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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March, 2004, 14:30 GMT
EU voting row explained
As the EU's Irish presidency prepares to re-launch talks on a draft European constitution there are signs that compromise could be possible on the main sticking point - voting weights in the EU Council of Ministers.

The dispute led to the collapse of the last attempt to agree a constitution text at a summit in Brussels in December.

Poland and Spain on one side, and France and Germany on the other, insisted on conflicting voting systems.

VOTES AND POPULATION
Total number of votes: 321
Qualified Majority: 232 (72.3%)
Nice Treaty system becomes effective on 1 November 2004
Since then, there has been a general election in Spain, which will result in a change of government.

Incoming prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has said he wants to "accelerate" the adoption of the constitution and to mend ties with France and Germany.

Poland has also indicated a readiness to compromise.

The disagreement is over rules for majority voting that will come into effect in November this year, thanks to a decision taken at the Nice summit in 2000.

Most EU countries want to replace them in 2009 with a system that will make it easier for the Council to take decisions.

The problem has arisen because the EU believes big states deserve greater voting power than small ones.

In other words, Germany, with a population of 82.5 million, gets to wield more power in the Council of Ministers (which brings together ministers from member states) than Luxembourg, with its population of 453,000.

The Nice Treaty accordingly laid down voting weights for the 25 states that will make up the EU after enlargement on 1 May 2004.

The biggest winners were Poland and Spain, who came away with 27 votes, only two less than the big four - France, Germany, Italy and the UK.

This was despite the fact that their populations (38.6 million and 41 million respectively) are much smaller.

Simplicity

One drawback of the Nice system is its complexity.

A vote is deemed to have been passed (by qualified majority) when it has:

  • gathered 232 out of the total of 321 votes (72%)
  • is backed by a majority of member states
  • these countries represent at least 62% of the EU population

The EU draft constitution attempts to lower the barrier for a vote to be passed by getting rid of weighted votes and leaving two simple requirements:

  • the support of 50% of EU member states
  • these countries represent at least 60% of the EU's population

The first measure guarantees a measure of influence to smaller states, while the second works in favour of the larger states.

But Poland and Spain would lose their specially privileged position.

During last year's intergovernmental conference, both countries denied rejecting the proposed new voting system purely out of self-interest but became widely seen as the EU's new "awkward squad".

Poland argued that the system gives the big countries too much weight, and said it was acting on behalf of all the EU's smaller countries.

Germany, meanwhile, indicated it would answer stubbornness with stubbornness.

As the biggest net creditor to the EU budget, Berlin threatened to turn off the flow of cash to Spain, which is a big recipient of EU funds, and to Poland, which will be one of the biggest recipients for years to come.

One of the chief factors spurring EU states towards an early resolution of the voting row is that negotiations on the EU's budget for 2007-13 are about to begin.

If disputes over money and voting power are allowed to rage simultaneously it increases the risk of deep divisions emerging.

Ways out

What is the solution?

There are three possible areas for compromise:

  • the thresholds required for a vote to be passed - that is, the number of states and the proportion of the population
  • the start date for the new system
  • the method of switching to it

Germany has suggested that the thresholds for both the number of states and the proportion of the population could be set at 55%.

This would increase the power of the smaller states and would also prevent the "big three" of Germany, France and the UK (whose population is 44% of the enlarged EU) having the power to block decisions on their own.

The idea is reported to be acceptable to Poland.

Another possibility would be to delay the switchover to the new system for some years after 2009.

Other forms of bargaining are also possible. Carrots theoretically available to be held out include extra seats in the European parliament and promises of cash for regional aid.

A decision on the constitution must be made unanimously and then needs to be ratified in each member state - either by parliament, or in a public referendum.




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