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From the very outset of the European Community, in the original treaties, provision was made for majority voting on certain specified issues. Even in a Community of Six, as it then was, it was foreseen that majority voting would be required if the business and the objectives laid down in the treaties were to be achieved.

Because of the sensitivity of taking decisions by a majority, the introduction of majority voting was postponed until a late stage in the transitional period. It was this shift that precipitated a crisis between France and its others partners in 1965-6, with General de Gaulle reluctant to permit the move. The crisis was resolved with what was called the Luxembourg Compromise, which was in effect not a compromise at all but an agreement to disagree, France’s five partners having refused in any way to undermine or modify the treaty provisions on majority voting. Nevertheless, for nearly 20 years the existence of the “Luxembourg Compromise” did inhibit the taking of votes on major issues and it was only with the advent of the Single European Act in 1985 that its influence ceased to be felt.

The principal provisions subjected to majority voting in the original treaties were agricultural policy, all budgetary issues other than the allocation of its own resources to the Community, trade policy and certain aspects of the coal and steel regimes. It can thus be seen that, from the beginning, it was accepted that policy decisions of great importance at the heart of the Community would be taken in this way.

The Treaty of Rome makes virtually no provision for simple majority voting (a numerical majority of the member states) other than on purely procedural issues. Instead a system of weighted majority voting was laid down which struck a delicate balance between the big member states (Germany, France, Italy) and the smaller (Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands), giving the smaller somewhat greater voting weight than their proportion of the population of the Community would have indicated but also requiring a number of votes considerably higher than a simple majority to take a decision, so that it was not possible for the view of more than one of the large states to be voted down.

Development of QMV up to 1997

No changes were made in the provisions of the basic treaties on QMV between 1957 and 1986. At each successive enlargement of the Community, there was no fundamental re-think of the weighting of the votes. Each acceding country was simply allocated a number of votes on a calculation similar to that used for the original member states and the majority required for taking a decision was adjusted as nearly as possible to preserve an acceptable balance. Since many more smaller countries than larger ones joined the Community during those years (Britain, Denmark, Ireland in 1973, Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, Sweden, Finland and Austria in 1995) the balance originally established between smaller and larger countries was gradually changed to the detriment of the latter. Attempts to re-think the weighting system at the time when Austria, Sweden and Finland joined and at the Amsterdam Treaty negotiations in 1997 did not succeed.

In 1986 the Single European Act introduced a major extension of majority voting by bringing within its scope almost all measures required for the completion of the single market, which had languished far behind other Community policies during the years when unanimity was required. This extension enabled most of the main decisions required for a single market to be taken during the period 1986-92; and the process has continued successfully since then

The Maastricht (1991) and Amsterdam (1997) treaties continued the process of extending the scope of majority voting, although in a much less dramatic way than the Single European Act. Policies such as research and the environment were brought under majority voting, as were some aspects of social policy. There was considerable tidying up of some of the minor provisions of the treaties to ensure that, where there were not great national sensitivities, decisions would be taken by QMV. By the end of this process a rough calculation would put the proportion of Community decisions that could in theory be taken by QMV as 80%

The Nice Treaty

Important decisions were reached at the Nice Summit in December 2000 on the extension of the scope of majority voting and on the weighting of votes in an enlarged European Union of up to 27 members.

The extension of the scope of majority voting agreed at Nice was relatively modest (only 35 areas, covering 31 articles of the Treaties) partly because so much was already subject to QMV but also because a number of important national sensitivities had to be respected – immigration policy (Germany), cultural policy (France), regional policy (Spain), fiscal policy and social security (UK) – preventing any extension of QMV into these areas. But some shifts of significance, trade policy in most services, for example, and some areas of lesser significance, were included.

At the same time the system of weighting votes and of taking QMV decisions was fundamentally overhauled. As a result of this overhaul the balance between the larger and smaller states which had slipped towards the latter was now partially redressed to the benefit of the former. Additionally, new conditions were introduced whereby, regardless of the total number of votes accorded to states, a combination of states representing 38% or more of the EU’s population will constitute a blocking minority as will a simple numerical majority of member states. And the decisions required to accommodate up to twelve new members in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe were taken.

Some reflections from a British perspective

It is clear that, if a Community of Six could not be effectively and efficiently run without extensive majority voting, a European Union of 25 or more cannot be so. Experience has shown that the unanimity requirement entrenches national blocking positions even when these are not necessarily in the long term interest of the member state or states concerned. The failure to make progress towards a single market in the first thirty years of the European Union’s existence illustrates this point very clearly.

A further important point is that the scope for using QMV often brings about a willingness to reach compromise solutions acceptable to all concerned and taking account of their positions. Thus, far more decisions are reached by consensus than are actually put to the vote, even in Treaty areas where QMV applies.

While Britain has on occasions found itself in a minority and thus been voted down, far more often it has been in a majority (in the period 1998-9 there were 85 contested qualified majority votes, in this period, Britain abstained or was in a minority on only five occasions). Important British interests can only be furthered if there is majority voting, not only for completion of the single market, but for moves to a liberal world trading system in goods and services and for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Another important British interest, the successful enlargement of the European Union to include the countries of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, depended on ratification of the Nice Treaty. Without that, not only would decision-making in the new EU-25 have been hampered but the weight of the larger member states, of which Britain is one, would have been inadequately represented in the Council.

It is clear however from the negotiations leading up to and at Nice that the extension of the scope of majority voting is now close to its natural limits. A number of decisions which subsequently require ratification by national parliaments – treaty changes, the accession of new members, an increase to the European Union’s financial resources – are unlikely ever to be taken by majority voting if only because it is hard to see a national parliament ratifying a decision on which its government had been voted down. Other sensitive areas, for example those where decisions were blocked at Nice, look unlikely to become less sensitive in the foreseeable future and thus to be capable of getting the unanimity required for treaty change. So although the issue of the possible extension of QMV is likely to arise in discussion of the institutional adaptation of the EU at future Intergovernmental Conferences, it is unlikely to play such a prominent role as has been the case on the last five occasions (Single European Act, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, and the European Constitutional Treaty).

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