2017: How Regions can make themselves heard in EU-Councils of Ministers

Translation of an article by Michael Breisky, published by “Die Presse”, Vienna, on 16 November, 2017:

The rejection of the Catalonian secession-movement by most of Europe has a good reason: with 28 members today, the EU Councils of Ministers are already at the limits of practical manageability; a few members more, and efficient decision-making would collapse completely. For this institutional reason alone, the independence of Regions as the means to make themselves heard in EU Council of Ministers must be seen as an absolute non-starter, as recently stated by Joschka Fischer.

There is, therefore no way for Regions to defend their interests in the Council of Ministers except through a Member-state. Ideally, this would bet the Member-state responsible for the Region; but one could very well imagine situations, where a Region’s interests would coincide better with another Member-state’s interests. The high-alpine Regions of France and Italy, for instance, make up for a small part of these two Member-states only and would be better served if in some matters – like agriculture, transport or the environment – another more alpine Member-state would speak and vote for them in the respective Council; similarly, Malta might be a better speaker for the Balearic islands than the mainland-government in Madrid.

At a first glance, the European Treaties does allow in principle a limited transfer of voting rights by Member-states, but says nothing about a partial transfer of voting rights. Art. 239 of the Lisbon Treaty, the only relevant article in this matter, reads:

Where a vote is taken, any Member of the Council may also act on behalf of not more than one other member.

However, a „creative interpretation“ in the spirit of democracy, subsidiarity and the sovereignty of Member-states should concentrate on the word „not more than one“. It implies that one could transfer less than one Member’s voting rights, i.e. parts of these rights (otherwise, the article would have to read „only one“ ). Thus the remaining rights would continue with the transferring Member, and naturally, the size of the partial voting rights transferred would be in proportion to the Region’s population as part of the Member-state’s population.

Noteworthy is also that Art. 239 treats all Member-states equally. In the context of transferring Region’s rights, this means the smallest Member-state could in theory accumulate such votes up to a total corresponding to the weighted voting rights of the biggest Member-state.

Such an understanding of the matter would have the potential to substantially improve European understanding and responsibility within Regions.

For the central government of EU Member-states the practical consequences of such a transfer of vote would be rather easy to meet: renewing calculations on the weight of each Member-state’s voting rights before a Council-meeting is hardly more than a simple technicality. More importantly, such transfers will be out of the question for the European Council, and by the nature of the topics on the agenda this will also apply for Ministerial Councils dealing with foreign policy, external borders, security and similar issues of the traditional minimal state.

On the other hand a certain competitive situation between Member-states might arise in matters that lend themselves for transfer of voting rights, such as agriculture, transport, cultural and social affairs as well as the Single Market; thus Member-states would eventually become something like a broker for very special regional interests within the Union, while still able to guard their essential national interests. But the most important consequences are psychological and refer to the relationship between Regions and their respective central states: The latter would be compelled to keep the national sense of community alive and fit to meet all new challenges history might hold – something that should end a Region’s appetite for secession.

Opening the possibility for Regions to chose their representation at Council meetings does, therefore, not aim to make full use of it; rather it should be seen as a measure to guarantee that central government will meet regional government on equal footing – to the benefit of all the citizens.

In this sense the new European motto should be si vis pacem para regionem.

Additional remarks by the author: The possibility to transfer votes on a regional basis has implications going much beyond soothing problems as posed by the Catalonia-crisis:

Yes, the sovereignty of Member-states would remain unchallenged and Regions could not look, therefore, for representation by other Member states without consent from their own central government. But the latter would have to keep a constant eye on their Region’s special interests. If they fail to do so or were to withhold the permission for a transfer of voting rights, they would appear – at home and abroad – to be utterly undemocratic, with all negative consequences of such an image for their political standing in Europe (and for its own economy!); it will, therefore, be difficult to deny a Region the right to look for help abroad; on the other hand the Member-state abroad will not want to damage its relations with the central government by interfering into domestic affairs.

However limited the cases of transfer of voting rights may turn out to be, its effects on the EU as a whole can hardly be over-estimated: Apart from boosting the idea of subsidiarity within Member-states, it would reduce a Member-state’s temptation to rely on traditional power-politics without support from all of its Regions. The material basis for decisions in EU-Councils would become broader, as Regions would feel to be less and less marginalized by their central government – and consequently by the EU as a whole.

To sum things up, the superior position of the Councils within EU-institutions (non of its Members wants to change) will continue unchallenged, while a new prospect for subsidiarity will weaken arguments about the democratic deficit of the Union. All of this would be the result not of treaty-changes (extremely difficult to achieve anyway), but of a unspectacular process that does not need more than two Member-states to take off.

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