Study: Estonia could withdraw from unanimity voting in EU foreign policy

Foreign minister Liimets hosting the Treaty of Tartu 102nd anniversary lunch.
Foreign minister Liimets hosting the Treaty of Tartu 102nd anniversary lunch. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Researchers from the University of Tartu recommend that Estonia changes its current stance and starts advocating for the elimination of unanimity requirement in European Union foreign policy.

Researchers at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at University of Tartu have recommended the Estonian government support the transition to a qualified majority voting (QMV) system in EU foreign policy matters.

"The authors of the study express cautious support for a more extensive use of qualified majority voting (i.e. abandoning the requirement for unanimity) in the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)."

The government endorsed Estonia's current position on the topic of QMV in June of 2019, according to which, Estonia supports the continuance of the unanimity-based decision-making process in EU foreign policy matters that are vital to it.

Researchers note that the arguments in favor of abandoning unanimity and moving to the QMV include speed and efficiency in decision-making, such as in crisis response, a greater capacity to resist third-party influences, avoiding foreign policy paralysis, boosting the development of a common strategic culture, and better protection of the Union's common interests.

The study provides examples of how some states have impeded operational decision-making inside the CFSP.

In the fall of 2020, for instance, Cyprus blocked the application of sanctions against the Belarusian authorities in response to a fraudulent presidential election, allowing Alexander Lukashenko to remain in power for a sixth term.

In 2021, Hungary, one of the EU member states with the biggest Chinese investment and the best relations with Beijing, declined to support one joint EU declaration which charged Beijing with repressing democracy in Hong Kong.

Russia was not rapidly withdrawn from SWIFT, the international payments system, this winter and spring, after its troops invaded Ukraine, because Germany, Cyprus, and Italy would not immediately support an EU move to do so.

"QMV is also supported by its effectiveness in other EU policy areas," the researchers state. The EU's unanimity requirement only applies to foreign and security policy and taxation. This means that even countries that have not backed some decisions made in other areas are nevertheless required to carry them out.

The need to make the EU's foreign policy, which is sometimes cumbersome, clunky, and toothless at present, swifter, more effective and sharper is also cited as a cause for eliminating the unanimity criterion.

In a setting where the EU must respond to a diverse array of crises and faces serious security challenges, the need for a rapid and effective decision-making system has increased.

The report urges to take the issue of the transition to the QMV as especially pressing in the case of decisions regarding human rights and punishments.

The main arguments against abandoning the unanimity requirement are a reduction in the political weight of EU foreign policy decisions and an erosion of EU unity. Also the emergence of coalitions within the EU and the possible marginalization of some member states, i.e. a lesser involvement and influence of smaller member states, are important counter arguments, as well as the risk of internal politicization of the issue, the potential need for constitutional amendments and the risk of referendums.

The introduction of a majority vote in EU foreign policy, academics say, poses certain concerns for Estonia and other EU member states. "Euro-skeptics may see the abandonment of unanimity as a loss of sovereignty and an illegal act. Some member states would require to hold a referendum on the subject due to a constitutional mandate or political pressure."

The report's authors recommend that Estonian policymakers consider gradually integrating QMV into the CFSP areas in accordance with the guidelines of the Treaties and open up the space for a public debate.

This spring, eleven Estonian and four foreign specialists were questioned on this topic. "The interviews revealed that Estonian specialists are moderately in favor of a transition to the QMV. In contrast, the international experts were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the norm of unanimity," states the report.

Moving to qualified majority voting in the CFSP areas is not easy, study's authors say. Without modifying the EU Treaties, this is only possible through a unanimous Council vote, but there is insufficient support for this.

A decision is declared approved with a qualified majority if at least 55 percent of the member states (15 out of 27) representing at least 65 percent of the EU's population vote in favor. For a decision to be blocked, four member states representing more than 35 percent of the EU's population must vote against it. The QMV is now the most popular method of voting in the EU Council, which is made up of representatives from the governments of the member states. It is used in the ordinary legislative procedure, which is used to pass roughly 80 percent of all Union laws.

The study was commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu. Marko Mihkelson (Reform), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told ERR that the committee plans to launch a thorough discussion on the topic in the autumn and hold discussions on how Estonia's interests could be better protected through EU foreign policy.

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu commissioned this research. Marko Mihkelson, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told ERR that the committee intends to launch a comprehensive discussion on the matter in the fall and hold talks on how Estonia's interests would be best protected by EU foreign policy.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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