In April 2023, the member countries of the European Union (EU), led by Germany and including France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Finland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Slovenia, came together to announce a new decision. The announcement pertained to a request for changing the procedure of decisions made within the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the EU. It involved a shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting, and it was stated that a group would be established to promote this transition. This group was named the “Friends Group”.
The CFSP of the EU is built upon the goals of preserving peace, strengthening international security, promoting international cooperation, enhancing democracy and the rule of law, and developing and consolidating respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In line with all these objectives, it was envisioned that instead of individual efforts by the 28 member states of the EU on the global stage, collaboration with other countries within the EU would lead to greater effectiveness. In accordance with this vision, these countries were encouraged to embrace the CFSP of the EU. However, this common foreign and security policy has occasionally clashed with and continues to conflict with the national foreign and security policies of EU member states.
The most recent event where we observed the conflict between national government policies and common EU policies was the Russia-Ukraine War. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the national governments of the EU came together to identify the necessary steps to be taken. Approximately 10 sanction packages were executed by the EU against Russia. The sanctions adopted by the EU were implemented, but the decision-making process experienced delays and occasional disruptions. In this regard, some national governments, particularly those who did not see sanctions against Russia as favorable to their national interests, played a role.
Therefore, the Friends Group advocates for a change in the decision-making procedure of the EU’s CFSP, using the example of the Russia-Ukraine War. The highest decision-making body within the EU’s CFSP is the European Council, consisting of the heads of state or government of the EU countries. Currently, most decisions regarding foreign and security policy discussed in this council require the consensus of all EU member states. If any member state dissents, it is not possible for any decision to be approved.
The new decision-making procedure advocated by the Friends Group is the qualified majority voting method. Under this system, ODGP decisions presented for voting in the European Council would require the approval of at least 55% of the member countries representing at least 65% of the EU population in order to take effect.
Another issue raised by the Friends Group and expected to be examined in detail is the concept of constructive abstention. Constructive abstention is a system designed to prevent a member state from blocking a unanimous decision by abstaining in Council voting. For example, Austria and Ireland have practiced constructive abstention in the sanctions imposed on Russia in order to maintain their traditional neutrality policies. This allowed the EU to provide military aid to Ukraine while allowing these countries to uphold their traditional policies.
The transition to qualified majority voting will improve the decision-making process within the EU and enable the EU to adapt more quickly to changes in the global context. This means that the maneuverability of the EU will increase, and it will prevent certain national governments from undermining the common policies of the EU for their own interests. Consequently, the international position and prestige of the EU will be strengthened. The Russia-Ukraine War clearly demonstrated the need for all these improvements within the EU.
Furthermore, the method change supported by the Friends Group should not be limited to the context of the Russia-Ukraine War. The EU has deployed missions in many conflict regions around the world through the national contributions of its member states, in line with the objectives of the CFSP. Decisions regarding current and future missions will be significantly impacted by the new procedure. Similarly, the European External Action Service (EEAS) serves as the EU’s diplomatic service and the diplomatic pillar of the CFSP. The EEAS engages in active cooperation with both the national governments of EU member states and international and multilateral organizations such as the UN. Therefore, the adoption of a more effective and efficient decision-making process will also enhance the importance of the EEAS.
In light of all this, it is evident that the responses provided by the EU to the increasing geopolitical challenges are being undermined by national governments prioritizing their own interests over those of the EU. Moreover, the rise of far-right and populist national governments in Europe is further destabilizing the common policies of the EU. Therefore, the continued practice of unanimous decision-making in the CFSP within the EU no longer appears to be a rational approach.
However, the qualified majority voting method also brings along certain challenges. For instance, countries with significant influence within the EU, such as Germany and France, will have a greater impact on the decision-making process. Similarly, there is a risk of factions forming around these influential countries. In fact, in areas where these two countries clash, there is a possibility of engaging in a power struggle.
Lastly, the rotating presidency of the European Council will transfer to Spain in the second half of 2023. It is expected that the issue of the procedural change was also addressed in a recent meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Germany and Spain, who are members of the Friends Group. With the transfer of the presidency to Spain, it can be anticipated that concrete steps will be taken regarding the proposed change.