unique reasons for voting against some EU proposals. He said the country had "strong national champions and preferences" that were not shaped by other countries. As such German representatives would feel required to vote no to policies that had already been agreed upon by other countries before they arrived at the negotiating table.

Last year's “naughtiest” member state was Belgium, with the ECJ handing down nine judgments against the country just in 2011. Luxembourg also fared badly in carrying through its EU commitments. 

These countries had, Open Europe noted, “traditionally put themselves forward as champions of European integration”. However, the UK think tank observed that a good European should be one that wants “better and pointed implementation of the laws that are agreed … a slimmed-down EU based on substance rather than one based on rhetoric.”

The Council of the European Union is made up of representatives of national governments and makes laws for the EU, in cooperation with the European Parliament.

When the Council meets to discuss a particular issue, every EU country sends a representative (usually a minister) responsible for that issue. For example, if climate change is on the agenda, environment ministers will attend.

Council decisions are generally adopted by a simple majority of the members, and every six months a different EU member country holds the Council presidency – such as setting the agenda and chairing meetings.

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