From Ukraine to Schengen: the power of veto chronicles the paralysis in European decision-making

The week started within Europe with disagreement to initial the financial aid plan for Ukraine and to roll out the minimum rate of Corporate Tax. And it concluded with the lack of consensus to endorse the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area. The first was caused by the Hungarian veto; the second due to the refusal of Austria and the Netherlands. The unanimity policy is hijacking European decision-making, something that has become more apparent during the war in Ukraine. In addition, the far-right governments of Poland and Hungary have capitalized on this supreme power to put institutions and their community partners on the ropes for their national benefit.

The treaties require the EU to adopt foreign policy and tax decisions unanimously. The absolute consensus is becoming the great China in the shoe to advance in transcendental decisions. And it weighs down his capacity for action. In Brussels they are more than aware of this. The previous Commission, led by Jean Claude Junckerpaved the way for end the unanimity rule. And this witness was picked up shortly after by Josep Borrellhead of European diplomacy, who elevated this ambition to one of the priorities of his mandate.

But the unanimity rule is poisoned candy. The Treaty of Lisbon provides for the possibility of ending it and replacing it with the qualified majority, but this step requires, ironically, the unanimity of the Twenty-seven. The smaller countries are not willing to part with this valuable privilege that makes them equal at the table of the European Council. Luxembourg sees no incentive to sacrifice the right to veto measures on tax havens or Cyprus to do so on agreements with Turkey. But some, such as Spain and Germany, have been demonstrating for years in favor of ending this rule completely or nothing.

Hungary, the great blocker

There are many occasions on which national governments use the right of blocking to protect their national interests. Spain did it recently with the threat of getting up from the table if its partners did not give up their long-awaited Iberian exception to relax electricity prices. It is frequently done by Greece or Cyprus in Turkish matters or replicated by Belgium to protect its diamond industry and exclude these precious materials from the list of European sanctions against Russia.

But it is the illiberal tandem that make up hungary and poland the one that has kidnapped the most important decisions in recent times as a bargaining chip to obtain other concessions. In times of war, the case of the Fidesz of Victor Orbánwhich has capitalized on the nerves and anxiety of the EU to respond harshly, forcefully and quickly to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Budapest seized for almost a month the sixth package of punitive measures. His white smoke was consummated when he obtained an exemption that allows him to continue importing Russian oil through pipelines. His shield has also avoided including Kirill, the patriarch of the Russian ultra-Orthodox church, on the punished list.

His latest master move has come this week. The country has vetoed the economic plan to Ukraine, through which the EU seeks to allocate 18,000 million euros to kyiv for its financial stability and future reconstruction. The illiberal prime minister torpedoed this decision – which the EU already wants to carry out in the form of 26 – with the aim of preventing Brussels from freezing 7,500 million euros for its drift and its continuous attacks on the rule of law and the embezzlement of public money.

At the negotiating table of the European Council they are used to intense debates. Achieving balanced measures that convince 27 leaders with interests, priorities and agendas that are sometimes different, other times contradictory, is not an easy task. All this is evident in the marathon days of European summits in which every comma, every nuance is fought. It’s normal and it’s part of the game. But the feeling of being fed up with an Orbán increasingly isolated from his associates is spreading more and more, but who has also known how to exploit the weaknesses and contradictions of the rest of the leaders. “One more time, the liberal current has exposed its immense hypocrisy: if a Central European country vetoes, it is the end of the world, the destruction of European unity. But when the veto comes from Western Europeans, that’s fine,” he said. Peter SzijjártoMagyar Foreign Minister, in reference to the refusal of Amsterdam and Vienna to receive Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen area.

Internal and external consequences

All of this translates into frustration, stagnant processes sine die or in reforms that collect dust until they are dead in the mixed bag. The French “no” vote postponed the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, leaving the Balkan countries feeling that the EU is not keeping its word. The community bloc has dragged on since March the impossibility of articulating a minimum tax of 15% in companies. First Poland opposed it; now Hungary does. The Poland that directs the Law and Justice (PiS) – allies of Vox in the European Parliament – also threatens to torpedo the proposal that the European Commission has launched this week so that the children of LGTBI couples are recognized throughout the EU.

And one of the great battles that unleashes discrepancies and divisions within Europe will come in the coming days. The energy ministers meet on Tuesday to try to agree on the gas price cap, one of the measures to alleviate the electricity bill that is getting stuck the most in Brussels and that is hindering the European response to the current energy crisis. The positions arrive very confronted. Germany and six other countries want to toughen the position on the table, while a majority, including Spain, sees the high ceiling of 220 euros per megawatt hour drawn by the European Commission as a joke.

In addition, the cacophony of voices often prevents the European project from singing the same melody in the global arena. Weakening its weight and voice in international forums in which Budapest and Warsaw distance themselves from the common line on matters of human rights. “The EU’s biggest enemy is not Russia, China or Turkey. is the unanimity“, Borrell stated in 2020 paraphrasing the former president of the European Commission Romano Prodi.

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