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Nine EU countries join forces to reform voting rules on foreign policy and dent veto power

France and Germany have joined the nine-strong the "Group of Friends on Qualified Majority Voting."
France and Germany have joined the nine-strong the "Group of Friends on Qualified Majority Voting." Copyright Tobias Schwarz/AFP or licensors
Copyright Tobias Schwarz/AFP or licensors
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Under current rules, all foreign policy decisions in the EU require the unanimous approval of the 27 member states.

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A group of nine European Union countries have joined forces to reform the voting rules that currently apply to the bloc's foreign and security policy decisions, which are governed by unanimity and often fall victim to the veto power of one single member state.

The countries argue Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the tectonic geopolitical shifts it has triggered are sufficient reasons to launch the review and gradually move from unanimity to qualified majority, the requirement that applies to the vast majority of EU policy areas, such as climate action, digital regulation, single market and migration.

"The EU foreign policy needs adapted processes and procedures in order to strengthen the EU as a foreign policy actor," the nine countries wrote in a short statement released on Thursday morning.

"Improved decision-making is also key to making the EU fit for the future."

The newly-formed "Group of Friends on Qualified Majority Voting" consists of Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain, and is open to other countries who wish to join.

Their collective mission is to speed up decision-making and remake it "in a pragmatic way, focussing on concrete practical steps" within the framework of the EU treaties.

Their statement, however, does not recommend specific areas of foreign policy, such as sanctions or military assistance, to which qualified majority, rather than unanimity, should apply.

The countries promise to share their future deliberations "transparently" with the other member states and coordinate their work with the EU institutions.

The support of Germany and France, the two largest and most influential economies in the bloc, gives the campaign a significant boost in terms of credibility and visibility.

Ironically, though, the nine states fail to conform a qualified majority on their own, as this necessitates 15 member states representing at least 65% of the bloc's total population.

A growing debate

The debate of qualified majority vs unanimity has progressively gained traction in recent years and further escalated after Russia launched the full-scale of Ukraine, a transformational episode in the continent's history that made the EU re-invent its policies and broke long-standing taboos.

Despite the strong unity and surprising velocity with which most foreign policy decisions were taken, the last 15 months have seen embarrassing moments where unanimity was brazenly exploited by just one capital.

Hungary, in particular, has been heavily criticised for generously using this individual power to hold hostage key agreements, such as an EU-wide ban on Russian oil imports, an €18-billion package in financial aid for Kyiv and an OECD-brokered deal to impose a 15% minimum corporate tax.

The vetoes were eventually lifted but only after Budapest's unilateral demands were met in full. 

In most cases, member states had no choice but to acquiesce in order to break the impasse: last June, Hungary caused fury after coming up with a last-minute demand to exempt Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russia's Orthodox Church, from the list of EU sanctions.

Another headline-making case occurred in September 2020, when Cyprus single-handedly blocked EU sanctions on Belarus because of an unrelated dispute with Turkey.

These PR fiascos have fuelled calls to ditch unanimity and adopt qualified majority in foreign policy, even reaching the upper echelons in Brussels: both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell have publicly backed the reform, underscoring its growing appeal.

In reaction to the news, a spokesperson for Borrell welcomed the new initiative "as we need to make procedures fit for the current and future times in order to strengthen the EU as a foreign policy actor."

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"The EU must become faster and more capable and effective in its ability to decide and act, to face an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment," the spokesperson told Euronews.

"We continue to believe that a greater use of qualified majority voting in the area of external relations could bring considerable benefits and make faster and more efficient decisions in defence of our interests and values."

This piece has been updated with new developments.

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