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Majority Voting on Foreign Policy Decisions: A transitional approach needs parliamentary oversight

Point of View, 04.07.2023 Research Areas

 A group of EU member states want to change from unanimity to qualified majority voting in the Common Foreign and Security Policy. A more efficient CFSP should be implemented in a step-by-step approach overseen by the European Parliament, argues Annegret Bendiek.

The context of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) has changed quite dramatically since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Interdependence now often means vulnerability, and new systemic conflicts call for a policy of European sovereignty and open strategic autonomy. Strategies of “de-risking” against revisionist countries and an economic security strategy that reduces vulnerability have become important.

Improving the efficiency of foreign policy-making

The German government is currently working together with the governments of Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia and Spain within a Group of Friends on an initiative to extend qualified majority voting in the CFSP. It examines how the CFSP can be made more efficient within the framework of the Treaty on European Union (TEU).

CFSP decisions are taken unanimously in the Council of the EU, with few exceptions. A single member state has a veto right and can block decisions. Yet unanimity allows third countries to prevent the EU from adopting common positions by instrumentalising the economic dependencies of individual countries for their own interests. With a qualified majority, 15 of 27 member states – representing 65 per cent of the EU population – would have to agree. Qualified majority voting blocks the gateway for third countries to overrule and divide the EU.

Against this background, the “Group of Friends” suggests the use of constructive abstentions in the Council (Article 31(1) TEU); the use of qualified majority voting for the implementation of decisions on civilian EU missions that were previously adopted unanimously in the Council (Article 31(2) TEU); the use of qualified majority voting for the implementation of declarations by the High Representative on behalf of the EU; and/or the use of the passerelle clause under Article 31(3) TEU for individual subject areas to define them as policy fields where qualified majority voting applies. Similar to the CSFP, emergency brakes should safeguard “vital and stated” national interests.

An important source of the political deadlock can be found in the fear that qualified majority voting would overstretch the readiness of member states to agree on highly sensitive issues. Some worry that its introduction would expand the already existing cleavages between Eastern (new) and Western (old) member states. These concerns must be taken seriously. An EU that is deeply divided over issues of war and peace will face hard times in maintaining its internal cohesiveness under conditions of external threat. Qualified majority voting should thus be pursued in resilience policies, apply a variable geometry among a coalition of willing states and proceed by implementing a roadmap that is open to all member states.

A roadmap for qualified majority voting

The EU must reframe the idea of the EU as a normative power in the CFSP, based on principles such as the rule of law, human rights and democracy, and the objectives set out in Article 21 TEU. Instead, it would be better to reframe the EU’s actions as a resilience power that is based on these principles and able to withstand crises, uphold international law and adapt to new challenges. The concept would help to broaden our perception of pressing challenges and extend the limits of a technical or legal understanding of the CFSP. It is open to the inclusion of the new tasks mentioned, that is, the strategic compass of the EU, such as countering hybrid threats, combating disinformation and defending against cyber attacks.

The EU should learn from past successes with variable geometry as it was first introduced with the Schengen Agreement in the 1980s. Schengen allowed for free movement among a few states and has shown that a coalition of willing states can act as an avant-garde, inviting other states to join. They would meet before formal Council meetings and use qualified majority voting to adopt a common position. The European Parliament would be invited to all meetings and would have different rights of participation, depending on the subject (e.g. consultation, co-decision or even veto). The Gymnich – an informal foreign affairs council meeting – already exists and can be further developed as a flexible format. Formalisation of the Gymnich proceeds by integrating qualified majority voting and the European Parliament’s consultation rights.

The success story of the EU market could be replicated by focusing on technical issues first and moving on to politically controversial issues. The new European foreign and security policy should distinguish between technical and politically sensitive issues. It should start with a phase that combines the least controversial instruments and includes preventive, cooperative and stabilising policies. Having successfully cooperated in this first phase, member states could then move on to the second phase and expand their ambitions to include restrictive measures. In the final stage, coercive measures would be added to complete the range of powers. The timing of the transition from one phase to the next would be decided by the member states and the European Parliament.

The harmonisation of European foreign and security policy is the ultimate goal. It helps to think about the unthinkable: the Europeanisation of European foreign and security policy, including the full parliamentarisation of this policy. The more far-reaching the decisions, the greater the demand for parliamentary control should be. The inter-parliamentary assembly for the CFSP, which consists of the national parliamentarians and the president of the European Parliament, only has an advisory role. The Bundestag is often not sufficiently informed about policy implementation. The European Parliament and the national parliaments have no powerful oversight mechanisms in place to follow these informal arrangements in European foreign policy-making. But if the European Parliament actually had a say in the CFSP, it would strengthen the acceptance of a transfer of sovereignty to the EU level.


The author is a member of the Group of Friends initiative’s Academic Sounding Board.