Protection for small states or protection for autocrats? When particularly sensitive topics such as the Common Foreign and Security Policy, citizens’ rights, or EU membership are on the agenda at the summit meetings of the heads of state and government in the European Council, every decision requires the unanimous support of all 27 EU member states. This has the advantage that even smaller states can prevent a decision that could be to their disadvantage.

However, in recent years, the unanimity principle has come under fire. For example, after the veto of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister (who has historically been close to Putin), partly blocked and delayed sanctions against Russia and led to a weakening of proposed measures.

Citizens who participated in the Conference on the Future of Europe demanded the abolition of the unanimity principle in the areas of foreign, social, fiscal, budgetary, and sanctions policy. They suggested these decisions should instead be taken by qualified majority voting. What do you think of this proposal?

What do our readers think? You sent us YOUR questions and comments about unanimity and we forwarded them to a politician and an expert!

  • Hildegard Bentele is a German Christian Democrat MEP and former member of the Berlin House of Representatives. Among other things, she is a member of the delegation to the Conference on the Future of Europe.
  • Sarah Händel is a member of the federal board of Mehr Demokratie e. V., the largest non-governmental organisation for direct democracy worldwide.

First, reader Thorsten sent us this comment:

I think the unanimity principle has unfortunately often proved to be a problem in majority decision-making and then led to an unequal weighting of power for very few decision-makers. I would like to see this change in the future.

We forwarded Thorsten’s comment to democracy expert Sarah Händel. What would she say?

First of all, obviously there is a case for saying that even small states should be able to protect themselves and not simply be at the mercy of a majority, i.e. unanimity can protect minorities.

However, unfortunately, we see that it is not used this way in reality. Rather, it is often used in such a way – especially in recent times – so that a state simply maximises its power and tries to get as much as possible out of a decision, i.e. in reality, unanimity simply blocks an entire community from making progress out of egoistic self-interest, and not out of general good for an individual member state’s own population.

What about German MEP Hildegard Bentele?

With the unanimity principle we always wait for the slowest, and that has led to decisions not being made quickly enough. It has also led to things being mixed up that have nothing to do with each other in terms of content, so that if one doesn’t get something in one area then one votes against something in another area that is really not relevant.

So, I think that we have to go a bit further here. Qualified Majority Voting in the EU also has quite a high threshold to pass decisions; it requires 55 percent of the votes, which then also have to represent 65 percent of the population. So, that is already a relatively high hurdle. We could even raise it a bit more so that it is really out of the question that a single large member state then really dominates the decisions.

But, basically, I think transitioning [to a faster system of making decisions] is important right now, so I personally am a big fan of QMV also in Common Foreign and Security Policy, because we see now the Ukraine crisis demands very quick decisions. If a lot of countries want to go ahead and one country doesn’t, it can mean stopping everything…

Should unanimity in the EU Council be abolished? What speaks for and what speaks against the unanimity principle? And what other democratic reforms would be necessary to replace unanimity? Write us a comment and we will forward it to politicians and experts!

IMAGE CREDITS: Vincent VAN DOORNICK © European Union 2019 – Source : EP
Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Commission. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

22 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU-Reform Proactive

    Sorry No!

    • It would breach several former (‘casual”) undertakings to institute and retain the unanimity rule! It was meant to be “Law” at the time!

    • It will confirm the doubt held by many that the whole EU developmental process was flawed from day one.

    • The scrapping of unanimity and the adoption of a Qualified Majority vote will open the floodgates of unrestricted & easy decision makings by–

    • Many estranged heads of State under the influence of Eurocratic ‘USE fever’- who forgot they are supposed to represent a sovereign nation at home with an allegiance by oath to their Nation – not the EU.

    • It will probably guarantee that the 55% in the EU Council will easily be reached every time the need arises to advantage the pro-EU agenda- regardless of considerations of national interests and/or the electoral consent.

    The entrenchment and deepening EU Autocracy were made easy by another dangerous but careless decision! That’s how the EU project prospers- step by step.

    Please let’s remember “the “empty chair crises” from the 2nd of July 1965 when ‘fireside chats’ were the acceptable way to hold “Council meetings”!

    Quotes from history- forgotten by many of today’s experts & politicians:

    • In 1965 France announces it will not attend Council meetings due to disagreement with negotiations on the financing of the Common Agricultural Policy. The crisis is later resolved thanks to the 1966 Luxembourg compromise, which implements unanimity voting when major interests are at stake.*

    • On 9th Dec 1974 following the Copenhagen summit in December 1973, which made provision for summits to be held whenever necessary, the Paris summit of December 1974, hosted by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, creates the European Council. It was created with the intention of establishing an informal forum for discussion between heads of state or government.”


    “The Conference signified its agreement to retention of the unanimity rule for measures affecting the fundamental principles of professional organization (“Berufsordnung”) and for measures constituting a step back with regard to liberalisation of capital movements. “

    While the (current) European Council does not have the power to make laws, the question arises whether any decisions made by its early and ‘handful’ decision makers (PMs & Head of states) during their ‘informal meetings’ committing their countries to binding agreements= equal to making it binding law in their countries- to benefit the EU’s step by step legal or illegal? establishment.

    This exposes the whole political formation process over the last ~60 years as a flawed & illegal endeavour. It should/need to be tested, re-visited, restarted, and brought before the electorates once more.

    Despite an expected avalanche of objections to oppose such an idea.

    The easy way out would be to conveniently ignore & overlook the flaws of the past & push on regardless & as usual!

    It would be the political story of the century- the rise & fall of Supra Caesar and the 27 dwarfs!

  2. avatar

    The EU needs to be dismantled. The nations of Europe deserve and have the right to be Independent and make Independent decisions. The United States of Europe is a stupid communist concept to erode the populace’s votes

    • avatar

      That means you don’t know what communism means. Emigrate in Russia, China and even better North Korea!

  3. avatar

    Yes, it should. But it cant. Is it the greatest problem EU-institutions have to face? I would like more say from the people, more democracy – starting with better pr for what is already possible.

    • avatar

      Yes, we can!
      Hungary deserves to be sanctioned for the role they play to undermine EU’s interests in favour of the brutal, undemocratic regime from Kremlin!

    • avatar

      I agree. On several occasions Orban lacked respect for common law and human rights. He does not behave as if he cared for decisions taken in Brussels. Yet making it a majority vote would turn the Union into an economic alliance. Would this not lead to an even stronger domination of decision making by Germany and France? At any moment any state could opt out and say that they did not vote for a decision. Then what? How make the abide by it? The political trick we did not see through yet is, how to achieve both the equality of states and of the European population. The latter would ask for a majority vote while the first would split the Union into randomly connected short lived interests.

    • avatar

      These kind of selfish leaders cannot split EU! They will just create problems to themselves and unfortunately to their people! EU stay strong together!

    • avatar

      oh, I sure hope we do stay together. Following daily interests could never lead to solidarity which we see today. The EU is the most ambitious political experiment in history. And for me the only one which lives up to the challenges of our time. It is true that being an outsider or better: Being a splitter leads to great problems. Unfortunately this is not a political way which throws the leaders out of government. Hungary is long in trouble and Orban keeps winning elections. The sanctions are pitifuly weak and undecided. The UK decided to leave for good and it is a long time coming until they will be happy with this decision. Some time after Scotland becomes a member, is my guess. Funny, it is possible that the British king will be ruler of one country inside and one outside of the EU. I am curious to see how that will go down. Bonny prince Charlie revised.

  4. avatar
    JT HK

    Viktor Orban has won overwhelming support of his own country, he is representing the Hungary people not himself. It is wrong for EU to blame Viktor Orban and against the principle of democracy. EU has shown the tyranny of majority, a very bad demonstration of democracy. Just let Hungarians alone. Those country wants to sanction Russia, they can continue but do not find fault and blame Hungary.

  5. avatar
    JT HK

    It is because foreign policy is sensitive and detrimental to independent states, it is therefore cannot handle in unanimity. Go on if other member states want to sanction Russia, they are sovereign states. EU membership has not demanded a complete surrender of state sovereignty.

  6. avatar
    JT HK

    Does Ursula von de Leyen not aware of the fact that people are accursing her to have betrayed Europe by submitting to America’s order. If she cannot secure citizens interest at least to have a warm winter, to have a job and not under threat of hunger and war, she has no right to demand submission of citizens, nor to accuse Mr Viktor Orban, a president elected by his people.

  7. avatar

    Yes, because it is used against what is best for EU! The same goes for NATO!
    A majority vote should be enough!

  8. avatar

    UE is a free willing union of nation, not under abuse and terror like so called “Federation” of Russia or “the country” Chine!
    It is a huge difference between willingness and oppression!

  9. avatar

    Unanimity gives too much power to persons which are not willing to accept group decisions that they don’t (fully) agree with. They prevent a group to make important decisions. Therefore, I think unanimity is not desirable.

    Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) is a better decision-making method, but QMV too has some serious downsides. Though QMV prevents veto power, the fact that 55% of the member states should approve, puts too much power in the hands of small member states, which could overrule a majority of voters. In Switzerland, a kind of QMV is also used by referendums: a people’s initiative could only pass, when the proposal gets both a majority of the votes countrywide (Volksmehr) AND a majority of the Cantons (Ständemehr).

    Recently, a people’s initiative (Konzernverantwortungs-Initiative) got more than half of the votes, but not in a majority of Cantons, so the proposal didn’t pass.

    In my opinion, the fundamental principle ‘one man, one vote’, is more important than one voice per member state, because the weight of your vote should not depend on where you live.

    Majority voting is so far as I know the only decision-making method which is neutral in a yes-no-question: in majority voting the threshold for a proposal to pass, is 50% + 1 vote and the same threshold applies to the rejection of a proposal. In unanimity voting, the threshold to block a proposal is one vote, while the threshold to pass a proposal requires all persons to agree.

    Minorities could therefore get a proposal passed more easier by majority vote than by unanimity rule.

    There are various means to protect minority rights: for example a two-third majority for very important decisions, an eternity clause (like Article 79 paragraph 3 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany) or international treaties that protect minorities.

    Hence, in my opinion it would be logical to make most decisions by majority vote and very important decisions by two-third majority.

    • avatar
      EU-Reform Proactive

      Hello Jelle,

      With due respect- your reasoning (and that of many pro-EU/USE supporters) originate from an assumption that the EU/USE project is very close to a USE sovereign status!

      Your suggestion would hold water once the EU has reached a nationhood stage, is recognised by the UN and the former 27 Nations held referenda to voluntarily abolish themselves. Why do you think the DE/EU continuously poses all these questions?

      Political innocence or deliberate?

      The quoted examples from the Swiss & German systems originated from pure sovereign national systems of governance- and cannot be transplanted lock stock & barrel into a new supranational political experiment- which the EU is.

      Once confronted, how would the voters of all 27 Nations (eventually) react? Surely, Switzerland would never give up their precious sovereignty & so wouldn’t many others as well! Who would?

      It would be much simpler, honest, and less time-wasting to pose this question straight forward and soonest:

      “How should a new supranational governmental system be structured to consider the political history & desires of all 27 former members to be just & fair represented- and merge their interests into a new USE & agree to finally abolish themselves?”

      Q: Is that real & ever achievable?

      A clear unanimous (‘unanimity’) referenda outcome would be essential. Alternatively, the “reduced” number of Members who reached unanimity could form a new unitary state called USE. The mentioned “2-speed solution” becomes reality.

      It may even reveal an uncomfortable truth- that the whole EU experiment was trying to hide its true purpose too long & crashed as a costly pipedream! Surely, close cooperation can be achieved differently as well!

      Nobody on earth can supra marketeer or mesmerise Nations to liquidate themselves to please a handful of political USE fanatics- whoever they are & from wherever they come!


  10. avatar
    Clint Eastwood

    Maybe they should not make decisions about things they can’t all fully agree?

    The European Economic Community was a great thing, then it went a bit wrong after the Maastricht Treaty, then the Treaty of Lisbon pushed it over the edge and now it’s basically a technocratic nightmare responsible for most of the heavily self inflicted harm to everything under the sun.

    I don’t think individual nation states are any better, but at least if there are some competition and decentralized policies the harm is more localized and the chances for emerging competence and emerging solution for present and future problems are significantly higher.

    Now it’s just a bunch of arrogant technocrats trying to boss everyone around, including nation states, let alone individuals. If it doesn’t change and the direction isn’t reversed soon, it’ll end up in a Soviet style tyranny and perhaps a heavy disintegration of necessary economic cooperation across Europe.

  11. avatar
    JT HK

    The EU Council can do whatever they want without abolishing unanimity. Because “unanimity” is the sole promise making the possible formation of EU. By holding the sovereign power and independence, member states might require to surrendering some sovereignty on issue that does not harm their own sovereign interest. If some EU member states want to commit suicide for MAGA, go on but do not force other independent states to do the sacrifice if they insist to putting interest of their nationals at top priority. Remember very well that EU has only citizens not nationals.

  12. avatar

    Yes. A simple plurality should suffice.

  13. avatar
    JT HK

    Unanimous support to US political proxy/puppets putting MAGA before European interest? No way, Hungary is the only member state refused to knee down and putting people’s well being above MAGA.

  14. avatar

    I agree with Sarah Handel. I think the veto has to be substituted by a juridical procedure. The judge, of a democratic kind, can weigh the interests and listen to the arguments and take a decision. With majority voting groupthink can lead to not taking important issues into consideration that are important for a particular country or even more than one country, and so could lead to the breakup of our Union. So I would say that we need to be creative here to make this chance.

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