Friday, 9 October 2009

The Council voting calculator and the false image of an institution

At this moment, on the front page of the Council of the European Union website somebody has put up a short article linking to the "voting calculator".

This is a nice toy in which you can play around with the different weights of member states and see how this adds to different kind of majorites. It's nice for those who are not aware that the Treaties foresee different kinds of majorities and different voting weights of the member states.

However, taking a look at the public voting results of the Council, which I do from time to time, you notice that there are only rare times when member states do not vote in consensus.

In fact, as far as I can see from the outside, the Council usually plays the standard diplomatic game in which nobody wants to stand on other peoples feet, thus pushing for consensus even when majority voting could apply. The voting weights are thus just a shadow of power that can guide the negotiations, but their public relevance is low.

The voting toy also overshadows that a lot of the Council's work is done in diplomatic or administrative working parties and committees, where I expect that the voting rules are rarely applied (although due to the intransparency of the Council there is no way to prove that). And the calculator has no means to calculate the dynamics that dominate in there.

What I want to say is that the voting calculator is distracting from the actual working methods of the Council, creating an image that does only marginally represent the institution - and is thus not well suited for the Council's website.

PS.: If anyone working in the Council could prove me wrong, I'd be most glad to hear.


Insideur said...

Well yes, you're right. But I think the calculator in and of itself is a good thing. It allows people to understand one small aspect of the process here. Perhaps it deserves less prominence?

Julien Frisch said...

Yepp, although I still think it should come with an explanation that puts it into the context.

lorcan said...

Good point, and one that was often missed during the Lisbon campaign.

DOCM said...

Where a decision is taken other than on the basis of unanimity, the focus of attention is always on the "swing votes". Where the Council is acting on a Commission proposal (the majority of economically significant cases), the Commission will table a proposal as near as it can to what it thinks will achieve a qualified majority. This is, after all, its job. But what most observers miss, and which the Council website does not explain, is that the Commission can change its proposal at any time "as long as the Council has not acted" cf. Article 250.2 TEC. The Council can only adopt a proposal that is amended without the Commission's consent on the basis of unanimity.

As the proposal is debated and negotiated, the threshold for the necessary QMV may advance or retreat depending on the view the Member States take of it. The Commission can hint at changes to its proposal to attract more votes but having to take care not to lose an equivalent or more votes in the other direction.

It is this simple but fundamental arrangement that constitutes the core of the Community method. By the time a formal vote is taken, the negotiations will have been completed and, indeed, the vote may be simply pro forma, countries that have been placed in a minority usually negotiating some face-saving declaration or other that enables them to join the "consensus". But the political reality is that they have had to bend to the will of the majority.

The reason the system works is because the Commission is charged with protecting the general interest of the EU and this can reasonably be taken as being expressed by a qualified majority of the Council and the necessary majorities in the European Parliament.

The system of co-decision with the EP makes the system more democratic and transparent as the Council will usually be voting on positions that have to be negotiated with the EP. But the dynamic within the Council remains the same.

The Lisbon Treaty, if anything, strengthens the Community method as Article 17.2 states "Union legislative acts may only be adopted on the basis of a Commission proposal, except where the treaties provide otherwise". The Community method remains unchanged and will continue to be the motor of EU integrations since it came into existence under the Treaty of Rome.

Its operation remains subject to the control of the ECJ. Any Member State, or any of the institutions involved, for that matter, that considers that there has been a fault of procedure or that the adopted legislation breaches the provisions of the treaties can take a case before the ECJ.

The ready-reckoner for voting is simply a toy which, with the Secretariat's usual precision, captures every voting situation most of which seldom arise. The best advice for anyone attempting to use the system might be to pick a particular dossier and follow its progress through the co-decision procedure. That on hedge funds would be a suitably topical candidate.