In Czechia, the debate over the abandonment of the unanimity principle in some EU policy areas opened recently – particularly in the light of war in Ukraine and vision of EU enlargement.
By Kateřina Horáková, Euractiv.cz
“We all should be ready to look at the various proposals to improve the governability of the EU in our domestic discussion, including the shift to qualified majority voting in some areas,” Czech President Petr Pavel said during a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges in October 2023.
Pavel reacted on the turbulent developments of last year when the EU had to respond to the war in Ukraine, for example by new sanctions against Russia or massive aid to Ukraine – steps requiring unanimous agreement among the EU member states.
At the EU level, there is a vivid debate on the reform of decision making process and the potential end of veto in some policies. Debates were triggered by the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe in 2022 and boosted by the need to make the EU’s decision making process more efficient.
Member states currently hold the right to veto in “matters which the member states consider to be sensitive,” such as the common foreign and security policy (CFSP), taxation or the EU membership. But in the majority of the decisions taken by the EU, the qualified majority voting is used. It requires a minimum of 15 states for the proposal to be voted in favor of. These states must represent at least 65% of the total EU population.
Yet a number of member states, especially in regards to CFSP, have been calling for a switch to qualified majority voting (QMV), arguing it would enhance the EU’s capacities to act and react to emerging challenges the EU has to face in its foreign policy.
These demands also put significant pressure on other states that previously refused the extension of qualified majority voting in other areas as well. One such country is Czechia, where the debate was spurred by the already-mentioned Russian aggression in Ukraine. Czechia shaped, and still shapes the EU-Ukraine dynamics extensively as it is Ukraine’s long-term strategic partner.
The Czech Debate is “Vague and Cautious”
“The current debate in the Czech Republic is still quite vague and cautious. It is clear that there is a lack of greater understanding among politicians of what QMV actually means, what unanimity means, where it is used, how the Czech Republic uses its veto, and what the costs and benefits of unanimity or QMV are,” Tomáš Weiss, professor of International Relations at Charles University, told Euractiv.cz.
First and foremost, the cautiousness is tangible within the five-party (ODS, TOP 09, KDU-ČSL, Pirates, STAN) governing coalition. During his speech at the meeting of heads of Czech embassies abroad, Prime Minister Petr Fiala (ODS) has warned against efforts to extend QMV to other areas. He stated that “debates about changes now will not only not strengthen us, but rather may undermine the consensus and cooperation that is now needed.”
In contrast, Minister for European Affairs Martin Dvořák (STAN), in a recent interview for the Czech Radio, argued that “abandoning the veto is not an abandonment of national interests, or even treason or abandonment of national sovereignty."
Topic for the European elections
With the election to the European Parliament, the topic has also entered the pre-election debates. And the opinion cleavage has become even more apparent.
“The right of veto in the voting of member states should be abolished, because it makes the European Union unresponsive and indecisive,” Czech MEP and Pirate Party leading candidate for 2024 elections Marcel Kolaja said in a debate broadcasted by the Czech Television.
Another Czech MEP Veronika Vrecionová (ODS) who will run in 2024 elections opposed the QMV extension, saying that “the abolition of the veto could play into the hands of populism demanding withdrawal from the EU, as the minority would be outvoted by a qualified majority on foreign, security or tax policy issues.”
Czech parties in the opposition are rather against the change of the decision making process.
“The veto is absolutely crucial for us. We have to realize that because there is a veto instrument, it is one of the few instruments that puts all Member States on an equal footing. If we were to lose this veto, we could really become a second-class country,” Czech opposition party ANO leader for European elections Klára Dostálová said.
Czechia vetoed one proposal in 20 years
Despite Czech politicians arguing that abandonment of veto might be a “threat to the national interest”, the country have not been using the tool too extensively. In its twenty-year-long membership, the Czech Republic has used the veto power only once. It was in 2006 when the EU wanted to increase the taxation of beer. Czechs hold the first position in beer drinking per capita for almost 30 years, thus increasing the taxation burden was indeed a matter of national pride.
According to expert, changes in EU decision making could be even beneficial for the country.
“The extreme position, i.e. nothing will change, is not entirely sufficient, because firstly, it may be beneficial for us to switch to QMV on some issues, and secondly, we want a number of other things from other countries – among other things, further enlargement – so we have to negotiate somehow,” Weiss concluded.