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EU: EMV -- An Idea That Could Boost Decision Making

  • Breffni O'Rourke

With the European Union's conference on its first constitution facing many difficulties, a leading European intellectual has come forward to offer a new way of running the enlarged union. He suggests a system of decision making based on what's called enabling majority voting (EMV). This concept seems to offer a solution to the key problem of how to harness 25 nations in one union. What is EMV?

Prague, 24 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union expands next May to 25 members, with the arrival of 10 accession countries mostly from Eastern and Central Europe. As that moment approaches, officials in Brussels are increasingly worried. Can the European Union smoothly incorporate so many new members all at once? Or will there be gridlock and institutional chaos?

An intergovernmental conference is now preparing a new EU constitution, but there are serious differences on key matters. And it's possible that when the constitution emerges, it will be too muddled by compromise to result in much extra efficiency.

At the heart of the problem lies decision making in the EU. The union is seeking to streamline its procedures, but any system that would allow decisive common action from a babble of 25 countries must by its nature override many dissenting views.

In the draft constitution, most EU policies would be adopted by a double majority of at least half of all member states, representing at least 60 percent of the bloc's population. That is called qualified majority voting (QMV). The results would be binding on all members.

This system is already used in the EU in a slightly different form. But it has many disadvantages, according to Stuart Holland, a British academic who has helped shape the EU's development over almost 40 years.

One disadvantage is that -- where member states are overridden in a QMV vote -- extremism could arise. Nationalists could stir up anti-European sentiment by saying that national democracy and national elections count for nothing in the EU.

Holland told RFE/RL that considerations like this have always discouraged member states from using the QMV power, and will continue to discourage them in the future. "There is an underlying reluctance by member states to impose, or employ, qualified majority voting, which could impose policies on other member states against their will," he said. "This is why it is not working. It is not actually being used."

Holland pointed out that governments whose objections are overridden under QMV might even lose popular support at home. "There is no need to override minority states. The point is that qualified majority voting could create difficulties for states with a coalition [government] or minority [administration], and these decisions do not have to be taken in this way," he said.

The present alternative is to fall back on seeking consensus -- but that slows decision making and often results in poor compromises.

What's needed, Holland said, is a new way of doing things that does not offend national democracy but at the same time carries the full authority of the EU. And that, he suggested, is a concept called enabling majority voting (EMV).

Unlike QMV, an EMV vote would bind only those states that vote for it. The minority would not be bound to follow the measure in question. This would ensure that parliaments and governments at the national level would not be undermined.

It would also dampen the constant acrimonious debate about whether the EU should integrate further toward a federal state, or remain a loose collection of sovereign states. As Holland put it, "What this [EMV concept] would enable is the construction of a federal Europe by consent, without binding the minority."

EMV would bring with it a "variable geometry" in which states combined on issues and policies that suit them, but do not adopt those they oppose. This would result in what Holland called a "multispeed Europe," but that has in some ways already emerged.

For instance, Holland notes that the most important decision of the European project since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 -- namely, the adoption of the euro single currency -- was supported by some, but not all, member states. The important Schengen agreement on border controls is likewise supported by only some members.

Holland pointed out that EMV would allow the EU to develop policies in key areas that are today beset by disagreement. "Everybody knows that Europe lacks a defense policy, a security policy. It is beginning to take peacekeeping initiatives. The point is that in this or other areas, like liberalizing agricultural trade, a decision should be possible whereby those states which wish to take an initiative reflecting the views of their electorate can do so, while those which do not at that stage wish to go along with it are not bound by the decision," he said.

Under EMV, a vote would be considered valid if supported by a majority of member states representing at least 60 percent of the population of the EU. Holland says quicker decision making without recriminations would be the result.

A certain level of unity would still be present in the EU through the "acquis communautaire," the thick book that binds EU members in a common network of standards, rules, and regulations. But here also, Holland suggests that a member state should have the power to request an EMV vote on any new item in the acquis. The idea behind that is that power should remain with the democratic national governments.

Holland -- who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Coimbra in Portugal -- is pushing the EMV idea at the level of European heads of state. The British-born academic has an illustrious past as one of the builders of European unity.

A graduate of Oxford University, Holland by his mid-20s was already an adviser to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s. He opened a dialogue with French President Charles de Gaulle that led to the French accepting Britain's second application to join the Common Market.

In the mid-1970s, Holland was a foundation theorist for the EU's economic and social cohesion policies. Later, in 1983, he chaired a panel that started a process leading to the eventual adoption of the Single European Act -- the first basic revision of the Treaty of Rome.

In the 1990s, he was instrumental in setting out the duties of the European Investment Bank and became an adviser to European Commission President Jacques Delors.