Frustrated by Its Own Response to Russia, Europe Rushes to Undermine Itself

MUNSTER, GERMANY - OCTOBER 10: The Flags of Germany, the European Union and the NATO (Nort
Getty Images

The principle of unanimity drives Eurocrats mad because it is a massive check on their power and they want to see it abolished, as end-of-year remarks by EU boss Borrell illustrate, but without it, it remains questionable whether their prized Union would survive.

The massive preoccupation of those at the top of the European Union with increasing their own power and massively expanding the size of the European Union eastwards into former Soviet states was laid bare in remarks by the bloc’s Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell, who is one of many to question one of the baked-in features of the bloc that has allowed the union to survive so far.

In certain key areas for the European Union — like foreign affairs policy — the rule of unanimity rules, meaning every single member state has to agree with a policy for it to be official, effectively giving every single member state a powerful absolute veto. This has been incredibly important in allowing the Union to absorb small and less well-off nations, as they have been reassured that their voice in the Council carries exactly the same authority as the handful of large, wealthy nations which otherwise run and bankroll the union.

This has real advantages — as well as reassuring small states their voice will be heard and they won’t simply be steamrollered by the big players once they’re inside, it also lends weight and credibility to European negotiating positions abroad as it is clear to all that they have strong support. While the principle dates back to the earliest days of European federalism with the tiny Benelux nations (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) agreeing to link up with their huge neighbors (France and Germany), it remains relevant to expanding the union today as most remaining potential expansion for the European Union is with small, poorer states who will want to be reassured in this way.

The problem, though, is the unanimity rule frequently frustrates the more grandiose plans of Eurocrats. Hungary’s willingness to deploy veto to prevent the European Union from moving in directions it believes are harmful to itself and the wider continent has gone from causing frustration in Brussels to creating a pathological hatred for Viktor Orban and his nature among European federalist true believers.

While kicking Hungary out of the EU has been discussed, a more popular approach among top EU thinkers appears to be abolishing unanimity instead, thereby keeping those truculent small nations in the family while ignoring their wishes when it comes to doing what Berlin and Paris want. Speaking to a conference in Italy on Friday, Josep Borrell outlined the common view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had revealed how Europe needs reform because the constitutional glue that binds the small states to the large — unanimity — means decision-making can be slow.

He said: “Maybe this is the moment in which we have to look at the danger coming from a great power which threatens our democracy, which threatens Europe itself, not only Ukraine. And if we don’t change course rapidly, if we don’t mobilise all our capacities, it will let Putin win the war in Ukraine… I think our project will be very much damaged.”

Borrell, asked rhetorically whether Europe was “really ready to do what it takes” before reflecting: “We are not a state. We are not even a federation of states. Our foreign policy and security policy is being determined by unanimity”.

Europe should reform, Borrell, who had also cast venom upon democracy in his views on opposition political ideas in the forthcoming European Parliament elections in 2024, argued. Combining his ideas about making the Union more powerful at the expense of member states while also talking about enlargement of the EU, he continued: “Frankly speaking, I cannot imagine how the European Union can work at 37 [members] with the unanimity rule. I know how difficult it is with 27, I cannot imagine it at 37 with the unanimity rule.

“With the enlargement that is on the table because we are a magnet that attracts states and attracts people… this is something that is a fact, everybody wants to become a member of the European Union. There are ten states queuing, and many others would like to.”

The talk of “many” more than 10 potential member states by Borrell deftly illustrates the enormous ambition felt at the top of Europe to push the union radically eastwards, well beyond Ukraine and the Black Sea and into the former Soviet States of the Caucasus.

Indeed, there are at presently several states that could be said to be potential EU member states. Most discussed is Ukraine — partially occupied by Russia and engaged in a hot war of liberation with billions of dollars of EU and NATO backing — and many of the others at a similar stage of negotiation are in the Balkans, including Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, and Moldova, which is also partially occupied by Russia.

To reach ten, also to be considered are candidates Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia which is again like Ukraine in being partially occupied by the Russian Federation. The final two to make ten are Kosovo, which is considered a potential candidate, and finally, Turkey, which was once considered a serious candidate for membership but whose process has now been frozen for years. Discussion of Turkey entering the EU was considered sufficiently serious and it became a point of contention in the United Kingdom in the runup to the Brexit referendum in 2016.

As for the “many” others Borrell spoke of, only a handful of other countries remain that are eligible under EU rules to become members that aren’t already on that escalator. Among them are the former Soviet states of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, east of the Black Sea, EEA members Norway and Iceland, and even Russia and Belarus themselves.

As things stand, the European Union is in fact already moving to get away from unanimity, believing replacing it with a qualified majority vote will be enough to maintain safeguards and keep members happy. There is already a working group of members who want to change — Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovenia, and Spain — and it is perhaps natural that the largest nations in Europe,, Germany and France, are the biggest backers as they stand to gain the most in terms of power in the European Union.

But here’s the catch: that veto safeguard for Europe’s smaller, newer members is still in place, and applies to major constitutional change, like abolishing the unanmity veto. Would nations like Greece or Hungary really be the turkeys voting for Christmas to abolish their own veto?


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.