Commission president calls to end unanimity in EU foreign policy decisions

The EU must be able to respond faster to geopolitical developments, and should end the unanimity requirement in foreign policy decisions, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Monday.

“In foreign affairs, we really have to move to qualified majority voting,” von der Leyen said in a small group interview arranged by her office ahead of this week’s European Council summit, at which heads of state and government are expected to grant official EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.

Von der Leyen was responding to a question from POLITICO about if and how the EU might need to change its decision-making process, which often requires unanimity, in order to accommodate potential new member countries, including not only Ukraine and Moldova but also the Western Balkan nations of Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

In the past, the EU has faced excruciating — and embarrassing — delays on major decisions because of the opposition of a single member country. At times, such opposition wasn’t even about the immediate issue under discussion, but rather reflected an effort to use the unanimity requirement as leverage to force action on some other topic. In one case, Cyprus delayed EU sanctions against Belarus for months because of concerns in Nicosia about issues relating to Turkey.

In her reply, von der Leyen acknowledged that such a major shift in the EU’s decision-making, even just on foreign policy, would be difficult to achieve. As for changing the unanimity requirement in other areas, the president said it was impossible to give a short answer. “We would have to go through every file, and this is not the moment here this interview,” she said.

But in the case of foreign affairs, von der Leyen said she had reached a firm personal conclusion that the unanimity requirement was not sustainable.

“On the foreign affairs, I’m deeply convinced that it is not sustainable, that the European Union is not able to take a position because of one blocking in critical files,” she said.

“And the speed at which things happen … the world wants to hear the European voice,” von der Leyen continued. “The speed is too high to constantly, or too often, not be heard and seen, because of the blocking of one. Therefore, there I’m really convinced we need qualified majority voting.”

In the interview, von der Leyen said she expected the 27 heads of state and government to adopt the Commission’s recommendation on candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova.

In endorsing the recommendation, the European Council is expected to echo the Commission’s suggestion that Ukraine and Moldova will be required to meet numerous conditions before the start of formal membership talks.

Von der Leyen, in the interview, said that the EU’s accession process is flexible enough that candidate countries have substantial sway over how quickly their bids move forward. She noted that Slovakia and Turkey each received a membership “perspective” in 1999, but that Slovakia had raced forward to become a member, while Turkey was now more distant from the EU than it was 23 years ago.

“Slovakia wanted wanted wanted to join the European Union,” von der Leyen said, “and had a huge unity in the country. It took them five years and they were members. Turkey is today further away from the European Union than it was in ’99. Therefore, this is a proof that there is no automaticity. There is not a rigid pattern. But it’s up to the country — we support if necessary — but it’s up to the country to prove that they are fit for accession.”

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