Ursula von der Leyen hints at a fundamental change to the bloc
National sovereignty within the EU could be set for another downgrade. Murmurings of discontent about the bloc’s inability to act quickly on the international stage have persisted since Hungary’s refusal to sign up to sanctions on Russian oil. Now, plans are afoot to cut off such embarrassments at the root by removing member states’ right to veto legislation.
Speaking to reporters on Monday afternoon, European Commission President dropped a remark which could fundamentally alter the democratic calculus of the EU. She described the need for the bloc to dispense with the troublesome need for unanimity when deciding foreign policy.
“In foreign affairs, we really have to move to qualified majority voting,” von Der Leyen said, before saying that she was “deeply convinced” that the current decision-making system requiring unanimity “is not sustainable.” The ability of one member state to block a proposal is, she says, a problem which must be removed because “the world wants to hear a European voice.”
The statement comes days after calls for the removal of veto powers in EU fiscal policy too. Hungary’s veto of a proposal to implement a global minimum corporation tax last week led to more claims that Budapest is merely using veto powers to force concessions as Brussels continues to withhold its Covid recovery funds. In response, a group of MEPs have set up a petition calling for veto powers to be scrapped to “stop Orbán’s blackmailing of the EU.”
The EU will have a hard time pushing through the plan to switch to a qualified majority system. A convention involving heads of government would have to reach consensus for unanimity voting to be abolished, and Orbán can hardly be expected to shoot himself in the foot.
Still, von der Leyen’s open discontent with the current system is the clearest indication yet of the direction in which the bloc wants to go. The drive to change the rules is motivated partly by the humiliation of Orbán holding the bloc hostage over oil sanctions, but also by a growing awareness that accelerated plans for EU expansion will only introduce more geopolitical friction.
With EU candidate status set to be agreed for Ukraine and Moldova later this week, the EU is — at least theoretically — keen to admit states with a justifiably unbending view of international affairs. But this would present problems for decision-making based on unanimity, which often requires delicate compromise, the whittling down of objections, and the softening of hard-line stances until all member states give their consent to a given proposal.
Meanwhile, the EU’s renewed charm offensive in the western Balkans carries obvious geopolitical pitfalls. Candidate country Serbia remains deeply hostile to NATO and continues to resist imposing sanctions on Russia. As an EU member state, it would likely veto overtly anti-Russian policies. By removing the requirement for unanimity, the bloc would give itself the ability to nullify such ideological differences.
This would mark a fundamental change to what being an EU member state means. States would have to accept being swept along with the majority “European voice,” even when that voice runs contrary to their own perceived interests and international affiliations. By enforcing conformity, Brussels might become more powerful on the international stage — but many will see a further weakening of national sovereignty as too high a price to pay.