Negotiations within European Union 101: Qualified Majority Voting versus Consensus

Foreword

Negotiation involves strategically addressing an issue in a way that all parties find acceptable. In a negotiation, all parties try to influence and convince the others in accordance with their interests. At the international level, negotiation is a solution-seeking process based on power, and a specific dispute can either be completely resolved or may not be completely resolved by all parties' satisfaction.


As one of the most influential organizations, for the European Union to function, negotiations are crucial. The formation of the union has brought significant effects on the policy-making process. Unlike most of the exclusively state-dominated international organizations, legislation in the European Union is carried out as a political process where power is distributed among institutions. In this sense, there are some differences between EU negotiations and traditional international negotiations. The Member States must influence negotiation processes to be able to shape the formation and implementation of common policies. This 101 series is dedicated to discussing the negotiation process within European Union.


Negotiations within European Union 101 is divided into five chapters:

  1. Negotiations within European Union: The Mechanism and Institutions

  2. Negotiations within European Union: Qualified Majority Voting Versus Consensus

  3. Negotiations within European Union: Trilogue Negotiations

  4. Negotiations within European Union: Hard Bargaining versus Problem Solving

  5. Negotiations within European Union: Discussion of IGC 200


Negotiations within European Union 101: Qualified Majority Voting Versus Consensus


Negotiations in the European Union are concluded through one of the three mechanisms; qualified majority voting, simple majority voting, and consensus. Despite qualified majority voting being accepted as a formal voting mechanism for most of the legislative procedures, many decisions are taken by consensus in the Council. The history of the EU explains why the culture of consensus has endured so long. It has often been described as a founding principle of the EU political system and is seen as an essential feature of the EU negotiations (Dehousse et al., 2017, p. 44). The other reason for the solidity of the culture of consensus is the continuous nature of negotiations in the Council. Since the functioning of qualified majority voting might create conditions that can block further negotiations, the Member States tend to prefer consensus. The former article of Negotiations within European Union 101 discusses the roles of institutions, whereas this article provides an insight about the concluding part of negotiations by evaluating the three mechanisms.


European Elections (1)

With the Treaty of Lisbon, qualified majority voting is accepted as the standard voting mechanism for most of the ordinary legislative procedures of the European Union. In order to pass a resolution after negotiations, the Council votes on the proposal of the Commission or High Representative. The proposal might be rejected, accepted as it is, or an amended version might pass. To reach the qualified majority, a total of 55 percent of all EU member states must vote in favor, meaning 15 out of 27, and those voting in favor of the proposal must comprise 65 percent of the European Union’s total population. That is why this is also referred to as the double majority rule. However, some of the Member States having larger populations than others might create conflicts and alliances to outvote the opposing party, causing a change in the dynamics of negotiations. As a countermeasure, the concept of blocking minority was introduced. A group consisting of at least four Member States covering 35% of the European Union’s population can prevent a resolution to pass by a qualified majority. In addition, when a Member State prefers not to be involved in the policy area in question, the negotiator does not have to vote. The abstain of negotiator will be considered as a vote against as well. However, if the proposal is from an institution other than the Commission or High Representative, reaching a qualified majority requires at least 72% of the Member States voting in favor, covering 65% of the total population of the Union. The qualified majority voting is accepted as the standard voting mechanism for most of the policy areas under EU jurisdiction, yet consensus-based decisions are still the norm rather than the exception in the Council of the EU (Häge, 2012, p. 481). This indicates that the Council passes most of the resolutions by consensus informally. Some scholars suggest that this is caused by the democratic deficit (Heisenberg, 2005, p. 67) whereas others think that enlargement of the Union makes reaching a qualified majority more difficult and decreases the proportion of potential winning coalitions during negotiations (Golub, 1999, p. 744).



European "Union" (2)

Simple majority voting is adopted when the Council negotiates on procedural and administrative issues. Besides, a simple majority is also required to send recommendations to the Commission to submit legislative proposals since the Council has no competency in this area. 14 Member States out of 27 voting in favor is enough to pass a resolution in these cases. This can be classified as the least controversial voting mechanism, however, the scope for its usage is limited.


Passing a resolution on sensitive issues in the Council requires consensus. On matters related to common foreign and security policy, taxation policies, finances of the Union, law, rights of the EU citizens, and accession talks, the consensus is accepted as the valid decision-making mechanism. Imposing sanctions on member states that breach the principles of the treaties of the Union requires consensus as well. Unlike qualified majority voting, an abstention of a negotiator does not count as a vote against. Moreover, it is important to highlight that consensus-based decision-making is essential to pass an amended proposal rejected by the Commission. In this case, no further negotiations are required if the Council reaches a consensus to pass an amended proposal.


Negotiations within European Union
Long-term EU Budget Negotiations (3)

Since the vote records of the Council became available to the public recently, extended time-series studies and further research are restricted. Also, voting results from July 2006 onwards are available in the public register of Council documents (European Council, 2022). The focus is on the year 2002 to analyze current and pre-2006 data on major legislative acts. Despite the formal QMV rule applying for 71% of negotiations, 81% of the decisions were taken by consensus in 2002 (Heisenberg, 2005, p. 72-73). More than half of the resolutions which were not passed through consensus were related to industrial, agricultural, and fishery products. Germany and Sweden voted against the Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, and the abstention of Denmark and Sweden on Council Regulation on State aid to the coal industry are the two instances of the 37 resolutions(Heisenberg, 2005, p. 87). The Council is asked to expand the scope of national aid leads to a departure from the single market economy and the transfer of funds to competitive industries, resulting in problematic and long negotiations. Therefore, it can be said that QMV is the final recourse to accelerate the process when the funds and subsidies are at risk.


Negotiations within European Union
Voting System in the Council. (4)

Despite the formal adaptation to qualified majority voting, the EU's consensus culture informally remained during negotiations. This is because the EU’s ‘culture of consensus’ is the result of the 40-year history of negotiations among the same partners and the acculturation of new members to those norms (Heisenberg, 2005, p. 68). All three voting mechanisms have pros and cons affecting the final outcome. In the absence of a blocking minority, choices of some Member States might be overlooked by qualified majority voting. The constant existence of negotiations in the Council shapes the dynamics among the Member States. As a result, the negotiators refrain from any action that can block further negotiations, including forming a blocking minority and prefer to discuss until each Member State agrees. Simple majority voting can be classified as the least problematic voting mechanism but with a limited scope. Consensus makes it hypothetically possible to pass a resolution with less support than simple majority voting (Heisenberg, 2005, p. 66), facilitates bargaining, and EU enlargement. On the other hand, the dominance of consensus leads to discussions on whether there is a democratic deficit in the Council, due to the advantages of some actors’ on obtaining information. This is an ongoing debate that has not been resulted yet. However, whether there is a need for reform remains unclear.




References

Dehousse, R., Novak, S., & Bendjaballah, S. (2017). Consensus under pressure. Politique Européenne, 58(4), 44. https://doi.org/10.3917/poeu.058.0044


European Council. (2022, January 20). Search for voting results. [Data file] Retrieved from https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/general-secretariat/corporate-policies/transparency/open-data/voting-results/


Golub, J. (1999). In the shadow of the vote? Decision making in the European Community. International Organization, 53(4), 733–764. https://doi.org/10.1162/002081899551057


Häge, F. M. (2012). Coalition building and consensus in the Council of the European Union. British Journal of Political Science, 43(3), 481–504. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007123412000439


Heisenberg, D. (2005). The institution of 'consensus' in the European Union: Formal versus informal decision-making in the Council. European Journal of Political Research, 44(1), 65–90. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6765.2005.00219.x


Image Sources


Image 1: Rédaction Falaise. (2019). European Elections. https://actu.fr. Rédaction Falaise. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://actu.fr/normandie/falaise_14258/elections-europeennes-2019-navettes-aller-voter-falaise_23935293.html.


Image 2: Janssen, T. (2019). European "Union". https://www.cagle.com/tom-janssen/2019/05/european-union. Cagle. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.cagle.com.


Image 3: Long-term Eu Budget Negotiations. [Photograph]. (2013). https://www.europarl.europa.eu. European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=IM-PRESS&reference=20110429FCS18370&language=EN.


Image 4: Voting System in the Council. [Diagram]. (2021). European Parliamentary Research Service. https://epthinktank.eu/2019/12/20/council-of-the-european-union-facts-and-figures/voting-system-in-council/.



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Deniz Aktunç

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