Consensus on EU voting rights scheme remains elusive

European Parliament, photo: European Commission

European Union foreign ministers - including the 10 newcomers - are meeting in Brussels to break the long deadlock over the proposed European Constitution. Insiders predict that 95 per cent of the draft Constitution that emerged from the Inter-Governmental Conference in December will be adopted at the June 17 - 18 meeting of the European Council. But consensus on the other 5 per cent — especially voting rights — appears elusive at best.

European Parliament,  photo: European Commission
Hardly a paragraph was agreed without contentious debate. Even in its "reader friendly" form, the European Constitution, the document designed to bring "Europe" closer to its citizens, bridge the so-called "democracy deficit" and make the work of the EU institutions more transparent and efficient, runs over 300 pages.

One weighty issue that remains on the table and has captured the attention of the public — in no small part due to cries from euro-sceptics over the loss of national sovereignty — is that of voting rights.

How can the EU implement a democratic control system that fairly represents the interests of 25 countries and some half a billion people and still maintain the enlarged EU's ability to act? That is the question that brought together foreign ministers from EU member states this Monday.

A number of governments, including the Czech centre-left coalition led by Social Democrat prime minister Vladimir Spidla, support implementing the so-called "double majority" system, outlined in the latest draft of the European Constitution.

For the main Czech opposition party, the centre-right Civic Democrats, the "double majority" system is anathema. The party's top candidate for the European Parliament, Jan Zahradil, explains why:

"It abandons, once and forever, a system of so-called 'digressive proportionality' and instead establishes a 'population principle', which, of course, is much more favourable for big states in the European Union and it reduces the power of smaller or small states. So this is, in my opinion, the main bottleneck towards [adopting] the European Constitution."

Under the proposed system, a majority of member states representing a majority of the EU population must vote "yes" in order for a proposal to pass. It would also no longer be possible for individual states to block EU decisions. The system would reinforce the weight of countries with larger populations.

One "double majority" ratio now under consideration, would require the support of "50 per cent plus one" of the 25 EU member states, representing 60 per cent of the total EU population, for a decision to be taken. A "no" vote from the United Kingdom, Germany and France, for example, would be enough to form a blocking minority.

Mr Spidla's government is hoping to notch up the ratio to at least 55 per cent of member states. Spain, meanwhile, has suggested the population bar be raised to 66 per cent. Both moves would make it much easier for small and mid-sized countries to block decisions, although not as easy as it was before the EU enlargement.

Regardles, all dual-majority schemes would alter the power distribution implicit in the voting scheme of the Nice Treaty, which paved the way for the enlargement of the EU, and reduce veto power.

And for Mr Zahradil, whatever the formula, "double majority" voting would be a step backwards.

"Any such ratio is worse for the Czech Republic. We still keep on sticking with the current status quo and the number of weighted votes that were guaranteed to use by the Nice Treaty and by our accession treaty to the European Union. I don't see why we should agree with a reduction of our power in the European Council. The government should insist on keeping the current status quo, which means 12 weighted votes in the Council for the Czech Republic."