The tyranny of unanimity voting is allowing the tail to wag the dog

Europe Letter: Some member states feel beholden to foreign powers above and beyond the solidarity that should be due first and foremost to EU partners

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson speaking to the press before   a meeting of EU foreign ministers  in Brussels on Monday, March 19th. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson speaking to the press before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, March 19th. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

 

When EU foreign ministers met on Monday the UK, in the form of foreign secretary Boris Johnson, turned up to look for a bit of solidarity over the Salisbury attack.

Here was a member state under attack and a clear breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Should have been no problem. Except that Greece decided, as they say in American football, to run block for the Russians.

Unanimity is required when foreign policy is discussed, and there was no way Athens was going to accept that the evidence against Moscow was “watertight”. So the EU statement pulls its punches.

As it happened, ahead of the same meeting the Swedes had been so angered by obstruction by one state of a human rights declaration that they had begun to canvass a joint letter reminding member states of their obligation to uphold basic principles of human rights. It did not emerge, but may yet.

There have been similar rows over agreeing, for example, EU priorities for human rights in multilateral fora – Greece and the Czech Republic, the holdouts.

In July 2016, Hungary and Greece fought hard to avoid a direct reference to Beijing in an EU statement about a court ruling that struck down China’s legal claims in the South China Sea.

“For the first time ever, in June 2017, the EU failed to make any statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council,” an internal commission paper on voting at the Foreign Affairs Council notes, “after Greece blocked a common statement that would have criticised China’s human rights record.”

In March 2017, Hungary derailed the EU’s consensus by refusing to sign a joint letter denouncing the reported torture of detained lawyers in China. Hungary also blocked a joint statement on the US plans to re-site its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

Thwarting consensus

What all these cases have in common are attempts by individual states to thwart what would otherwise be an easy consensus among member states and to provide cover for foreign powers to which, for one reason or another, they feel beholden above and beyond the solidarity that should be due first and foremost to EU partners.

“It remains noteworthy,” Politico quotes from the commission paper, “that the decision was correlated with a large Chinese investment in Greek ports.”

The Chinese took over the bankrupt Piraeus port outside Athens and are involved in a slow-moving plan to build the Budapest-Belgrade railway link. Hungary has been cosying up to China similarly, and prime minister Viktor Orban has also repeatedly expressed sympathies with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose autocratic rule he admires .

Hungarian opposition papers say Orban has been telling his own people he is building a closer relationship with Russia to strengthen Hungary’s international standing. He thinks Hungary’s economy can profit from this connection, and he believes it also gives the country a better bargaining position vis-a-vis western powers.

For its part Russia has been using its cash to support far-right populist parties in Europe. EU sanctions policy over Crimea is now held hostage by the Greek and Hungarian leaders. In eastern and southern European states, where Beijing is encouraging state-led Chinese banks as well as state-owned enterprises to invest in EU members and accession countries, it is also effectively buying political support.

Screening

Current discussions in Brussels on creating a European investment screening mechanism, proposed in light of China’s strategic investments in Europe, will become a litmus test for the union’s ability to act decisively on China, write two German academics, Thorsten Benner and Jan Weidenfeld of the Berlin think tank GPP.

A coalition of countries, including Greece and the Czech Republic, they say, has already watered down the language of the European Council’s statement announcing the planned screening mechanism, which is scheduled for implementation over the course of 2018.

The truth is that bilateral interests and pandering to foreign dictators are making the formulation and enactment of a meaningful foreign policy by the EU increasingly difficult. In effect, the tyranny of unanimity voting is allowing the tail to wag the dog.

European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker has made the introduction of qualified majority voting in foreign policy – already used in the vast majority of EU decision-making – a priority in his final year. But, even if confined to specific areas such as human rights policy, it is unlikely to muster support from the member states who cherish their national veto.

Juncker suggests decisions on joint EU civilian missions and on sanctions, should also come under majority voting in order to avoid situations where “individual national economic interests . . . override the joint European interest in deploying its significant toolbox,” according to the commission paper.

The alternative is a perpetually weak foreign policy and one held hostage by foreign powers and their client states.

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