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What is meant by ‘qualified majority’?

Qualified majority’ is based on the idea that, for votes in the Council which require a qualified majority, the EU Member States do not have one vote but are allocated a different number of votes, also known as a ‘weighting’.

Under qualified majority voting, the 25 EU countries have a total of 321 votes. Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy have the largest weightings, with 29 votes each, with the smallest belonging to Malta (3). The qualified majority system means that it is not sufficient for over half of the votes cast to be in favour of a proposal; there must be at least 232 votes in favour of a proposal in order for it to be adopted.

In addition, a majority of the Member States must vote in favour of a proposal which has been presented by the Commission, and two thirds of the Member States in other cases. The Treaty of Nice introduced a clause to the effect that, over and above the first two conditions, a Member State may require a check to be carried out that the qualified majority of weightings covers at least 62% of the EU’s total population. This is also known as the triple qualified majority requirements.

The starting point for votes in the Council is actually a simple majority among the Council’s members for adoption, with the individual Member States being allocated one vote in this connection. This starting point is, however, purely theoretical, as virtually all the provisions of the Treaties providing scope to issue rules state that adoption by the Council requires either unanimity, with all the Member States voting in favour of the proposal, or a qualified majority.

Qualified majority voting in the new Constitutional Treaty

Pursuant to the new Constitutional Treaty, the following rules for qualified majority voting are intended to come into force with effect from 1 November 2009:

The weightings system is to be abolished and replaced with a requirement for a so-called ‘double majority’, which means that the qualified majority condition specifies requirements both in terms of the number of countries and the proportion of the EU’s population these countries represent.

The double majority in the Constitutional Treaty:

  1. At least 55% of the EU’s Member States must vote in favour of a proposal; this must cover at least 15 of the EU’s Member States. 
  2. At least 65% of the EU’s population must be represented in the group of countries voting in favour of a proposal.

Blocking a proposal

A blocking minority must comprise at least four Member States; without a minority of this type, a qualified majority is considered to have been achieved.

Possibility of deferment

The European Council has drawn up a draft decision, which the Council will adopt on the day the Constitutional Treaty comes into force. In accordance with this decision, a small group of countries which is not large enough to constitute a blocking minority may request the Council to reconsider a proposal before it is adopted by qualified majority. The Council is then obliged to do its utmost to find a solution which will accommodate the wishes expressed by this minority.

In order for a minority to achieve a deferment, the following must apply:

  • the minority must either represent at least three quarters of the population level required to constitute a blocking minority, or 
  • the minority must represent at least three quarters of the number of Member States required to constitute a blocking minority (i.e. three Member States).

As the rules governing deferment will be laid down in a decision adopted by the Council, they could be changed by the Council by qualified majority without any change to the Treaties. 

Higher threshold in particularly sensitive areas:

More stringent criteria apply to achieving a qualified majority in particularly sensitive political areas. This relates, for example, to certain areas within the legal field and to certain parts of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. In these cases a qualified majority constitutes 72% of the Member States and 65% of the EU’s population.

From unanimity to qualified majority, and from special procedure to ordinary legislative procedure

The Constitutional Treaty contains two ‘passerelle provisions’. The first provision makes its possible for the European Council to adopt a decision to the effect that the Council can take a decision by qualified majority, even if the starting point pursuant to the Constitutional Treaty is that decisions should be made unanimously. This possibility applies to Part III of the Treaty on the EU’s policies, with the exception of decisions which impact on the military and defence areas.

The second passerelle provision makes it possible for the European Council to adopt a decision to the effect that legal acts which are to be adopted by the Council in accordance with a special legislative procedure may be adopted in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure.

If the European Council takes a decision to apply the passerelle provisions, this must be taken unanimously after the European Parliament has approved the decision by a majority of its members. The European Council shall send its draft decision to the national parliaments, which have the opportunity to block adoption. All that is required is for a single parliament to lodge an objection within six months of submission of the proposal. 

Qualified majority

Qualified majority with effect from 1 November 2004

1. At least 232 votes of the total of 321 votes

2. A. A majority of the Member States must vote in favour when a proposal has been presented by the Commission, or B. two thirds of the Member States must vote in favour in all other cases.

3. The qualified majority shall cover at least 62% of the EU’s population.

Qualified majority or not?

The EU Information Centre in the Danish Parliament has created a ‘flash calculator’, which can be used to find out which combinations of countries can constitute a qualified majority or blocking minority respectively.

The flash calculator is available at http://euo.dk/flashberegner/beregner_en.html