Facebook users have been raising the alarm (here and here) of an institutional change at the European Union that will deprive its member states of their decision-making power in crucial political domains. According to one post, “They have abolished the right of veto for all the members of the European Union… i.e. majority voting of the 27 members of the EU.” Another said: “The era of national sovereignty is officially over. We’re talking about power a grab by the EU.” Someone even claimed there was  a “European coup under way”, featuring “the abolishment of the national right of veto in 65 areas, including taxation and foreign policy”.

Screenshot taken on X (ex-Twitter) on November 30, 2023

“The insane text voted through by the European Parliament yesterday foresees the abolishment of France’s right of veto even though its vital interests are in play,” a commenter added on X. Another tweet read: “In total media silence, on November 22 the European Parliament passed a law allowing the revision of the European Treaties and abolishing the right of veto.” 

Certain politicians also shared the claim in the guise of an electoral argument. For example: Alexandre Loubet, a French lawmaker from the far-right National Rally (RN) party who is also its campaign manager for the 2024 European Parliament election. Loubet tweeted in late November that “The European Parliament passed a resolution that abolishes the member states’ veto, strengthens the powers of the EU and creates an EU government and president. Vote for the National Rally at the European elections so that France does not get lost within a European federal state!”

The posts refer to the European Parliament resolution of November 22, 2023 “on proposals of the European Parliament for the amendment of the Treaties”. While the text was indeed adopted by the European institution, it has no binding value. As it stands, the resolution has no effect on the voting process, according to several experts.

“The claim is false for several reasons that stem from the nature of the act adopted by the European Parliament, the procedure required to revise the treaties and the reality of the decision-making process in the European Union,” said Francois-Vivien Guiot, senior lecturer in European and international studies at The University of Pau and the Pays de l’Adour. He spoke to AFP on November 29, 2023.

“The European Parliament passed a resolution. But it’s a document without any legal force. It’s simply an opinion expressed on how it sees the future of European institutions,” added Christine Verger, vice-president of the Paris-based think-tank The Jacques Delors Institute. Verger, who is also a former director of relations with national parliaments at the European Parliament, spoke to AFP on November 28, 2023. 

The resolution proposes to extend the number of areas for which joint member state decisions are taken by a qualified majority vote instead of unanimously. This is what the social media posts present as the abolishment of the “right of veto” of each member state.

MEPs during a voting session at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, November 22, 2023. (AFP / FREDERICK FLORIN)

Current voting process

As explained on “Toute l’Europe” (All of Europe), an educational information site on the European Union, qualified majority is one of the voting methods used within the Council of the European Union. 

Made up of member state ministers who meet several times a year to discuss their respective fields and adopt, reject or modify draft legislation from the European Commission, the Council of the European Union represents the EU member states and carries out the legislative role of the European Union on an equal footing with the European Parliament (which represents citizens).

Depending on the areas in question, the Council of the European Union votes either by qualified majority or unanimously. 

As the Council of the European Union explains on its website, unanimous voting concerns a number of matters which the member states consider to be “sensitive”, including common foreign and security policy, citizenship, EU membership and EU finances.

On those matters, decisions cannot be taken without unanimity. This is the “right of veto” referenced by the social media users. It is worth noting that an abstention does not count as a vote against a decision.

Apart from these specific areas, the Council of the European Union votes by qualified majority, which is reached when two conditions are met. Fifty-five percent of member states — or 15 out of 27 — must vote in favour and the proposal must also be supported by member states representing at least 65 percent of the total EU population.

Unlike in the case of unanimous voting, “an abstention under qualified majority voting counts as a vote against,” the Council of the European Union says on its website.

According to Toute l’Europe, qualified majority — also known as the ordinary legislative procedure — is the most common voting method within the Council of the European Union. That is because “around 80 percent of EU legislation” is adopted that way.

“Today, some isolated instances of unanimous voting remain… but they’re just islands in a sea of qualified majority voting,” said Helene Gaudin, an expert in EU law at Toulouse Capitole University. She spoke to AFP on November 29, 2023. 

Verger added: “It is the member states that decide along with the European Parliament on a certain number of matters by qualified majority, but these are matters identified in the treaties.” The treaties for their part had to be approved unanimously by the member states to come into effect. 

Why the debate over unanimity?

The idea of replacing unanimous voting in certain areas with qualified majority voting is supported by some politicians who hope it would prevent political deadlocks and streamline the decision-making process of the member states. 

The argument of increased efficiency was notably put forth by French President Emmanuel Macron in May 2022 when he raised the possibility of extending the scope of qualified majority voting. 

Those in favour of the idea believe it would help prevent the kinds of deadlocks that result from unanimous voting at a time of recurring tensions with, say, Hungary over migration policy, judicial independence and LGBT+ rights. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — the only EU leader to have maintained close ties with the Kremlin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — is very critical of EU strategy on the war-torn country and has come out against billions of euros in new EU aid for Kyiv as well as the start of Ukraine accession talks. 

An agreement on Ukraine or Moldova — another country waiting for accession talks to begin — would require unanimity among the member states. To date, Orban has shown himself to be unwilling to budge on the matter.

“What gave rise to the sense that reform was needed was Hungary’s blocking ability in the face of other member state’s will to sanction Russia. So, okay, extending qualified majority voting to this area could be formally understood as the loss of veto power — but from a democratic point of view, is it normal for the representatives of 26 member states to be blocked from acting by those of a single nation?” said Guiot. 

“But in practice, an isolated state within the Council is always subject to very strong pressure, which most of the time causes it to abandon its opposition. The member states always negotiate several issues simultaneously and trade-offs are made across the board. It is also important to note that even in the case of no unanimous voting, the member states still have a preference for finding consensus rather than forcing something through,” he added. 

As for those in favour of maintaining unanimous voting for certain matters, they say it establishes a principle of equality among the member states, no matter their demographic importance. This argument stems from the fact that qualified majority voting takes population size partly into consideration.

MEPs during a voting session at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, November 22, 2023. (AFP / FREDERICK FLORIN)

What does the resolution say?

For Gaudin, the resolution adopted on November 22, 2023 by the European Parliament “defends a certain vision of Europe, less blocked by the member states on everything related to the revision, and in a way a vision of a more federal Europe.”

According to the text, the resolution proposes “considerably increasing the number of areas where actions are decided by qualified majority voting and through the ordinary legislative procedure.”

It also suggests in matters of foreign, security and defence policy for “decisions on sanctions, interim steps in the enlargement process and other foreign policy decisions to be taken by qualified majority voting.”

Above all, the resolution makes a case for a revision of the European Treaties and calls on the European Council — made up of the heads of government of every member state and tasked with defining the EU’s political policies and priorities — to convene a Convention on the matter.

Non-binding resolution

But this text is not binding, according to Guiot: “The adopted resolution is not a legislative act. It does not have legal effects but instead demonstrates a political position of the institution. With this resolution, the European Parliament called for a revision of the treaties and proposed modifications to the existing treaties.” 

“The European Parliament only proposed to eliminate unanimity, so to make qualified majority the rule for adopting acts,” Gaudin for her part said. She added that the claims circulating on social media are “still very much in the realm of imagination because it’s just a proposal”. 

MEPs during a voting session at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, November 22, 2023. (AFP / FREDERICK FLORIN)

Complicated revision process

For the changes proposed in the resolution to take effect, a revision of the European treaties is necessary. The long and complicated procedure is laid out in Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union. It is explained on the French government site Vie Publique.

“This ordinary revision relies on a very complex procedure in which the member states have the final word,” Guiot said. 

In order to be adopted, a draft revision of the treaties — whether put forward by the European Parliament, the European Commission or the national governments — must be submitted to the European Council as well as to the national parliaments.

The European Council is then free to refuse the project or to pursue the initiative. 

In the latter scenario, it must convene a Convention of representatives of the European Parliament, the European Commission, the national parliaments and governments to examine the project and make amendments. 

The text is then submitted to a Conference of member state government representatives, who must agree on the treaty amendments to be made. 

Finally, the draft revision must be ratified by all member states, according to the unanimity rule. It would be enough for one country to oppose the revision for it to be rejected.  

Treaty revisions require unanimity

According to Verger, what the social media posts “forget to mention is that it’s national sovereignty that applies when making these kinds of changes… It is the member states that decide. Every time there is an institutional change, it is the subject of a treaty that must be signed by every member state and ratified by all of their parliaments. It is legally, and even politically, impossible for the European Parliament to decide anything in this regard.”

For such a revision, “it is necessary for the member states to approve it unanimously every step of the way,” Gaudin said. “The states are the masters of the treaties because they’re the ones who decide whether they want to adopt them or not,” she added. 

Guiot added: “Implementation of the changes suggested by the European Parliament (in the resolution of November 22, 2023) is still a distant prospect and it cannot become reality without unanimous and repeated consent from the member states.”

In May 2022, following Macron’s call to extend qualified majority voting, 13 member states announced in a joint statement that they were opposed to such a change and to Treaty revision. This indicates the unlikelihood of the reform ever coming to pass.  

In recent months, AFP has debunked many false or misleading claims about France’s alleged loss of sovereignty to the European Union, including here and here.


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Translation : Anna Maria JAKUBEK

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