The Union's decision-making procedures
In its draft, the Convention proposed a completely new system of qualified majority voting known as "double majority": the majority of Member States and the majority of the population of the Union. This issue was at the heart of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), which approved the principle proposed by the Convention, adding certain amendments to facilitate the transition to the new system.
The new system introduced by the Constitutional Treaty can be considered a real revolution in Council decision-making. Firstly, the system has been made much simpler. The weighting of votes, once subject to long and difficult negotiations between Member States, will be repealed. Instead of the three criteria required until now for a qualified majority (threshold of weighted votes, majority of Member States and 62% of the population of the Union), just two criteria will apply: a majority of the Member States and of the population of the Union.
The Constitutional Treaty therefore breaks with the weighting of votes in the Council and replaces it with a simple, effective and flexible system.
Council decision-making is facilitated as a greater number of combinations of Member States can constitute a qualified majority than under the system created by the Treaty of Nice . In an enlarged Union, this is essential for the Union's smooth operation and ability to act.
Secondly, the system is flexible: it will avoid, during subsequent enlargements, long negotiations on the allocation of votes to Member States and the definition of the qualified majority threshold.
Thirdly, the new system takes into account the twofold nature of the Union - a Union of States and of peoples. The equality of Member States is respected as each one has one vote, whilst their different population sizes are also taken into account.
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Article I-25 of the Constitutional Treaty defines a new system of qualified majority voting. The old system allocating each Member State a certain number of votes has been abandoned in favour of a double majority system.
A qualified majority is now achieved only if a decision is supported by 55% of Member States, including at least fifteen of them, representing at the same time at least 65% of the Union's population.
The provision according to which a qualified majority must be supported by 55% of Member States, including at least fifteen of them, requires clarification: in a Union of 25 Member States, 15 States represent 60% of the total. However, in a Union of more than 25 States, this provision will lose importance: from the moment that the Union enlarges to 26 Member States, 55% of the total number of States will, mathematically, comprise at least 15 of them. This provision can therefore be seen as transitional.
Article I-25 specifies that these provisions also apply in cases where the European Council decides by qualified majority, in which case the President of the European Council and the President of the Commission do not take part in the vote.
The Constitution establishes the date for this new system to take effect - 1 November 2009, the date when the new Commission will be inaugurated following the 2009 European elections. Between 2004 and 2009, the current system provided for in the Nice Treaty will be applied. The Constitutional Treaty includes these provisions in the "Protocol on the transitional provisions relating to the institutions and bodies of the Union" annexed to the Constitution.
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In addition to the general double majority rule, specific clauses governing certain exceptions require clarification:
- cases where the Council is not acting on a proposal of the Commission or of the Minister for Foreign Affairs;
- a rule on blocking minorities;
- a specific transitional clause for narrow majorities.
Acts not proposed by the Commission
Firstly, where the European Council or the Council of Ministers is not acting on a proposal of the Commission or on an initiative of the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, the qualified majority is obtained with 72% of the Member States representing 65% of the population of the Union. The number of Member States required is therefore higher than in other cases.
To some extent, this provision already exists in the current treaties: where the Council acts without a proposal from the Commission being necessary (in particular in the areas of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters), the qualified majority must constitute at least two-thirds of the Member States (Article 205 of the EC Treaty and Articles 23 and 34 of the EU Treaty). The Constitutional Treaty takes up the idea underlying these provisions and slightly raises the threshold from two-thirds to 72% of Member States.
The blocking minority
Secondly, the Constitutional Treaty provides that a blocking minority must include at least four Member States. To understand the impact of this clause, one has to take into account the population sizes of the various Member States. Without this clause, it would be possible for just three of the four biggest Member States (Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom) to form a blocking minority: their populations together represent more than 35% of the Union's population.
This clause facilitates decision-making in the Council, as it makes it more difficult to form a blocking minority. It can be considered a safeguard clause against a hypothetical alliance of the "big" Member States. In practice, it is unlikely to be very important, as such clear divisions between "large" and "small" Member States hardly ever occur.
A specific transitional clause in the event of a narrow majority
Finally, a specific clause will apply in cases where a qualified majority has been very narrowly achieved, in other words where the decision has been controversial. The Constitution takes as its inspiration in this area the "Ioannina compromise", a formula adopted in 1994 which was used until the entry into force of the new weightings laid down in the Treaty of Nice. The Declaration of the Intergovernmental Conference, annexed to the Constitutional Treaty, contains a draft decision implementing Article I-25.
The aim of this decision is to facilitate the transition between the current system, established by the Treaty of Nice, of weighted votes allocated to the Member States and the new double majority system. It should be adopted by the Council on the date that the Constitution comes into force.
The decision provides that the Council will continue to discuss the adoption of an act if certain members of the Council so request. To make such a request, the group of members must represent:
- either three-quarters of the number of Member States necessary for the formation of a blocking minority, or
- three-quarters of the population necessary for the formation of a blocking minority.
This provision therefore applies only in cases where the qualified majority obtained is fairly narrow.
In these cases, the Council will do all in its power - within a reasonable period - to achieve a solution that caters for the concerns of certain Member States. The President of the Council, the Commission and the other members of the Council will provide all their support in the search for a broader agreement.
However, this request must not be to the detriment of any deadlines laid down in the Constitutional Treaty (for example if the Constitution provides that the Council must act within a certain time limit), in Union law or in an internal regulation of the Council. In other words, this decision does not constitute a power of veto.
In practice, this decision will probably have little impact, as the Council, in its daily work, always tries to achieve as broad an agreement as possible, and often finds a consensus without moving to a formal vote. The Ioannina compromise has been applied very rarely. This clause is thus an undertaking made by the Member States not to place Member States in a minority if broader agreement is possible.
The decision will take effect on 1 November 2009, the date of the introduction of the new double majority system, and will remain in force until at least 2014. After this date, the Council may repeal it by European decision, i.e. by a vote with a qualified majority.
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|I-25||Qualified majority||New rules|
|Protocol on the transitional provisions relating to the institutions and bodies of the Union||Weighting of votes in the European Council and Council of Ministers until 2009||Transitional rules|
The European Commission accepts no legal responsibility. The fact sheets make no claim to be exhaustive and cannot be regarded as an official interpretation of the Treaty text.