The pros and cons of unanimity in EU’s foreign policy and what’s better for Lithuania – opinion

The pros and cons of unanimity in EU’s foreign policy and what’s better for Lithuania – opinion

Unanimity rule in the EU’s foreign policy-making often leads to frustrations and accusations of ineffectiveness – but would getting rid of it make things better? Ignas Repčys, a European Studies student at Vilnius University, weighs arguments for and against.

Unanimity rule in the EU’s foreign policy making often leads to frustrations and accusations of ineffectiveness – but would getting rid of it make things better? Ignas Repčys, a European Studies student at Vilnius University, arguments for and against.

Historically, the European Union’s foreign policy has had a different status than other policies. While the EU has gradually advanced towards more integration in trade, monetary and other policies, the foreign and security policy has remained under a close control of individual member states.

Today, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is largely an intergovernmental policy, where decisions are taken by the European Council and the Council acting unanimously. However, debates on abolishing unanimity have become more relevant than ever since the war in Ukraine started.

Experts agree that initially the EU’s foreign policy was successful and reacted quickly to impose sanctions on Russia. However, all luck ran out when Hungary held hostage the EU’s sixth sanctions package for a month, finally agreeing to a watered-down proposal.

In Lithuania, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis stated that it was unacceptable that one country can hold hostage the whole sanctions package. Former prime minister and current MEP Andrius Kubilius underlined that it was time for the EU to “federalize” its CFSP by getting rid of unanimity. On the other hand, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda stressed that unanimity is the best decision-making mechanism for the EU when it comes to the CFSP.

This year, supporters for abolishing member states’ veto power in the CFSP gained new impetus – the wishes of European citizens. One of the proposals from the citizens-led Conference on the Future of Europe is to “improve its [EU’s] capacity to take speedy and effective decisions, notably in the CFSP”. The first proposed measure to do so is to move away from unanimity towards qualified majority voting on certain CFSP issues.

Bearing in mind the relevance of the problem and its divisiveness both on the European and national level, the question if the EU should get rid of unanimity procedures in its common foreign and security policy – more specifically, in areas on human rights and sanctions – is more pressing than ever.

Arguments in favour of qualified majority voting in common foreign and security policy

Analysts underline that without the unanimity rule, the EU’s foreign policy would become more ambitious. The EU could bypass the lowest common denominator logic and adopt more ambitious sanctions packages and defend its public interests, resulting in a tangible increase of effectiveness.

Qualified majority voting in the CFSP would also lead to a more united EU. Today, the EU’s foreign policy system suffers from third-country influence that encourages friendly EU member states to veto or water down CFSP proposals and statements that are not in their favour.

This can cause political tensions between member states inside the EU as well. Proponents of QMV underline that the abolition of unanimity would lead to a win-win scenario both for the EU and national governments. Hostile powers would need to win over more than one member state to thwart EU foreign policies, while member states would no longer have to choose between showing solidarity with their EU partners and looking out for their relations with influential third countries.

Lastly, some argue that the abolition of the veto in the CFSP would be beneficial for small member states. One of the arguments is that QMV would incentivise them to initiate proposals and organise coalitions around them. Such a shift could not only see the influence of smaller states increase, but also give rise to a more common strategic culture.

A common strategic culture would eventually push EU member states to view foreign policy challenges more from a common European perspective than from 27 national ones. A common strategic culture would be beneficial for small member states, such as Lithuania, which has been calling for a united EU foreign policy on China through a 27+1 format.

Arguments against qualified majority voting in common foreign and security policy

Defenders of the unanimity rule emphasise that unity is the EU’s biggest strength. European Council President Charles Michel points out that unanimity “pushes us to work unremittingly to unite the member states”. He underlines there is a lasting commitment by the 27 countries to the adopted decision.

This argument is supported by other authors as well, who note that switching to QMV would fragment the EU’s strength in the world. They argue that the EU should develop closer relations with national capitals to have a better grasp of member states’ interests and limits, instead of resorting to QMV.

Abolishing unanimity would also weaken the EU’s external credibility and internal coherence, defenders argue. Unanimity lends external legitimacy to decisions, since it means that the position is shared by all member states. On the other hand, if member states are publicly outvoted on decisions that impact relations with third countries, the EU’s credibility as a cohesive foreign policy actor would be weakened. It would also entail systematic deviations from common positions or actions, because outvoted member states would not be interested in complying with the legislation adopted at the EU level.

This is exactly what happened during the migration crisis, when the outvoted governments of Hungary and other Eastern European countries refused to implement EU decisions. This is an important point to remember as it is the member states that are responsible for implementing and enforcing EU sanctions, as well as identifying breaches and imposing penalties.

Lastly, qualified majority voting in the CFSP would impact the EU’s democratic legitimacy. The chain of legitimacy would be broken if individual governments could be outvoted, as the veto also represents political power for the heads of state. This could increase the risk of Euroscepticism in the EU, as “member states know that their electorates and national parliaments would not support being outvoted by the European Council”.

Some analysts also insist that abolishing the veto would not be beneficial for small member states. Under QMV, smaller EU member states could be outvoted, as member states with bigger populations could reach the QMV threshold in smaller numbers. QMV could also decrease their ability to shape the tone of the EU’s foreign policy and put them in a position whereby they would have to accept decisions that might undermine their national interests.

Way forward for Lithuania

Considering the arguments above and Lithuania’s national interests, it is argued that getting rid of unanimity in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy would not be beneficial for the country.

Lithuania is a small and open economy whose overall security and prosperity depends on the strength and unity of the EU. In the current geopolitical environment, Lithuania must be invested in seeking to ensure the greatest possible unity in the EU. That means avoiding supporting decisions that could undermine the EU’s internal legitimacy and its external credibility.

QMV could lead to situations where member states are outvoted and in retaliation do not enforce sanctions, resulting in a fragmented and weakened union.
Being outvoted can also trigger the rise of Euroscepticism even in pro-EU member states, which is the last thing that the EU needs after Brexit. Qualified majority voting in the CFSP could potentially lead to division, frustrations, and weakening of the EU, which would be a threat to Lithuania’s security and prosperity.

Abandoning the veto would also be risky for Lithuania’s national interests vis-à-vis Russia, as the EU member states have different relationships with Moscow. Even after 2014, despite sanctions being in place, some member states that tried to pursue a positive agenda for EU-Russia cooperation. France and Germany, two countries that could amass many votes if the QMV system was in place, together with Italy, voiced several times the need to resume dialogue with Russia.

Even during the war in Ukraine, we can see diverging views within the EU on how to deal with Russia in the future. In this respect, qualified majority voting would limit Lithuania’s ability to halt any attempts of pursuing a positive agenda with Russia.

It is also important to note that since 2014, despite the need for unanimity and discontent from certain member states, the EU was able to renew sanctions against Russia each year. In this sense, from Lithuania’s perspective, there is no need to move towards qualified majority voting.

Lastly, supporting the change towards qualified majority voting would be against the wishes of Lithuanian citizens. Surveys show that over 50 percent of Lithuanians believe the most efficient way to deal with security and defence policy issues is to coordinate them both on the national and the EU level. This presupposes the need to maintain the current intergovernmental model, based on unanimity.

Ignas Repčys is a European Studies student at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science. The article was prepared during the EU Public Policy course taught by Jean Monnet Chair Professor Ramūnas Vilpišauskas.

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