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Key Lisbon Treaty clause comes into force in Council of Ministers

Whilst all eyes were on the new Commission, one of the Lisbon Treaty’s ratchet clauses came into effect on the 1st November in the Council of Ministers affecting the way votes are weighted between the larger and smaller member states.  Whilst this sounds arcane, it effects are far reaching for the vast majority of EU law that is now adopted now by co-decision, meaning majorities can outvote minorities. The voting weights of different member states is about the most political issue in the makeup of the EU: it is about who rules the roost, the small or the big member states?
Normally the Council needs 74% (260 of 352) of ‘weighted’ votes for a qualified majority decision. The ‘big four’ (Germany, France, UK and Italy) had 29 votes each, Spain and Poland 27, and so it went down all the way to the smallest member states, Malta and Luxembourg, with three votes each. If you did the maths, the conclusion was that a Maltese citizen’s vote carried around 20 times as much weight as a German one. If you thought that that was not fair, well, the negotiators of the Lisbon Treaty back in 1999 agreed with you. So on the 1st November the new decisionmaking rule took effect that now requires that 65% of the EU population is required for a qualified majority in Council. (the so called double majority)
The first is that it has become easier for Council to agree. The number of possible country coalitions to pass the ‘65% of population’ threshold is now six times higher than to pass the ‘74% of votes’ threshold meaning that it has gone from 2% to 12% of theoretically possible country coalitions. This is an immense change meaning that the Council has essentially become six times more decisive.
Secondly, and politically more interesting, the change has given vastly more power to big countries, especially Germany, because of the ‘65% of population’ criterion. Germany’s 81 million people means its weight in the Council has almost doubled, from 8.2% to 15.9%. The weight of Italy, France and the UK also increased from 8.2% to 12-13%. As 1st November, the ‘big four’ countries together have 54% instead of 33% of votes. The ‘new 13’ member states that acceded since 2004 also used to have a third of votes, but saw that shrink on 1st  November to only a fifth – 21%. 
In an attempt to balance things a bit for the smaller member states, and to reassure some of our readers, the majority required in terms of number of countries increased from ‘over 50%’ to ‘over 55%’. But since in practice this only means approval by 16 instead of 15 member states it is hardly significant.
It is all quite dramatic. The 13 ‘new entrants’ were on par with the old ‘big 4’ but are now dwarfed by them. The 22 smallest member states had 52% of the vote, but now have only 30% left.  And what about blocking minorities? They now require at least four member states representing over 35% of the population, preventing a situation where just three big member states could block resolutions. For example, the four countries of the 'Visegrad group' (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) had almost two-thirds of a blocking minority (58 of 92 required Council votes), but now they are down to a bit over a third (64 of 179 million people). They will find it more difficult to block or water down energy and climate bills.
Amazingly enough, smaller member states can now wield more influence through the European Parliament than through Council. As said, the 22 smaller member states have only 30% of votes in Council, but they have 44% of seats in the Parliament – historically the institution with most the most proportional representation.
That Council will dominate more than ever before, because it can both agree and block more easily than before. And crucially, in the Council, the big boys – and especially Germany – now really rule the roost. Arguably the new rules go too far; there is hardly anything left to protect small member states from the big ones. They need to be very careful in today’s jittery context not to abuse that power.
Specifically for the EU’s energy and climate policy, it probably is quite good news, since most of the time the big four EU countries are better than average on these issues and the power of the Visegrad countries to block is much reduced.


Issue 37