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Qualified majority voting (QMV)

Designed by the Treaty of Rome to be the principal method of reaching decisions in the Council of Ministers, qualified majority voting (QMV) allocates votes to member states in part according to their population, but heavily weighted in favour of the smaller states. The current allocation is set out in Appendix 4, from which it can be seen that Germany has one vote for every 8 million inhabitants whereas Luxembourg has one for every 200,000.

Few Council decisions now require unanimity other than in the EU's 'second and third pillars' - the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Justice and Home Affairs. The rest need 62 votes in favour out of 87, with 26 constituting a blocking minority. In practice, issues rarely go to the vote, as the predilection for consensus has fostered a barter culture, in which support is traded for concessions on unrelated matters. Nevertheless, the over-representation of the smaller states gives them great power. For example, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, with 28 votes, are able to protect the southern sunbelt interests without any other allies, and Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Spain, with 21 votes, need only one five-vote deal to secure their position as the Community's largest recipients of subsidies. Another way of expressing the point is that Germany, the UK and France, with over 53% of the EU's population, have only just enough votes to make up a blocking minority. With the addition of Italy and Spain, the five leading members have 79% of the population, but their 48 votes are still well short of the 62 needed to force a measure through the Council.

In the Common Market's early years, these discrepancies were overshadowed by a dispute which for a time nearly destroyed the Community. President Charles de Gaulle viewed the voting arrangements in the Treaty of Rome as an assault on sovereignty, imposed when France was weak (that is, before his time). In 1965, in protest against majority voting, France mounted a boycott on all Community business, lifting it only when the national right of veto was restored by the 'Luxembourg Compromise'. Although the Compromise was, strictly speaking, a breach of the Treaty, it held for over 15 years, paralysing all decision-making. In the early 1980s, however, Community law was reasserted, and the veto lapsed back into its Treaty role as a device for the more important issues, with QMV being used for day-to-day legislation and regulation.

The Single European Act of 1986 extended QMV across the whole single market programme, and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 incorporated it into education, health, the environment, economic and monetary policy and the implementation of certain joint decisions in home affairs. The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam continued the process, introducing QMV into such new areas as employment, equal opportunities, social policy, statistics and the implementation of joint decisions in foreign policy. By now its justification as a necessary mechanism to make the internal market effective had been superseded by the broader purpose of eroding the role of the nation state.

These developments, however, raised a question mark over the sustainability of an inequitable voting system. In 1995 three more relatively small states (Austria, Finland and Sweden) had joined the EU, further weakening the veto power of the largest countries. Spain and the UK were particularly concerned, and a compromise was agreed, lowering the blocking minority to 23 votes in normal circumstances. For a decade, Germany and France had adopted a somewhat superior attitude to such matters, confident that whatever the formal institutional arrangements the Franco-German alliance would be able to attain its purposes. But the proposed accession of up to twelve new countries, all poor and seven of them with very small populations, would make the EU virtually unmanageable in its existing form.

The Treaty of Amsterdam was supposed to produce a comprehensive set of institutional reforms, including a means of redressing the voting bias. In the event, the Treaty did not live up to that expectation. It did, however, contain a protocol agreeing that at the EU's next enlargement the more populous member states would surrender their right to a second commissioner, provided that they were compensated by a modification of the weighting of the votes in the Council 'whether by reweighting or by dual majority'. Several versions of dual majority have been canvassed. Common to all is that a majority both of states and of the populations represented by those states would be required for most types of decision, with unanimity being reserved for matters of the most fundamental national importance. The smaller countries, which are also over-represented in the European Parliament, the Commission, the Court of Justice and the European Central Bank, are perhaps entitled to object that the Treaty of Rome enshrined the principle of disproportion from the outset, based on the concept of the Common Market as a pact between sovereign, and therefore equal, nations. But that was a system for six countries, not 20 or more; in the end the Community's search for greater legitimacy is bound to lead to a closer alignment of votes with populations. (See Appendix 4.)

Quota-hopping

The practice of registering a fishing vessel in another EU member state in order to take advantage of that state's quota - that is, its catch permitted under the Common Fisheries Policy. Quota-hopping, although legal under Community law, was banned in the UK by Parliament in 1988. The overruling of the Act by the European Court of Justice gave rise to heart-searching in the UK, where the implications of the primacy of EU law had not previously been grasped.

 
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