Latest Council data: EU clustering at new high post-Brexit

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The latest Franco-German proposal to substantially increase the amount of money that will be managed by the EU brought a (much needed) boost of enthusiasm. However, the details of the new process of collecting and allocating the funds, as well as the EU’s broader crisis-management and economic recovery strategy, are what will eventually make things easier or harder for Europeans.

Furthermore, the most recent objective data confirms that the divisions in the Council are at a new high and,  just as in the case of COVID-19,  unless sensible efforts are made to reverse the curve, things are not going to get easier. The EU decision-making seems to be experiencing a clustering phenomenon, as the North-South and West-East cleavages are becoming increasingly visible. While the former is being widely discussed in the context of the aid requested by the heavily-stricken Southern members, the West-East dimension seems somewhat overlooked among the EU community, although equally preoccupying. 

Our research suggests that the West-East cleavage is even more likely to dominate post-Brexit political negotiations in the EU’s inter-governmental institution, the Council. Notably, the divergence between the (roughly) two former sides of the iron curtain have marked a new record: for the first time since the Treaty of Lisbon, no less than 9 Member States were opposing (and ended up on the losing side of) a legislative piece in the Council. The topic? The controversial Mobility Package, which introduces restrictions on the movement of workforce, especially stricter rules on the posting of drivers. The legislation, firmly pushed by Macron (and the North-Western trade unions), seems to have opposite economic impacts in the West and the East of the EU, which triggered completely different attitudes from among the political representatives of these countries in Brussels. Importantly, this divergence expanded from the Council of Ministers to the European Parliament too, where ‘nationalisation’ of politics has so far been a rarer occurrence. 

The broader data indicates that this is not an isolated case, but that we may be dealing with a more pronounced (and worrisome) trend, similar to the one that we have observed in the case of the UK starting from 2010

As a leading intelligence source on EU policy-making, VoteWatch Europe can help you track and predict who is pulling the strings and in which direction.  Our premium subscribers (such as EU public and private influencers, top universities, etc.), benefit from the most advanced analytical tools in EU politics. We also deliver tailored research, presentations, or training on MEPs’ and governments’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas. If you are interested in a private service, send us an email ([email protected]) or give us a call (+32 2 318 11 88).

Divisive vote on transportation/labour mobility  highlights the opposite impact in ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe

The vote on the Mobility Package is the first time when the contrast between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Europe is so neatly defined, as all the 9 countries opposing the proposal have joined the EU in 2004 or afterward (see map below). Only 4 countries from the ‘new’ Europe voted in favour of the Mobility Package: Slovenia, Croatia, Czechia, and Slovakia. 

For further details, check out the following voting outcomes: posting of drivers, daily and weekly driving times, and cabotage

Even in the European Parliament, where political family/values affiliations usually trump national ones, the votes on the Mobility Package led to a meltdown of the cohesion of the main political groups, in particular the two largest ones (EPP and S&D). For instance, 100% of Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, and Latvian MEPs, as well as 94% of Bulgarian MEPs (across the political families), voted against the proposed changes to the rules on driving times, mirroring the positions of their national governments in the Council. Conversely, 100% of Belgian, Swedish, and Finnish MEPs, as well as 95% of French MEPs (regardless of the political affiliation, or whether they are in power or opposition at home), voted in the opposite way, therefore supporting further restrictions.

Other EP delegations, such as the Czech and the Slovenians were more internally divided along their political party lines, which indicates a more nuanced economic impact of the legislation in these countries, which resulted in a lower level of opposition to the Mobility Package of their representatives in Brussels. This also explains why these governments did not ultimately oppose the majority position.   

However, due to their small size, the opposing countries were far from reaching the minimum threshold for a blocking minority in the Council (the minimum required being 35% of the EU population). In fact, the opposition front only represents 18.2% of the EU population, a lower share than Germany alone. The demographic weakness of the region (despite its geographical size) highlights the importance of forming cross-regional alliances. In fact, even if all CEE countries were to oppose a legislative proposal in the EU Council, they would still fall short of reaching the minimum requirements to form a blocking minority.

Voting trends highlight shifts in regional clustering

Over the past 5 years, the widening rift between the UK and the EU-27 overshadowed less prominent, but still relevant, developments in the dynamics of coalition-building among EU members. During the past legislative term, Poland and Hungary were second only to the UK in terms of minority positions in the Council, which mirrors the increasing divergence between these governments and the ‘old’ EU. 

While this divergence has been visible in the public space due to more salient topics like the rule of law and migration, this research works with data that refers to positions on actual EU legislation from a broad range of topics (and not only on rule of law matters), like transportation, employment, internal market, budget, ie. these countries are increasingly perceiving EU legislation as having a negative impact on their economy (and society).  This trend expands to the other two Visegrad Members, Czechia, and Slovakia, which are also in the top 10 governments that opposed the final compromise of the EU pieces of legislation during the period 2014-2019. 

The trend also is confirmed when comparing with the previous period: no CEE government was among the top 5 most outvoted ones during the previous legislative term (2009-2014). At that time, North-Western countries were most often on the losing side in the Council: UK, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark.  Back then, CEE governments were ‘falling in line’ much more frequently, which can mean one of these two things: either fewer EU pieces of legislation were perceived as having a negative impact in CEE, or these governments were not as willing to ‘rock the boat’ as in the years that followed.  

However, the example of the UK  has made a very clear case in point: ‘rocking the boat’ on your own is not enough to change things to your benefit (and it can dramatically backfire) – you still need to engage in active diplomacy, try to build bridges, do horse-trading and create coalitions with other countries or blocs of countries.

Conversely, ‘rocking the boat’ can gradually lead to more isolation, as highlighted by our previous report on the UK behaviour in the Council. Since the UK elections in 2010, which brought the Conservatives back into government, the UK’s isolation in the Council has steadily increased, mirroring the domestic political developments in the country.

Current topics will put EU diplomacy to the toughest test yet

This trend is particularly relevant if we take into account that there are important decisions waiting to be made which may impact the West and the East of the EU very differently: legislation defining the criteria for the allocation of EU funds and the transformation of the economies to be made more climate-friendly.  The new Commission has already made a wise move to prevent a further regional rift by creating the Just Transition Mechanism, which aims at compensating the regions whose workers are set to suffer the most during the transition, mainly located in the CEE countries.  However, there is still a lot of opposition to this plan and a lot to decide on the amount of money and the conditionality, hence the stakes are very high.

The voting data on environmental policy decisions highlights how EU legislation impacts these regions differently (see graph below) and that sensible measures from the EU are expected by these CEE governments to compensate for the imbalances.  However, the risks of further frustration are high, as the new EU budget plans seem to lead to more funds being redirected from (what was expected in the) CEE to South-Western Europe. The Southerners, for their part,  also expect funds to cope with different problems, an expectation which, if not met, risks alienating them – which highlights the very thin ice on which the EU is skating at the moment and the need for a very delicate ‘diplomatic dance’. 

Previous ‘divisive’ decisions used to show less noticeable geographical cleavages 

In order to find another case where at least 8 national governments voted against the majority in the Council, we need to go back to a vote on copyright legislation from 2011. The directive aimed to extend the term of protection for performers, in particular musicians. However, as it is usually the case when it comes to copyright, the final compromise proved to be rather disputed, as it was opposed by a geographically-diverse coalition made up of Sweden, Benelux countries, some Central European countries such as Czechia, Slovenia, and Slovakia, as well as Romania. By way of comparison, the more recent proposal on the digital copyright was opposed byonly’ 6 Member States.

Then, we found only two cases when 7 countries voted against the majority in the Council. The first vote took place just before the EU elections in 2014 and was related to the remuneration and pensions of EU civil servants. At a time of deep economic malaise, and with elections coming up, several national governments stood against increasing the salaries of EU civil servants. This was the position adopted by some of the largest net contributors to the EU, namely the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria, alongside Greece and Cyprus (whose economies were in shambles at the time), as well as Hungary (an early indication of Orban’s hardening stance on EU matters – Hungary also voted against Juncker as Commission President a few months later).

The second vote took place during the 8th Parliamentary term and was related to the latest reform of EU rules on package travels. Such proposals aimed to harmonise standards on consumer protection, insolvency procedures, etc. Also, in this case, the coalition opposing the final legislative outcome was rather geographically diverse: Ireland, Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Austria, Slovakia, and Malta. However, due to their small population size, this coalition only accounted for 10% of the EU population, less than Italy alone.

As a leading intelligence source on EU policy-making, VoteWatch Europe can help you track and predict who is pulling the strings and in which direction.  Our premium subscribers (such as EU public and private influencers, top universities, etc.), benefit from the most advanced analytical tools in EU politics. We also deliver tailored research, presentations, or training on MEPs’ and governments’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas. If you are interested in a private service, send us an email ([email protected]) or give us a call (+32 2 318 11 88).