Don’t expect the EU to remove countries’ vetoes any time soon.
After a meeting of EU affairs ministers in Brussels on Tuesday, Mikuláš Bek, the EU affairs minister of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said he expected only “limited progress” from ‘by the end of the year on the issue.
“I’m not overly optimistic,” he said, “but I don’t think the debate is lost.”
In recent months, many of the EU’s biggest powers have backed a movement to reform EU decision-making.
At the center of the conversation is the EU’s unanimity rule, which means every country must agree before the bloc can make a decision on issues from foreign policy to tax rules. While the structure helps the EU present a united front, it has also slowed or stalled movement on a number of major issues, from sanctions on Russia to corporate tax rates.
Many have also linked decision-making reform to the EU’s eastward enlargement to include new members like Ukraine or Moldova.
“It seems to me a political fact that for many member states there is a link between genuine enlargement and changes in decision-making,” Bek told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.
Yet as the issue was discussed, Bek pointed to a practical reality: change is hard.
Still, he said, “there is hope that we can make limited progress” during the Czech presidency, which runs until the end of the year.
Indeed, the chatter about EU reform has been circulating in Brussels for weeks and does not stop.
In late August, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a high-profile speech calling for massive EU expansion – but only after significant changes to the bloc’s operations. A few weeks later, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, addressed the subject in her annual State of the Union address.
But actual movement through the EU’s institutional machinery has so far been minimal. And support for effective reform of the EU’s underlying treaties remains nascent. During the meeting, it was also clear that the majority was against the treaty changes, a diplomat said.
Given this, EU affairs ministers discussed proposals to change the rules without opening up the treaties.
One option on the table: to make reforms via the EU’s bridging clauses, a mechanism that allows countries to switch from unanimity to majority voting in the Council of the EU without having to modify the treaties of the EU.
Foreign policy dominated the conversation. The unanimity rule for any foreign policy decision has led to lengthy negotiations on issues such as sanctions against Russia. Hungary has also used its veto power to block even seemingly uncontroversial foreign policy measures, such as an EU call to appoint a UN rapporteur on human rights abuses in Russia.
Hungary’s behavior angered many EU members, influencing their desire to move away from unanimity requirements.
The EU has been ‘stopped by a member state’ as it tries to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine, German Minister of State for Europe Anna Lührmann told reporters ahead of the meeting. tuesday. “I don’t think that should prevent us from acting in the future.”
Lührmann said Germany supports the gateway clause route to making this change. The move would lower the threshold for some foreign policy decisions to “qualified majority” – a standard requiring at least 55% of countries representing at least 65% of the EU population.
Others are less enthusiastic. According to a diplomat, some member states stressed on Tuesday that the EU had successfully adopted its toughest ever sanctions against Russia, despite the need for unanimity.
Yet a Council document obtained by POLITICO revealed growing support for the change, noting that “several delegations are open or willing to consider using the bridging clauses”. Areas of potential reform include sanctions, human rights and the non-military side of security and defence, according to the document.
“To a lesser extent, support is also expressed by some delegations for issues of taxation, energy policy and non-discrimination,” the document adds.
But the initiative will, of course, take time – if it happens at all. The Council document adds that “due to the politically very sensitive nature of this issue”, several countries “indicate that they would need more time to answer this question”.
And, ironically, deciding to use the bridging clause to scrap the unanimity rules requires its own unanimity vote. So that means Hungary could veto a rule change.
Despite this, several diplomats expected EU leaders to address the issue at a meeting in December. They can even decide on the advisability of convening a convention which would formally envisage more far-reaching modifications to the treaties.
But as is often the case, nothing is certain. Others have warned that the weak appetite for treaty change, along with the pressing issues of war and rising energy prices, could mean the issue is, once again, pushed back.
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