4 min read — Analysis | Policy
Unanimity and Foreign Policy
The EU's careful balance between respecting national sovereignty and becoming a decisive actor in global affairs.
By Francesco Bernabeu Fornara
June 7, 2022 | 9:05 pm
The European Council’s ‘unanimity principle’ has long been a contentious issue in European politics for good reason. On paper, it represents a safeguard to EU members states’ national sovereignty in areas of high politics. In practice, however, it has often been a tool utilised by a minority of EU leaders to protect their interests at the cost of European unity and decisiveness, particularly in foreign policy.
The adoption of the European Union’s (EU) sixth package of sanctions against Russia adopted on the 31st of May 2022 concluded yet another strenuous phase of negotiations among EU leaders. Though consensus was finally achieved, the result was a sanctions package filled with compromises and concessions primarily due to the demands of one head of government: Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán.
The outcome? A ban on Russian oil only coming from sea, granting Hungary and two other states an unspecified ‘temporary’ exception to the embargo. The result was therefore a scale down from the previously ambitious full embargo on Russian oil, an initial proposal supported by the vast majority of member states.
The event has fuelled yet another wave of criticism against the EU for its lack of decisiveness and resoluteness in times of crisis, particularly when concerning foreign policy.
The fact that one member state was able to stall or possibly block a proposal supported by the broad majority of European leaders is nothing new however, and can be attributed to one factor: the unanimity principle.
Indeed, according to EU treaties, the European Council (which is composed of all EU leaders) is obliged to vote in unanimity when instituting common foreign policy, as well as other proposals within policy areas considered to be ‘sensitive’. This effectively grants every head of government veto power, turning consensus among the 27 EU member states arduous to achieve and common foreign policy positions weak and vague.
So far, many EU leaders have supported the removal of unanimity voting. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, for instance, expressed his support for the abandonment of the Council’s unanimity requirement on foreign policy decisions, proposing the transition towards a ‘pragmatic federalism’. Going further, he argued that ‘a Europe which is capable of taking rapid decisions is a Europe that is more credible towards its citizens and to the rest of the world’. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen likewise shared her support by stating that ‘unanimity voting in some key areas no longer makes sense’.
As the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs labelled it in a report, the unanimity principle has shown to be a ‘failure in governance’. Though one may argue it has been able to preserve state sovereignty in key areas of high politics such as foreign policy, it has, as the Parliament puts it, ‘delayed the adoption of decisions’, has led ‘to situations whereby the minority blocks the will of the majority’, and put in detriment the ‘quality, decisiveness, and transparency’ of EU legislation. It comes as no surprise therefore, that even the Parliament has shown its support for change.
However, abolishment of unanimity voting would require the amending of EU treaties, something 13 member states have already expressed their opposition to. Moreover, treaty modifications would, coincidentally, also require unanimity, and it is unlikely countries such as Hungary or Poland, who often take advantage of their veto power, will concede to changes regarding voting procedures.
In an evermore uncertain and geopolitical world however, it may be time for the EU to reconsider unanimity voting in order to make foreign policy decisions more decisive and resolute. This is particularly relevant if the EU wishes to become a more firm and decisive geopolitical actor able to respond swiftly to global challenges. Whether this is an aspiration shared by all member states is still unclear.
Evidently, the EU is treading on a tightrope, a careful balancing act between respecting member states’ national sovereignty while simultaneously striving to become a supranational actor. These are two contradictory positions. If the EU truly wishes to become a geopolitical actor in its own right, as expressed in its ‘Strategic Compass’ initiative, unanimity voting will indeed hinder this aspiration. However, the abandonment of the unanimity principle not only further deprives member states of their sovereign decision-making but is, for now, extremely unlikely due to the requirements for treaty change. Nonetheless, a clear EU decision on the matter remains evermore necessary in an increasingly antagonistic and uncertain world; one which will not wait for the EU to finally decide on its fate.