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The Council of the European Union

INTRODUCTION

The weighting of votes in the Council of the European Union is one of the "leftovers from Amsterdam", i.e. one of the questions that the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), which culminated in the drafting of the Treaty of Amsterdam, did not resolve. There are two main reasons why the reform of this system is essential before the new Member States join.

The first stems from the protocol on the institutions with regard to the enlargement of the European Union (EU), which was annexed to the Treaties by the Treaty of Amsterdam. This protocol links the question of the weighting of votes to the size of the Commission. The Member States which up to now had two national representatives in the Commission wanted to obtain some compensation for the change in the composition of the Commission resulting from enlargement.

The second relates to the fact that after the accession of the new Member States, most of which have a smaller population, the balance between the Member States for the purposes of decision-making in the Council might be affected if the old system of weighting votes were maintained. The Intergovernmental Conference examined various solutions, ranging from a weighting closely linked to the size of the population to a double simple majority system (majority of the Member States and majority of the population of the Union). A compromise was finally found in a new weighting of votes which increases the number of votes for all the Member States while giving correspondingly more votes to those with the largest population.

THE NEW DEFINITION OF QUALIFIED MAJORITY

The aim of the Treaty of Nice was to prepare the European institutions for the forthcoming enlargement of the EU. The Treaty therefore contains provisions that are adaptable to the various possible scenarios because, at the time when it was concluded, it was not yet possible to predict exactly which candidate countries would be capable of completing their negotiations and at what date the enlargement would come into effect (in one or more waves).

That is why the Treaty of Nice contains two provisions:

  • Article 3 of the protocol on the enlargement of the EU introduces a new definition of qualified majority which includes the new weighting for the 15 current Member States, to come into effect from 2005.
  • Two Declarations (Nos 20 and 21), annexed to the Treaty of Nice by the IGC, set out the common positions which the Member States are to take in the accession negotiations on the question of the weighting of votes.

A decision of the Council is adopted if it receives a given number of votes, expressing the favourable vote of the majority of the members of the Council. The Treaty of Nice stipulates a new weighting of votes within the Council for the 15 current Member States. A total of 237 votes were allocated to the 15 Member States, with a qualified majority threshold set at 169 votes.

However, as accession will take place before 1 January 2005, the date set by the Treaty of Nice for the application of the new weighting, this provision has been replaced by the Accession Treaty, which contains a provision governing the weighting of votes in the Council for the 25 Member States, based on the Treaty of Nice and applicable from 1 November 2004, after a transitional period from May to October 2004.

THE DEMOGRAPHIC CLAUSE

The new definition of qualified majority comprises another innovation. A paragraph is added to Article 205 of the EC Treaty, specifying that, at the request of a member of the Council, a check will be made, when a decision is taken by qualified majority, to ensure that this majority represents at least 62 % of the population of the Union. If that is not the case, the act in question will not be adopted. This provision is additional to the other conditions needed for the adoption of an act (qualified majority of votes and majority of Member States). It will guarantee that decisions taken in the Council will be representative for the majority of the Union's population.

WEIGHTING OF VOTES WITH 25 MEMBER STATES

The accession negotiations with ten candidate countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia) were concluded in December 2002 in Copenhagen. The Accession Treaty, signed on 16 April in Athens, applies and, on certain points, amends some of the provisions of the Treaty of Nice:

  • the date of entry into force of the new weighting of votes is brought forward to 1 November 2004 to coincide with the taking of office of the new Commission;
  • each acceding country has the number of votes laid down in Declaration No 20 of the Treaty of Nice;
  • the qualified majority threshold (the new number of votes representing the majority of the members of the Council) is set, in accordance with Declaration No 21 of the Treaty of Nice, at 232 of the 321 votes, i.e. 72.3% (see table below);
  • the weighting scheme for the transitional period between 1 May and 31 October 2004 has been modelled on the old weighting, giving the Member States between 2 and 10 votes in the Council. The qualified majority threshold is set at 88 out of 124 votes for this transitional period.

Consequently, as from 1 November 2004, a Council decision is adopted when it receives at least 232 votes out of 321, reflecting the majority of the members of the Council, subject to the demographic clause.

TABLE OF ALLOCATION OF VOTES

Member State

Votes allocated

Germany

29

United Kingdom

29

France

29

Italy

29

Spain

27

Poland

27

Netherlands

13

Greece

12

Czech Republic

12

Belgium

12

Hungary

12

Portugal

12

Sweden

10

Austria

10

Slovakia

7

Denmark

7

Finland

7

Ireland

7

Lithuania

7

Latvia

4

Slovenia

4

Estonia

4

Cyprus

4

Luxembourg

4

Malta

3

Total

321

Qualified majority

232

WEIGHTING OF VOTES AND FURTHER ENLARGEMENT

Declaration No 20 adopted when the Treaty of Nice was signed also set out the common position that the Member States are to take for the accession negotiations with Romania and Bulgaria. It provides for 14 votes for Romania and 10 votes for Bulgaria. The total number of votes would thus be 345. Pursuant to Declaration No 21, the qualified majority threshold after these two countries' accession will therefore have to be 255 votes out of 345, i.e. 73.91%.

SUMMARY TABLE

Article

Subject

EC Treaty

205

Provisions on voting in the Council and the weighting of votes

Treaty of Nice - Protocol

Protocol on the enlargement of the European Union: Article 3: Provisions on the weighting of votes with 15 Member States and on the demographic clause

-

Treaty of Nice - Declarations

Declaration No 20: Common position of the EU for the accession negotiations - Table of weighting of votes in a Union with 27 Member States

-

Declaration No 21: Qualified majority threshold and number of votes of the blocking minority in an enlarged Union

-

Accession Treaty

Articles 12 and 26 of the Act of accession

-

Last updated: 13.09.2007
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