As the UK General Elections are getting close and the EU-UK relations are one of the main topics of the electoral campaign, we looked into the decisions of the Council to see, factually, what exactly divides the UK and the other Member States and to what extent this impacts on EU policy making.
We found that the opposition to the appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as Commission President was no single event: in fact, the British government has voted against the common position in the EU Council much more frequently than any other Member: it has stayed in opposition in 85 out of 680 votes it participated in. Next in line, though far behind, are Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Despite this, the policymaking in the EU has been able to work due to the extension of the qualified majority voting in Council votes, which prevents deadlocks when only one (or very few) countries oppose. This analysis is based on the study of the voting behaviour of all EU Member States’ Governments between July 2009 and March 2015.
The British delegation has found itself the most often in minority on policy areas related to budget, agriculture and foreign and security policy. Similarly to their British colleagues, representatives of the Netherlands oppose frequently the Council’s common position on budget. The Austrian government stays in opposition on environment policy, budget and legal affairs, whereas Germany has mainly been left in minority when it comes to environment, employment and transport.
However, after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, most of the decisions in the Council are made by qualified majority, i.e. not all Member States have to agree for the legislation to pass. The most well-known case when a proposal was adopted with the UK (and Hungary) being opposed was the appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as President of the Commission, in June 2014. The analysis shows, however, that the differences go beyond the choices of persons and are reflected in the debates and votes on actual policy orientations.
Quarrels over the money that goes to the EU
The negotiations over the size and the destination of the EU budget are usually the most difficult, as each Member States wants to make the most out of its own contribution to the EU’s coffer. All in all, on issues relating to budget, Austria has been left in minority 7 times, Germany only once and the Netherlands 15 times out of 67 votes they participated in. However, the UK government was in minority by far the most frequently, voting differently than the majority on 23 occasions, out of 67.
For example, the draft budget for the financial year 2015 was adopted with only the United Kingdom’s delegation abstaining from the vote (click here to see the vote). The representatives of the UK at that meeting were Ms. Angela Constance (Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Female employment) and Ms. Shan Morgan (Deputy Permanent Representative). It is worth mentioning, though, that the position of each Government is usually decided with days in advance in the national Capital.
Council’s position for the new draft budget of the European Union sets out the proposals for the EU expenditure and it is the first stage in the annual process of establishing the EU’s budget for the following year.
Another key vote in the Council was on an amendment to the 2014 budget, in order to increase the payments appropriations. The Council had to submit a proposal to raise the contribution of each Member State to cover the expenses from unpaid bills from previous years. On this particular vote, three member states (UK, Netherlands and Sweden) voted against. Click here to see the vote.
UK, like many other EU Member States, has faced the increasing popularity of the Eurosceptic politicians. The Council’s proposal to increase the 2014 budget to deal with the EU’s unpaid bills has led to the UK and other Member States having to pay extra funds. While voting, the British Government submitted a formal statement in which it expressed its regret that greater cuts were not found.
Less payments to agricultural subsidies
An important part of the EU budget (about 40%) is used to support the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Not surprisingly, on agriculture-related votes, the British Government has also found itself in minority 8 times (the Netherlands has stayed in minority in three votes, Germany in four, and Austria in two) out of 43 votes.
For example, the Council approved the text that regulates a framework for agricultural products in order to set the strategic priorities and encourage promotion in new markets, such as in third countries. The proposed act was adopted by a majority of 25 governments voting in favour, while the Netherlands, Swedish and United Kingdom delegations voted against (click here to see the vote).
The promotion scheme opens up to new producer organisations and it encourages the farmers to associate in collectives to optimize the use of resources. The text also proposed that the promotion measures for agricultural products may be fully or partially financed from the Union budget. Consequently, the adopted proposal significantly increases the budget allocated to the information campaign promoting these measures. The United Kingdom has stated serious concerns about the increase in budget and the lack of allegedly any clear justification for it.
Serious reservations about EU’s own foreign and security policy
Lastly, the British delegation has also shown its reluctance to support the Union’s foreign and security policy. Not surprisingly, the UK prefers NATO (where it plays a stronger role and where its membership is not under question) as the (trans)continental instrument to ensure security, but also as the main forum to conduct foreign policy debates.
Consequently, the UK government has stayed in minority in 7 out of 15 foreign policy Council votes. In this area, it is very uncommon for an EU Member State to formally oppose: there is only one other example of another government (the Portuguese) not supporting a common position.
For example, the Council approved the regulation establishing a Partnership Instrument for cooperation with third countries. The regulation supports cooperation measures with countries with which the Union has a strategic interest in promoting links, including in foreign policy, international trade, the principles of democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. This regulation was adopted with the delegation of the UK voting against the Partnership Instrument (click here to see the vote). On that occasion, the British delegation was represented by Mr. George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer).
 From November 1st 2014 the Council votes with a new procedure for qualified majority, but the votes in this analysis took place before that date. Therefore, the Council voted with the previous qualified majority rule, which means each member state representative has a certain number of votes, as set out in the EU treaties. The votes are weighted reflecting the size of the population of each member state. A qualified majority is reached if a majority of member states (15 member states) vote in favour and a minimum of 260 votes out of the total 352 votes are cast in favour.
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