The EU’s foreign policy dog is biting its own unanimity tail

The EU’s foreign policy dog is biting its own unanimity tail

The standstill on the path towards a united EU foreign policy is widely attributed to the fact that due to the unanimity rule in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), any member state effectively holds a veto right. The obvious reason is the fact that foreign policy is without a doubt considered to be the core of “high politics” of nation states, dominated by self-interest more than any other policy field. With a new global conflict looming on the horizon between the United States and China, policymakers point to the EU as the only actor capable to compete on the world stage.

The veto issue, however, has barred High Representatives from Ashton over Mogherini to Borrell from leading the way for a united European foreign policy approach by blocking or delaying decisions, for example EU sanctions against Venezuela or statements on major international developments. Hardly as a surprise, policymakers (most recently in 2019 Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her mission statement to Joseph Borrell) are pointing at the decision mechanism in the Council’s foreign minister setup to be (partly) swapped for the standard EU qualified majority voting rule as a solution.

This approach is doomed to fail. Let us remember why majority voting on foreign policy has not been there yet. The answer – high politics – has already been given. Why would proud nation states voluntarily give up their power over their most sacred field of action? This is where the EU’s foreign policy dog is biting its own unanimity tail. The European Commission ambitiously proposed to move to qualified majority in some distinct fields. Member states will not fall for this trick.

Instead, advocates for a united EU foreign policy should change their course and draw their attention to Article 238 (2) TFEU: according to this paragraph, the Council must meet a higher threshold of 72 percent of member states to reach a qualified majority decision if a proposal was not tabled by the Commission or the High Representative. This threshold may be the only chance for those dreaming of truly European diplomacy. Member states will never accept the regular qualified majority voting for the CFSP. To spell this out more clearly: with qualified majority, decisions could be taken against the combined political weight of either Germany, France and Spain; or thirteen member states just short of a third of the EU`s population.

They might, however, agree on the fact that not every single member state, no matter how big or small, should be able to block the rest of the whole bloc. The existing super-qualified majority rule provides a feasible balance, allowing member states to effectively keep hold of their political power over EU diplomacy while being freed from the restraint of the current veto right regime. The abstention clause of Article 31 (2) TEU would still allow member states to not actively execute decisions. In order to narrow the window of decision, the blocking minority should be cut down from four to three states for CFSP decisions. The basic idea of this proposal might be the only chance for EU diplomacy to become the global power that policymakers want it to be.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.

Frank Heber studied International Relations (B.A.), Economics and Law at the University of Erfurt in Germany. Apart from the institutional structures and rules of the EU, he is particularly interested in Digitalisation, Energy Policy and Eastern Europe.