So the future, should the EU states decide by majority on sanctions and other foreign policy issues? Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) has campaigned for this on several occasions. In his Prague speech on European policy at the end of August, he said that the principle of unanimity could only be adhered to as long as there was little pressure to act. “At the latest in view of the turning point, however, that is no longer the case.” The Czech Council Presidency is exploring whether there is the necessary support for a change. The bar is high, because the task of unanimity can only be decided unanimously by all states.
The Union is still a long way from such a consensus, as was shown on Tuesday when the Europe ministers responsible for treaty changes discussed the topic for the first time. The German representative Anna Lührmann, Minister of State in the Foreign Office from the Greens, was “fairly optimistic” before the meeting that it was possible to make progress. However, a number of states rejected the proposal. In the first place the government in Budapest. “Hungary does not support the abolition of the unanimity procedure,” said Europe Minister Judit Varga. The “serious and vital interests” of each member country must be taken into account, one must return to the “spirit of cooperation”. In fact, in recent years Hungary has repeatedly blocked joint EU resolutions on human rights issues out of consideration for China, most recently on sanctions against Russia.
However, Lührmann also encountered headwind from Ireland. Energy prices are the top priority for his voters, said Europe Secretary Thomas Byrne. You shouldn’t get caught up in procedural issues and lose sight of what’s important. Ireland and other small states also fear that their vote will lose weight if unanimity falls. Quite rightly so, because then it would be enough if 15 countries, which make up at least 65 percent of the total EU population, vote together.
Sweden and Italy are still in favor of Scholz’s plan
Among the medium-sized countries, the willingness to change is somewhat greater, but with different accents. The Austrian representative Karoline Edtstadler demanded that sanctions decisions must continue to be taken unanimously, “because this is the only way to clearly express the strength of the European Union”. It is different when it comes to positioning the Union in international bodies. Several states gave evasive answers to a questionnaire that the Czech Presidency used to find out the individual sensitivities – because of the “highly sensitive political nature of this question”, as stated in a summary paper. Basically, the openness is greater for majority decisions on sanctions, human rights and civilian operations than in other areas such as financial or energy policy.
The number of states that openly support the German initiative is not very impressive. France, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden are mentioned. Admittedly, the Swedish government has just been voted out; this could also happen in Italy. Berlin is trying to increase the pressure by linking the reform to the enlargement of the Union. Scholz hinted at this in his Prague speech. Minister of State Lührmann did not want to create a real connection. “Now I don’t think that the candidate countries should somehow wait or have problems because we as the EU don’t do our homework,” she said.
The debate in the Council only started on Tuesday and will continue for a while. It has a welcome side effect for all states. The conference on the future of Europe also called for majority decisions in foreign policy. In other words, you are addressing a concern of the citizens that could also be implemented without a treaty revision. The current Lisbon Treaty provides for a simplified procedure for changes to the voting procedure. There is a general and several special bridging clauses for this.
The European Parliament, on the other hand, is calling for a convention for further treaty changes. States have very little appetite for this, and there are fears of new referendums and a shift in power. This also applies to the federal government SPD, Greens and FDP in the coalition agreement for a convention. But Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) made disparaging remarks about it in June. Chancellor Scholz, on the other hand, did not even mention the word in Prague.