Czech Presidency to test alternative on eventual changes to current treaties

Czechia started its six-month stint at the helm of the EU Council by preparing a questionnaire for bloc members to understand if and where countries would be open to change in the EU’s decision-making process.

The questionnaire will focus on “changes that can be made within the current treaties, particularly through the passerelle clause”, the Czech EU Minister Mikuláš Bek told EURACTIV.cz.

The 2007 Lisbon treaty, which governs the functioning of the EU, includes so-called passerelle clauses that can change the agreement’s requirements without the need for full-blown treaty change.

However, activating a passerelle clause to remove unanimity voting in some policy areas, most notably in foreign policy, would require all EU ministers to agree in the Council and in some cases, may require the consent of the European Parliament.

The reform of the treaties has been an ongoing but mostly theoretical discussion within Brussels circles for decades that gained more prominence in the EU political landscape in the last months, together with the conference on the future of Europe (CoFoE), the EU’s deliberative democracy experiment where citizens had a say regarding bloc policy-making.

Bek admitted that the “strong” recommendation by EU citizens to abandon unanimous voting is a “politically contentious and very controversial issue”.

“On the other hand, there may be a space for some shifts,” the Czech EU Minister said.

As EURACTIV.cz understands, a qualified majority vote, — a voting system whereby a decision would require 15 out of the 27 countries representing at least 65% of the total EU population to vote in favour, — in the entire security and foreign policy is highly unlikely.

On the other hand, the end of unanimity is possible in specific areas, such as sanctions lists.

“We would like member states to try to identify, from their perspective, items where they can imagine a shift from unanimity to a qualified majority,” Bek explained.

The CoFoE concluded on 9 May with a final ceremony in Strasbourg, where Emmanuel Macron put forward his proposal’s alternative to enlargement, and Ursula Von der Leyen hinted at support for EU treaties’ change.

Von der Leyen hints at support for EU treaty change

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hinted that she might support changes to EU treaties, should it be necessary to implement the recommendations of citizen panels from the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE).

However, Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica told EURACTIV that member states would have the last word on treaties’ change, which will be the last resort to follow up on citizens’ recommendations.

Bek admitted that the survey is linked to the call for the Convention to open the treaties that the European Parliament formally put forward in early June. The survey’s results should be presented ahead of the October’s meeting of EU ministers at the General Affairs Council (GAC), Bek said.

According to article 48 of the EU treaty, the Council has to vote with a simple majority on whether to examine the European Parliament’s proposal to start the Convention to open the treaties.

The willingness of member states to discuss such changes varies greatly. “A significant number of [them] consider it unrealistic that such a debate could take place as early as October at the European Council because there will be very pressing issues on the table, such as energy before the upcoming winter.”

However, according to the former liberal MEP and constitutional expert Andrew Duff, the Council has to formally reply to EU lawmakers within 9 October, otherwise, they can “sue the Council in the Court of Justice for failure to act on its resolution”.

To react, there are several options, “including a debate on whether to call a Convention or not, possibly prepared by an independent reflection group”, Duff said.

Berlin eyes abolishment of foreign policy unanimity

Meanwhile, Germany, one of the EU’s heavy hittters, has been a long advocate of EU-reform and is currently intensifying its efforts to abolish the unanimity requirement in foreign policy.

Over the weekend, German chancellor Olaf Scholz warned of the consequences of disunity among member states and urged the reform of the bloc, as the EU cannot afford national vetoes anymore.

“Permanent disunity, permanent dissent between member states weakens us. That is why Europe’s most important response to the Zeitenwende is: Unity,” Scholz wrote in an op-ed for FAZ on Sunday.

Scholz stressed that maintaining this unity would be of utmost importance in an increasingly multipolar and geopolitical world.

“For me, that means an end to the selfish blocking of European decisions by individual member states. No more national go-it-alones that harm Europe as a whole. We simply can no longer afford national vetoes, for example in foreign policy, if we want to continue to be heard in a world of competing great powers.”

So far, Putin’s war of aggression has been met with unprecedented unity among EU-member states. However, due to rising inflation and gas shortages, experts fear this solidarity could falter, with Hungary announcing on Wednesday that it would stop gas exports to EU neighbours.

However, according to Scholz, it would now be the time to close the ranks in all areas where the EU has struggled for too long to find solutions – like migration policy, the building of a European defence, and technological sovereignty. “Germany will make concrete proposals in this regard in the coming months,” Scholz said.

Even diplomats and other sources close to the EU have been split on the idea of changes to the treaties, but some said that the latest developments after the Russian invasion of Ukraine have shown that the architecture of the EU should change as well as its approach towards non-member countries of the European Continent.

/ Argumentum.al with EURACTIV.com