EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

Brexit is finally underway. The next two years of negotiations will not only determine the relationship between the EU and the UK, but will also determine the future of the 27 remaining member states. Crucially, the absence of the UK in the EU will significantly change the balance of power in the European Council and the Council of Ministers, especially when regarding the Qualified Majority Voting procedure (QMV).

Prior to Brexit, the Big Three (Germany, France and the UK) formed a semblance of a modern-day Concert of Europe, with a precarious balance of power and interests that the other (smaller) member states were able to leverage to achieve their own goals. In a sense, the Big Three were allowed to lead as long as they disagreed enough to balance each other out. This was also the reason why the other member states accepted the Lisbon Treaty reforms to the voting procedure, which greatly increased the voting power of the largest member states. The middle-sized member states gave away some of their power in favor of efficiency, because they could rely on the disagreement between the Big Three on many issues.

This delicate balance of power has however become greatly upset by the departure of the UK. This is directly connected with the details of the voting procedure in the Council, specifically the blocking minority, which has to consist of at least 4 Member states representing 35% of the population. This kind of minority can normally only be achieved with the inclusion of one or two of the 4 biggest Member States. This was especially valuable to smaller member states whose interests aligned with one of the larger ones and gave them ample opportunity to bargain for their own interests.

There are several scenarios conceivable on what the new division of power would look, the most likely being the Franco-German axis dominating the decision making, since the other member states could do very little to stop a proposal from passing.

Italy, Spain and Poland would all have to agree on an issue to be able to form a blocking minority [1]. For Italy, now the third largest member state, this means a significant increase in power. But Italy is probably not destined to provide a counterweight, because it has been a staunch ally of France in the past few years: since Matteo Renzi took office, the two were on the same side of the vote 99% of the time. The second scenario would therefore have France taking a leading role in the EU over Germany, because it has important allies in Italy and Spain. Germany doesn’t have these kinds of constant alliances on many policy issues and will have to find more ad hoc support for its interests. This is not a new phenomenon, Germany has been on the losing side of council votes 42 times since 2009, against 3 times for France [2].

Where does this leave smaller member states? One interesting development was the outreach of the Benelux countries to the Visegrad and Baltic groups, trying to bridge the East-West divide that has been developing over the past few years. Both the Benelux and the Visegrad (except Hungary) countries were often aligned with the UK on various issues and thus lost an important ally. While this outreach may help to create a more cooperative and inclusive spirit between the groups, it is questionable whether they could feasibly form a block on more than a few issues. Politically, the Benelux are going in a much more liberal direction, whereas the Visegrad countries have more conservative inclinations, especially Hungary and Poland. More importantly, even if the blocks agree to disagree with France and Germany, their combined population only amounts to about 22%, not nearly close to the 35% needed for a blocking minority.

Under the current rules, the middle-sized member states have little choice but to follow either France or Germany. It is questionable whether this is the most efficient and inclusive way to help the European project move forward, as diminished power over decision making might add fuel to the fire of Euroscepticism in many countries.It is of paramount importance that France and Germany don’t fall for the temptation of abusing their new position, and keep the spirit of consensus and cooperation within the EU alive.

In this spirit, it might even be advisable to adjust the rules of the voting procedures to give the smaller member states more influence in the direction of the EU. Another way to address the imbalance is through the idea of Multispeed Europe, which would give the smaller member states the choice not to participate in policy development areas if they wish not to, and has the added value of (potentially) making the decision-making process more efficient.

Emiel Dijkman







[1] To see which countries can form a blocking minority and what the impact of Brexit means, the voting calculator is an interesting tool.

[2] See here.


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