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Unchaining EU climate policy: quarrels over EU decision-making likely to continue

Earlier this year, the European Commission started to work on a new EU energy and climate change package, which will define European climate initiatives until 2030[1]. Whatever the EU plans to do at home will influence its negotiating position at the international negotiations in Paris in 2015 (COP21), where the international community seeks to hammer out the next major agreement to address climate change. But the strength of the 2030 package is likely to depend on precisely how the EU decides on climate policy.

In a nutshell, deciding policy on climate change in the EU sounds easy. The Commission (think EU executive/government) consults with everybody and proposes policies, and the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (‘the Council’) vote on these proposals. If the latter two agree, the policy comes into effect. In principle, this process isn’t so different from how policy is made in Washington, Berlin or Paris. But of course, reality is slightly more complicated. In fact, the way that the Council—where EU member states are represented—decides, and in particular whether it uses unanimity or qualified majority voting (QMV), is quite possibly the linchpin of the strength of the 2030 climate and energy package.

Qualified majority voting means that the size or ‘weight’ of member states is taken into account when they vote in the Council. This system prevents a small group of EU member states from conspiring against what most Europeans want. But precisely because QMV can override a minority of member states, countries are reluctant to open up policy areas for QMV. Highly sensitive policies, such as taxation or energy policy still require unanimity in the Council, meaning that a single country can block policy proposals, as Poland has done repeatedly on recent energy policy proposals[2].

Because climate change policy grew out of environmental policy in the EU, the Council is supposed to use QMV on related decisions. This is key. Had climate policy been created under the ‘energy policy umbrella’, every climate-related decision in the Council would require consensus (unanimity). So why is there a discussion on climate policy and qualified majority voting?

A part of the answer is that as climate and energy policy are becoming increasingly entangled, it is becoming more difficult to decide which decision-making rule applies in the Council of Ministers. For example, unanimity has been used to vote on the EU Energy Roadmap for 2050, and Poland was able to veto progress because of the unanimity requirement. Environmental groups are making the argument that this is climate policy, which should be decided on by qualified majority voting[3][4], but so far the Council has refused to accept this argument.

A second – and perhaps more important – reason for why the Council may be reluctant to use QMV lies in history. In fact, contrary to official rules, the current 2020 EU energy and climate change package was not decided by QMV. Back in 2008, then French President Nicholas Sarkozy got together with the leaders of the other European nations, and negotiated a consensus deal on climate change. The Council of Environmental ministers in turn rubber-stamped that agreement[5]. Although this move was celebrated at the time, because Europe needed to show the international community that it was serious about climate, this created an expectation that such far-reaching decisions are made by unanimity, no matter what the official rules are.

Going forward, it is likely that this question on how to decide on climate policy will emerge again when new climate policy proposals on the 2030 package reach the Council. In the shadow of history, questions will revolve around whether the policy is an environment/climate policy or an energy policy and consequently, what the appropriate voting method is. The strength of the 2030 EU energy and climate package will likely depend on who gains the upper hand in this struggle.

Correction: Mark Johnston (@mark_johnston) has kindly pointed out to to me that the the controversy over QMV and the Energy Roadmap centered on the use of QMV for Council Conclusions and not legislative activity. See Un-blocking climate action: Parliament wants Council to vote

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