Renegotiating the Nice Agreement: Spain in the European Parliament

Renegotiating the Nice Agreement: Spain in the European Parliament


This paper looks at the distribution of relative voting power in the European Parliament. It also explains why it is important for Spain to insist on defending its interests in the constitutional proposal for new voting procedures in the Council of the European Union.


When Spain signed the Nice Treaty it agreed to have a strong voting power in the Council but a weak relative voting power in the European Parliament. Now, with the distribution of voting power Council being questioned, it is important for Spain to realise that the trade-off agreed in Nice might backfire. If Spain is forced to yield power in the Council without renegotiating its voting power in the European Parliament, the country’s institutional power in the European Union will become clearly weaker compared with both larger and smaller countries.


In my recent analysis ‘Benchmarks for Maximizing Spain’s Power Potential in the EU’, published in this series, I showed that to avoid losing institutional power, Spain should be extremely careful when negotiating the conditions for substituting the voting power in the Council as agreed in the Nice Treaty for the new double majority system proposed in the draft Constitutional Treaty. This paper attempts to go beyond the findings of my previous analysis.

By accepting the Nice Treaty, Spain, in line with all the other countries in the European Union, agreed to reform the distribution of relative voting power in all of the Union’s democratic organs –the two most important being the Council and the European Parliament–. The negotiations about the future distribution of relative voting power in these two institutions are likely to imply substantial trade-offs, based on each country’s subjective perception of the possible outcome of the negotiations. For instance, many considered that both Spain and Poland were disproportionately ‘lucky’ when the distribution of relative power in the Council was decided at Nice. However, as this analysis will show, while Spain gained significant power in the Council, this was achieved at the expense of losing relative power in the European Parliament.

Spain and the EU Parliament

Most countries are now focusing on the options available once the part of the Nice treaty regulating the distribution of relative power in the  Council is renegotiated. However, it is easy to forget that voting power in the Council cannot be renegotiated in isolation from the distribution of power in other EU institutions.

Table 1 shows the changes in the distribution of voting power in the EU parliament as a result of the Nice Treaty. The Treaty should lead to important changes: Spain will lose 14 seats in Parliament once enlargement is completed, while Germany will maintain its 99 seats. A general observation is that with the exception of Germany and Luxembourg, all member states (EU-15) will end up losing seats as a result of enlargement. The size and scope of these changes are a direct consequence of the Nice agreement.

The questions posed by Table 1 are: (a) whether the relative loss in seats and voting power is homogenous across the 15 member states; (b), how large the individual differences are; and (c) whether it is possible to identify any clear loser or winner.

Table 1. Distribution of Voting Power in the European Parliament Now and After Applying the Nice Treaty
CountryCurrent DistributionBefore the End of the 2009 LegislatureAfter the end of the 2009 Legislature
SeatsRelative PowerSeatsRelative PowerSeatsRelative Power
The Netherlands314,95%273,69%253,40%
Accession Countries
Czech Rep.243,28%222,99%
Candidate Countries

The easiest way to analyse these questions is to compare the proportional loss in parliamentary seats from country to country. In Spain’s case, 14 out of 64 seats will be lost: how large is the relative loss compared to, for instance, France, which will lose 15 out of 87 seats?

Figure 1 shows the relative loss in parliamentary seats by country for the EU-15. It is evident that if Spain is considered to have been lucky when negotiating its power allocation in the Council, the opposite is true when we look at the result of its negotiations for power in the European Parliament. Comparing Spain and France, we see that once enlargement is complete, Spain will have 78% of the seats it had before enlargement. France will have close to 83 %. In other words, Spain’s relative loss will be greater than France’s by close to 5 percentage points. This is a significant difference in most contexts.

An alternative way to look at the changes in power implied by the Nice agreement is to compare the change in relative voting power in the European Parliament. In Table 1 we saw that before enlargement Spain had a relative voting power of 10.2 % (64/626); following enlargement its relative voting power is down to 6.8 %. However, all countries lose relative power as a result of the Nice Treaty. Still, is Spain’s decrease in power greater or smaller than that of the other 14 member states?

Figure 2 provides the answer to this question. As with the relative loss in seats, Spain is the country that loses most relative voting power of all the 15 member states. However, the damage is slightly less in this comparison. If we compare Spain with France, we see that after enlargement, Spain’s relative voting power is 66.4 % of what it was before enlargement, while France’s relative power is 70.4 % of its pre-enlargement power. This is a slight improvement compared with the relative loss in seats analysed above. Nevertheless, Spain’s total relative loss in voting power exceeds France’s by 4 percentage points. When considering these two comparisons it is important to highlight that France has only an average loss of institutional power. Compared with many other countries, Spain’s relative loss in power is far greater.

A final question to address is the relation between voting power and relative size as expressed in a country’s share of the EU’s total population. Table 2 shows the relationship between each country’s relative voting power before and after enlargement and its relative share of the EU’s total population.[1]

Table 2. Comparison of Voting Power and Population Weight in the European Union (EU-15)
Before EnlargementAlter Enlargement
CountryPop. Jan. 1 2004 in MillionsPop. WeightRelative Voting PowerDif. (Vot.-Pop.) (1)Pop. WeightRelative Voting PowerDif. (Vot.-Pop.) (2)Relative Increase in Difference (2)/(1)
The Netherlands16.34,27%4,95%0,68%3,36%3,40%0,04%-94,05%
Base380.7 (EU-15)626 (EU-15)484.4 (EU-27)736 (EU-27)

As regards the relationship between relative voting power and share of the EU’s population before enlargement, Table 2 confirms that the smaller countries are over-represented insofar as their voting power exceeds their relative share of the EU’s total population. This relation will be maintained once enlargement is complete, but with one important difference. The difference in the relation between voting power and relative share of the EU’s population after enlargement will be substantially reduced after enlargement is complete and the Nice Treaty is fully implemented.

The differences increase in the case of the larger countries, with the exception of Germany, which will see a closer correlation between its share of the EU’s total population and its relative voting power. Nevertheless, Germany will continue to be the country with the greatest discrepancy between relative voting power and relative share of the population. The implications for the larger countries are parliamentary under-representation compared with their relative shares of the EU’s total population.

However, as Table 2 shows fairly clearly, changes in the relationship between relative voting power and share of the EU’s population affects countries differently as a result of enlargement and the Nice agreement. Spain will see an increase in its parliamentary under-representation vis-à-vis its share of the EU’s population of a magnitude well above 200 %. No other large country is close to such a deterioration in terms of political representation.[2]

An important question is whether the deterioration in Spain’s voting power in the European Parliament is fair or is merely a correction for past over-representation. In other words, is the Nice Treaty simply bringing the relationship between Spain’s relative voting power in the European Parliament and its share of the EU’s population in line with the experience of other large countries?

Since there are no simple rules for how the population component should affect a country’s relative voting power, the only way to answer this question is to simulate a ‘fair’ distribution of relative voting power, controlling for the population component. At the same time, the model should ensure a minimum representation for the smaller countries.

Table 3 shows the distribution of voting power agreed in Nice for when enlargement is complete (columns 2 and 3). Columns 5, 6, and 7 simulate a ‘seemingly fair’ power distribution based on the assumption that each country first receives five seats, independently of its share of the EU’s population, in order to assure a minimum representation. A total of 135 of the EU parliament’s 736 seats are distributed in this way. The remaining 601 seats are distributed strictly according to each country’s share of the EU’s population. Adding the five obligatory seats to the number of seats obtained as a function of each country’s population share, we obtain the expected number of seats that each country should receive (column 7) when controlling for its share of the EU’s population. Also, no small country has less than five seats as assumed today in the Nice Treaty. Dividing each country’s total by the total number of seats (736) we obtain its expected voting power in the European Parliament, when controlling for differences in population size and ensuring that the smaller countries have a minimum representation.

The last column in the table assesses the difference between the relative voting power of each country as agreed in Nice and the expected voting power resulting from the simulation. If the reported percentage is below 100 % this is an indication that the relative voting power allocated to a country by the Nice Treaty underestimates its relative importance in terms of population. Similarly, if the reported percentage is above 100 % this is an indication that the Nice Treaty over-estimates its importance. Finally, when the reported percentage is equal to 100 % this means that the allocation in the Nice Treaty is in line with my simulation of a fair representation.

Table 3. Comparison of Real Voting Power with Expected Voting Power
Power Distribution According to the Nice TreatySimulated Power Distribution Based on Population Size and a Minimum representation of 5 SeatsAssessment
CountryVoting PowerNr of SeatsPopulation WeightFixed SeatsSeats as a Function of Population SizeTotal Nr of SeatsExpected Voting PowerUnder/Over Representation
The Netherlands3,40%253,36%520253,40%100,00%
Czech Rep.2,99%222,11%513182,45%122,22%
TOTAL100 %736100 %135601736100 %

The results are clear. Spain, along with Estonia, is the country in the European Union that, given its relative share of the EU’s population, benefits less from the relative power allocated to it by the Nice Treaty. The difference between actual and expected voting power is between 2 % to 5 % greater than that of the four larger countries –Germany, France, the UK and Italy–. Consequently, Spain suffers from under-representation to a greater extent than the largest countries. If the population component had been used consistently when allocating seats to countries in the European Parliament, Spain would have had an increase of six seats.

Conclusion: While the simulation only indicates a hypothetical distribution of voting power to serve as a benchmark for comparisons, the result of the analysis, together with the result from the more instrumental forms of comparison applied previously clearly show that Spain is the country in the European Union that stands to lose the most from the Nice Treaty’s allocation of power in the European Parliament.

What are the implications of these findings? Spain will have to make some important decisions in the next few weeks. It will have to decide whether to go along with the proposed changes to the Nice agreement regarding how power should be distributed in the Council. In my previous research paper, ‘Benchmarks for Maximizing Spain’s Power Potential in the EU’, I showed that depending on the outcome of these negotiations Spain risks losing some of its institutional influence in the Council unless it can reach a compromise on its own terms regarding the voting thresholds.

The purpose of this analysis is to show that Spain should be reluctant to cede any of its power in the Council. Spain, in accepting the Nice Treaty, can rightly be said to have benefited from it in terms of its voting power potential in the Council. However, and as this analysis has clearly shown, while it strengthened its institutional power in the Council it also agreed to a disproportionate loss of power in the European Parliament.

If Spain is forced to yield power when renegotiating the distribution of voting power in the Council, without renegotiating its voting power in the European Parliament, its power potential in the European Union as a whole would be seriously undermined compared with both the larger and smaller EU countries.

Rickard Sandell

Senior Analyst, Demography Population and International Migration, Elcano Royal Institute

[1] All population data in this analysis are based on ‘The First Demographic Estimates for 2003’, published by Eurostat.

[2] Note that this comparison is based on the unreasonable assumption that population size is constant until 2009. While this is not likely to be the case, the only implication is that I underestimate the differences in voting power and population weight for Spain, since its population is growing at a faster rate than the other large countries.