Audience question: How can the veto on EU decisions be avoided?
28 May 2024 - 12:00
Source: ©Clingendael

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How can the veto on EU decisions be avoided?

In the run-up to the European Parliament elections, Clingendael experts answer questions from our online audience. In the fourth episode, LJ Brinkhorst asks: 'How can the veto on EU decisions be avoided?' Saskia Hollander answers.


Saskia, could you first explain what the veto means and when it comes up in Brussels?

Sure. A veto is only possible for certain issues where national interests are high. For these issues EU member states take decisions based on unanimity. This means that all member states must agree. These include issues such as foreign policy, defence, enlargement of the European Union, finance and amendments to treaties. 

The veto right is already limited. Can you explain why?

Yes, particularly since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the list of issues for which member states can use their veto right has narrowed. The EU now takes most decisions by qualified majority. This means that at least 55% of member states must agree. With the current 27 member states, that's 15 countries. Together, they must represent at least 65% of the total population of the European Union. 

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Why do some want to limit the veto further or abolish it altogether?

There are voices calling for the abolition of the veto right for decisions in the fields of foreign affairs, security, and EU enlargement. This has to do with the desire to act more quickly. This way, the European Union enhances its geopolitical power. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the desire to act more swiftly has grown. Currently, one country often blocks important decisions.

Can you give an example?

Hungary, in particular, is often obstructive. For example, the Hungarian veto weakened the boycott of energy from Russia. Hungary's stance is partly due to the European Commission's actions against the country because the government undermines the rule of law and democracy. The Commission is therefore blocking funds for Hungary. By threatening with vetoes, Hungary attempts to get those funds released. And that strategy appears to be quite successful. It also used its veto to block an aid package for Ukraine. In addition, the Hungarians threatened to veto the opening of EU accession negotiations with Ukraine, but ultimately did not use it.

Of course, it's not just Hungary that makes use of the veto right. The Netherlands also often employs it in negotiations. For instance, in matters concerning EU enlargement and accession to the Schengen Area.

The argument for abolishing the veto right is that such vetoes slow down decision-making. Advocates argue that for the security of the EU, it's important for the union to be able to act swiftly.

Is abolishing the right of veto a way to achieve that goal?

The question remains whether the security and strength of the European Union indeed grow by abolishing the veto right. Vetoes also safeguard the specific interests of member states on crucial matters. And those interests can diverge in a union of 27 member states. If those decisions are made by qualified majority, individual countries can be outvoted. If this happens regularly, it could backfire. The subjects requiring unanimity are politically sensitive after all. And on those matters, you don't really want to sideline national parliaments. Countries could still sabotage the implementation of decisions they strongly disagree with. Additionally, losing the veto right can fuel or reinforce anti-EU sentiments. Public debates on EU and foreign policies will further polarise.

The question remains whether the security and strength of the European Union indeed grow by abolishing the veto right. 

Is it complicated to partially or entirely abolish the veto right?

That would require a treaty amendment. Many member states are not keen on that. One possibility to abolish the veto on foreign policy is to use a bridging clause. These are called passarelle clauses. They allow you to replace parts of decision-making based on unanimity with decision-making based on qualified majority. This could apply to decision-making on the EU’s external action and the Common Foreign and Security Policy; yet, decision-making in the field of Defense Policy is excluded. You don't need a treaty amendment for this. But even that is not easy. Adopting such a clause guessed it...unanimity.

Are there any other alternatives that have been put on the table?

For example, it is suggested to introduce a super-qualified majority for certain decisions. Instead of 55% of member states, 72% would then be needed. That means 20 countries instead of 15. Another option is to provide for an emergency brake procedure when applying a qualified majority, or super-qualified majority. Countries that are outvoted can then pull that brake in the event of really major objections, and ask for a decision to be reviewed.

Recently, we also saw the possibility of abstention.

Yes. An alternative to abolishing vetoes is to make greater use of constructive abstention. This means that countries that actually want to veto simply do not vote along. That way, those countries do not stall decision-making, but they also do not have to do something that goes against their interests, and which could lead to criticism at home. In fact, Viktor Orban's walking out - when voting on opening accession negotiations with Ukraine last December - is an example of constructive abstention. The question, of course, is how often you can do such a thing.

Another suggestion is to bundle different abolitions of vetoes. Finally, it is proposed to phase out the veto right, starting with decision-making on less controversial issues. The problem with this, however, is that the very topics where unanimity applies are controversial. Some countries want to abolish vetoes on foreign policy but not on EU enlargement, and vice versa. Yet other countries want to do away with the veto right on finances. These could be traded against each other.

My expectation is that the veto right will continue to exist for some time. 

How do you see the future of the veto right?

My expectation is that the veto right will continue to exist for some time. Simply put, it's not possible to abolish the veto right unless all countries agree to this. And as mentioned, it could be argued that abolishing vetoes might create more difficulties than it might solve. Although vetoes can complicate decision-making, they also provide incentives to reach consensus. They lead to compromises that are broadly supported by the member states. That, too, is the strength of the European Union.


Part 5 will be published soon with another audience question. Read the earlier parts on our European Elections 2024 platform. Stay informed via our newsletter.