The Socialist Government, the European Constitution and the Dual Majority

The Socialist Government, the European Constitution and the Dual Majority


After a period of reflection lasting several weeks, the incoming Socialist government recently revealed which power-sharing formula for the Council of Ministers of the European Union it will defend at the intergovernmental conference (IGC) responsible for ratifying the draft European constitution. Spain’s official position is that acts of the Council can be adopted only when they are sanctioned by a majority of member states and two thirds of the population (the formula known as ‘50-66’). Is this the right formula to maximise Spain’s influence in the enlarged Union? In what way does it differ from the other options? Why is this government following its predecessor in presenting this particular formula as one of the best options for Spain?


This study analyses the implications of the formula put forward by the new Socialist government and concludes that the thinking behind the 50-66 proposal is to maximise Spain’s blocking power. By way of an alternative to the current position, the article suggests a strategy which is more in line with the government’s pro-European stance and aims at an optimum reconciliation of national and European interests. It looks at formulas which, while distributing power in the Council as fairly as possible, also contribute to more agile decision-making. Applying them would enable Spain to equate its influence with that of the major states and strengthen EU institutions, an essential task if the enlarged Union is to prove governable.


A Formula at Last (But Not Problem Free)

When it came to power in March, one of the first things the Socialist government said was that it was ready to accept the idea of a dual majority (of states and population) as a valid approach to the negotiations in the forthcoming session of the intergovernmental conference on how power is to be shared in the Council of Ministers. Prior to this, it had not said what specific thresholds it would like to see in terms of number of states and number of inhabitants needed to enact, or to block, Council decisions. According to Spain’s new minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, speaking on 10 May, instead of the proposal contained in article 24 of the draft constitution, which puts forward a formula based on a majority of states and three fifths of the population (50-60), Spain prefers a formula combining a majority of states and two thirds of the population (50-66). Thus armed, the new government is set to face the negotiations at the ICG, a shade defiantly after one of its spokesman hailed the 50-66 formula as ‘nonnegotiable’.

Four things can be said of the position adopted by the foreign ministry: (1) it ratifies what the government said from the outset, in that it accepts the dual-majority concept but not necessarily the 50-60 formula proposed by the convention; (2) that its own 50-66 formula is identical to that which, after the Nice Treaty, most appealed to the outgoing conservative government and which was thus closest to being adopted at the indecisive negotiations of the European Council in Brussels in December 2003; (3) it marks the first time since the ICG talks began in October 2003 that the Spanish government has stated its preference publicly; and (4) that the favoured 50-66 formula was announced without offering the citizenry any legal or technical explanations to understand and eventually support their government’s stand.

The change in the new government’s negotiating style, in committing itself openly to a stated formula, is not entirely problemfree. Though Spain now accepts dual majorities instead of the system of weighted votes enshrined in Nice, it is dead set against the 50-60 threshold proposed in the draft constitution. Given the currently confused political scene in Poland (the other member state opposed to article 24), following the resignation on 2May of premier Leszek Miller, Moratinos’ proposal means that Spain is now the only country to have openly rejected article 24 in its present terms. We are thus back to where we were in December of last year, when in view of the widespread understanding that Poland would cave in if Spain surrendered, all eyes were on Madrid to see how far it was prepared to go in defence of its position.

Consequently, the new conciliatory approach seems to have been overshadowed, despite the change in government, by Spain’s continued opposition, to all intents and purposes alone, to article 24 of the draft constitution and for the sake of a mere 6.66% of the EU’s population. In absolute terms the difference separating the Moratinos formula from that contained in the draft constitution amounts to 32.8 million inhabitants. In other words, in Spain’s view, in a European Union of 27 members inhabited by 484.8 million people, any combination of states contributing a third of the population, 161.6 million, can block a Council decision. For the proponents of the terms contained in the draft constitution, on the other hand, only states with a combined population of 194.4 million inhabitants, ie, two fifths of the total, can block decisions (see Table 5). Given the difference separating the two sides, it seems odd that a spokesman for the Spanish government should have declared its position ‘nonnegotiable’ (El País, 13 May 2004, p. 24). Even allowing for the tactical theatricality usually employed in such cases, ‘nonnegotiable’ seems a bit dire. Does it mean that as far as Madrid is concerned, the difference of 6.6%, or 32 million inhabitants, separating its 50-66 formula from the 50-60 threshold proposed in the draft constitution is a matter of principle? If so, why? What are its grounds?

Before the new government starts to twist arms at the IGC, with the consequent loss of diplomatic and pro-European credibility that this usually entails, it might do better to open a public debate in Spain on the statutory and practical considerations on which it bases its preference for the 50-66 formula. Its arguments may cut little ice in the closed-door negotiations at the IGC, but they are essential in a democracy. Besides, in practical terms they do have an importance, as one of the difficulties its predecessor faced was the lack of a coherent argument in favour of the terms agreed in Nice. The government commitment to the 50-66 formula should have been preceded by: (1) an explanation of why it rejects the 50-60 threshold of article 24; (2) a detailed account of what its own 50-66 formula means in terms of defending national interests; and (3) a defence of the contribution this formula will make to equity and efficiency in power-sharing in the European Union. Having elected not to do this, the government can hardly complain if we speculate on the whys and wherefores of the various proposals.

Do Votes Matter?

Before going into the niceties of the different formulas under discussion, it is worth making some general points on power, voting prerogatives and decision-making in the European Union.

In actual fact, the negotiating power of an EU country bears little relation to the number or proportion of votes it holds in the Council of Ministers. Much more important is the country’s ability to obtain favourable decisions and for this purpose voting is but one link in a long chain which includes establishing preferences, setting agendas, forming coalitions, a willingness to compromise and, like it or not, good old horse-trading. Spain supported the European Monetary Union and obtained in recompense the cohesion funds. It finally accepted enlargement to the East, in exchange for a significant strengthening of the EU’s Mediterranean policy. Neither of these decisions was ever voted on; they were both the result of political consensus in the European Council (of heads of state), which, as it happens, never votes. So the argument that the influence of a country of the European Union depends entirely on the number or proportion of its votes is, not to mince words, wrong.

Also, as a result of successive treaty reforms in the 1990s (Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and, now, the convention) many political issues have been removed from the sphere of unanimous acceptance to be processed as matters requiring a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers and ratification by the European Parliament. The Council has thereby lost considerable power in favour of the Parliament. There again, it is a plain fact that with each successive enlargement of the Union, the power of each member state in the Council diminishes, regardless of voting rules. Thus, although Spain improved its relative power under Nice, from having 9.2% of the Council votes of an EU of 15 member states (8 out of 87), it will now have only 7.8% (27 out of 345) in the EU-27, a long way from the 10.5% it held in the EU-12. Any discussion of the rules for allocating votes and voting rights on the Council must therefore bear in mind the loss of power of the Council in favour of other EU institutions and the relative loss of voting power suffered by all member states as a result of enlargement.

It seems clear that the European Union operates in the main by consensus. It prefers a less satisfactory accord on which all are agreed to a good agreement to which some are opposed. On numerous occasions when issues could be solved quickly by putting them to a vote, efforts to reach a unanimous decision are pursued until all possibilities are exhausted. The net result is that votes on the Council are relatively infrequent and, with the odd exception, never affect key national interests. As shown in Figure 1, of the last 296 Council acts agreed in the last fifteen months, between January 2003 and March 2004, although 169 of them could legally have been decided by qualified majority, the final decision was unanimous. Note that Spain only voted against the majority or abstained on nine occasions, all of them on very minor issues. On no occasion did Spain join forces with a sufficient number of states to come anywhere near the threshold required to block a vote, either under Nice or dual majorities. In short, the Council rarely votes, and dissenting votes are usually so isolated as to render thresholds irrelevant.

Even when consensus fails and issues are voted on, the negotiating power of a given country depends on factors other than voting power. These are: (1) the distance between its position and the status quo (the further the country is from the status quo, the more uphill its task of persuasion); (2) the distance separating it from the consensus view (the closer a state is to the consensus, the more likely it is to make its vote count); (3) the distance separating a state’s position from the Commission’s original proposal (the further the distance, the more difficult it is to change the recommendation). For details, see Bailer 2004, Mattila and Lane 2001 and Stokman and Thomson 2004.

The negotiating skills of a government and of its representatives in Brussels also carry much weight. But talent alone rarely suffices. Success depends more on structural internal factors, such as the quality of political management, the efficiency of the supporting bureaucracy, the presence or absence of subsidiary (regional, federal or semi-autonomous) levels of government that have to take part in the negotiations or ratify the agreements reached, the watchfulness of specialist committees in domestic parliaments, the existence or not of coalition governments, the weight of European consensus on public opinion, media power and, finally, the effectiveness or otherwise of lobbies.

On this evidence it comes as no surprise that the number of contributory factors involved makes it extremely hard to equate votes with power. It is equally difficult to gauge a country’s negotiating power on the basis of the votes allocated to it. For example, to judge from the number of dissenting votes in the Council (Figure 2), it looks as though Germany is a poor negotiator, as it has a much higher proportion of negative votes than its peers. In actual fact, this is due to the lack of coordination in European matters between, on the one hand, its foreign and economy ministries and, on the other, between the federal government and the Länder, or regional governments, when negotiating issues for which the latter have exclusive responsibility. Spain, on the other hand, has resolved the horizontal and vertical coordination between central and peripheral government pretty well, and appears as a better negotiator than Germany, regardless of the number of its votes.

None of the foregoing should be read as meaning that votes are unimportant. They are very important, but at a different level. For a start, decision-making rules and the allocation of votes are the quintessential core of any constitutional process. Rules must be effective from a collective standpoint and equitable in terms of power sharing. If they are ineffective or unfair, their legitimacy will be called into question, and instead of alleviating collective problems, they will aggravate them. Ground rules must also be sufficiently general, clear and comprehensible as not to require continual fine-tuning. They should be designed to meet the demands of what Rawls called the ‘original position’, reached by imagining what rules appear fair to us regardless of what fate holds in store for us particularly –in this case, whether ours be a large, small or medium-sized country, rich or poor, central or peripheral, etc–. Rules drawn up on the basis of self-interest present two difficulties: they are of dubious legitimacy and they embody risk, as changing circumstances can make us the victims of our own selfishness. Designing simple equitable rules is not a matter of altruism but a shrewd long-term investment.

Rules are also important in a practical sense. On countless occasions the alleged weakness of the rules of the EU is illustrated by the example of how, in the EEC of six countries, Luxemburg, with only 0.2% of the population, had 5.9% of the votes (one out of 17) whereas Germany, with 32% of the population, had only four votes (23.5% of the total). What this really illustrates, however, is the mathematical shortcomings of the founding fathers of the European Community in establishing a qualified majority of twelve votes and a blocking minority of six votes. On paper it looked excellent, in practice it meant that Luxemburg’s single vote never swayed a single decision, between 1959 and 1973 its negotiating power was exactly zero. Germany’s negotiating power, on the other hand, was 23.8% (see Felsenthal and Machover, 2000, p. 2).

Similarly, when Spain joined the European Community in 1986, Italy saw to it that it had eight votes, rather than the seven that the other large countries had arranged for it. With Spain’s eight votes, Portugal’s five votes, and its own ten votes, Italy had the 23 votes necessary to block any decision of the fifteen-strong Community. In the course of the negotiations on the entry of Austria, Sweden and Finland in 1994-95, resulting in the Ioannina compromise, this formula allowed the so-called ‘Mediterranean blocking’, which was crucial in preserving Mediterranean agriculture, of only incidental concern to the majority. It was equally influential in obtaining approval of the structural funds from which Spain has derived such benefit.

Another matter people are apt to forget is that, given that the EU has now expanded on the basis of the rules applicable pre-Nice, between 1 May and 31 October of this year, when Nice finally comes into effect, the 19 smallest countries will have 55% of the votes in the Council, despite representing only 25% of the EU population. At the same time, the new members, with a population of less than 100 million inhabitants, will together hold the 37 votes needed for a blockingminority. Spain, Italy and Portugal at present, despite having 110 million inhabitants, have only 23 votes, too few to form a blocking minority despite their larger combined population.

Votes are therefore very important. But they are important in relative, rather than absolute, terms. Where they are crucial is in the margin. As in the case of rebel MPs or coalition governments, the last vote, the one that turns a minority into a majority, is the one that really counts. This explains why in measuring the relative weight of votes in the Council people tend to look to see what number of votes, among all the possible combinations, makes their vote crucial in forming a qualified majority in favour or a blocking minority against.

Absolute or Relative Power?

To measure decision-making efficiency you have to calculate what percentage of all possible coalitions qualifies as a ‘winning’ coalition, given the rules in force. Decision-making efficiency is related first and foremost with the decision-making threshold. The higher the threshold required to constitute a qualified majority, the higher the number of coalitions that fail to qualify and the more difficult it is to get a decision. As a result of the high threshold established under Nice (73.91% of the weighted votes for EU-27) decision-making efficiency will be very low indeed, as of the 130 million possible coalitions in an EU-27, only 2.1% of them meet at least one of the three requirements of the Nice Treaty: a majority of States, 73.91% of the weighted votes and 62% of the population. On the other hand, under the dual-majority rule of 50-60 proposed by the convention the so-called ‘pass probability’ on any measure is 21.9%. The Spanish proposal of 50-66 limits efficiency to 12.9%. Note that these are quantitative, not qualitative measurements; they tell us the likelihood of a decision being adopted but say nothing about its quality.

To gauge how fair a power-sharing system is there are a number of standardised indexes for measuring voting power. The best-known are the Shapley-Shubik Index (SSI) and the Normalised Banzhaf Index (NBI). The technical difference between them is whether the order of voting in each coalition is considered relevant or not (Winkler 1998, p. 396). The NBI is the most widely used in studies on power-sharing in the EU and is the one employed here.

By using these indexes we can compare the voting power of each country under different voting rules. For instance, under the 50-60 threshold formula proposed by the convention, Spain would have a negotiating power of 6.4. In other words, Spain’s votes would be decisive in 6.4% of all possible coalitions designed to achieve a qualified majority. If Spain adopted the 50-66 threshold defended by Moratinos, it would raise its negotiating power to 7.1. It is worth pointing out that the percentage of votes and the negotiating power of a given country do not always coincide. Thus, under the Nice rules in an EU of 27 members, Spain would have 7.82% of the votes (27 out of 345) but its voting power on the NBI scale would be 7.40. Similarly, if article 24 of the draft constitution is adopted, with its dual majority of 50-60, Spain, despite having 8.8% of the population of the EU-27 (484 million), would have an NBI voting power of only 6.4.

To measure actual power, the standardised indexes should be employed rather than extrapolations of percentages of votes. Table 1 shows the NBI Index for various power-sharing formulas, together with the scores for ‘pass probability’ or decision-making efficiency. However, this requires an important question to be answered first: before we weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of one or other of the formulas, should we focus on absolute power (in which case we should opt for the formula which maximises the decision-making power of all countries) or, instead, look for formulas that maximise our relative power. Tables 1 and 2 present the options open to Spain depending on which approach to voting power she adopts.

Table 1. Absolute Power in EU-27 on the NBI Index

NiceDual majority of states and population
Germany minus Spain0.
France minus Spain0.

Note for Tables 1 and 2: Aside from Germany and Spain, we used three ‘typical’ countries: France, as representative of the countries having 60 million inhabitants (France, Italy and the United Kingdom); Greece, in the ten-million league, along with the Czech Republic, Belgium, Hungary and Portugal; and Denmark, typical of the countries (Denmark, Finland and Slovakia) having approximately five million inhabitants.

Sources for Tables 1 and 2: Baldwin and Widgren (2004), Table 3. For the 55-65 thresholds (column C) we used the IOP program of König and Bräunniger with the population data contained in Table 5.

According to Table 1, if what Spain wants is to maximise its absolute power, it should try to raise as high as it can the population threshold required to approve a decision. Given that Spain is a medium-sized country, its population is of more use to it the lower the population threshold required to form a blocking minority. From this standpoint, the 50-66 threshold formula would be better than the 50-60 formula, but worse than 50-70, which is the formula the EU has been using since its foundation. On this basis, the formula proposed by the foreign minister is justified in the sense that it maximises Spain’s absolute power, although it also considerably improves the absolute power of the other large countries. Note in Table 1 how the absolute power of France and Germany also rises in line with that of Spain the higher the population threshold is raised.

However, if Spain were interested in becoming a large country in relative terms, in other words, as big as the big countries without their population, it should go for the opposite formulas to those it is currently pursuing. With a lower population than either France of Germany, the formulas that most closely equate the power of Spain to that of these two countries are the ones that reduce, not raise, the population threshold, and which also raise the number of states required to obtain a majority. Table 2 shows how the different formulas affect relative power.

Table 2. Relative Power in EU-27 on the NBI Index

Dual majority of states and population
Germany minus Spain0.
France minus Spain0.

For relative power, it is precisely the opposite formula, 60-50, to that included in the draft Constitution, 50-60, which most nearly equates Spain’s power to that of France and Germany, despite the fact that it lowers Spain’s absolute power from 6.4 to 4.1. Interestingly, the 60-50 combination is also the formula that brings Spain nearer the Treaty of Nice in terms of her relative power: a difference of 0.4% with France, the same as under Nice, and of 0.9% with Germany. Under the Moratinos 50-66 proposal, the difference with France would be 3.2 points, while the difference with Germany would be a massive 6.7 points.

The conclusions are clear (see Figure 3). In terms of relative power, the 50-66 formula multiplies Germany’s power with respect to Spain’s by a factor of seven compared with the 60-50 formula. A 60-60 formula (dual three fifths) would also be highly beneficial for Spain. So, if Spain wants to improve its absolute power, its best options lie in Table 1, raising the population threshold. If it wants to improve its relative power, it should retain or reduce the population threshold and try to raise the threshold of states (Table 2). Any negotiations along the latter lines will have the added advantage of making Spain popular among the small- and medium-sized countries, together with the Commission and the Parliament. The 50-50 formula, together with 55-55 or 55-60, would serve its interests in carrying the same weight as the large countries but without setting up a ‘directoire’ or inner circle of the large countries. It would also improve decision-making efficiency, conferring greater power on the Commission and the Parliament, and result in a fairer distribution of power in the Council of Ministers.

Blocking Minorities and Fair Distribution of Votes

From what has been said so far it is clear that despite the official line, which says that there is no good served by thinking in terms of blocking minorities, the virtue of the 50-66 formula proposed by the minister resides for him in maximising Spain’s blocking ability, not in equating Spain’s voting power with that of the large countries. On what do we base this statement?

As stated earlier, the rules for reaching decisions can be valued for their effect on decision-making efficiency or on an equitable distribution of votes. In the case of the 50-60 formula included in the draft constitution, a high efficiency ratio (21.9%) in comparison with Nice (2.1%) operates alongside a highly inequitable distribution of the ability to block decisions, which is left in the hands of a tiny number of states (the big ones). This occurs because, under the Nice rules, in a Union of 27 states, no combination of the three big countries could muster the votes needed to block a decision, whereas with the 50-60 proposal in the draft constitution any combination of Germany plus two of the other three big states, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, would suffice to do the job.

So we should not be surprised if Spain has studied which formulas will allow her to benefit from the possibility of forming part of the select group of three big countries enjoying the right to form blocking minorities. This is clearly the logic behind the proposal of foreign minister Moratinos, 50-66, as it was of the sympathy that the same formula received from members of the outgoing government. Under the 50-66 formula, the ‘directoire’ of big countries expands to include Poland and Spain, in such a way that either of them can offer her votes to France and Germany to form a blocking minority; the sum of their combined populations would be 38.1% of the total population of the EU-27, well clear of the 33.3% needed to block proposals. At the same time, with 50-66 Spain could also form a blocking ‘Mediterranean’ minority, alongside France and Italy plus another partner, such as Portugal, thereby accounting for 35.0% of the European population, again higher than the necessary 33.3%. Table 3 shows what possibilities Spain has of blocking proposals under various circumstances. Blocking minorities, labelled BM, are shown in bold type.

Table 3. Spain’s Blocking Capacity Under Different Scenarios and Coalitions

EU-25 Pre-Nice1EU-25 Nice2EU-27 Constitution 50-603EU-27 Moratinos 50-664
Population of 455.17 millionPopulation of 484.82 million
Total votes124 votes321 votes27/100027/1000
Qualified majority88 votes232 votes (70.98%) plus 62% of the populationHalf + one State and 3/5 of the populationHalf + one State and 2/3 of the population
Blocking minority37 votes90 votes or 38.01% pop. (173 million)14 States or 40.01% pop. (194.4 million)14 States or 33.3% pop.(161.6 million)
Ger + Fra + Spa28 votes (-9 BM)85 votes and 184.76 mill. (BM 62% pop)38.1% (-1.91%)38.1% (+4.76%) (BM 33.3%)
Fra + Spa + Ita + Por(169.7 million)33 votes (-4 BM)97 votes (BM 90 votes) (BM 62% pop)35.0% (-5% BM)35.0% (+2.3% BM)
Spa + Ita + Por(110.8 million)23 votes (-14 BM)68 votes (-22 BM)22.7% (-17.3% BM)22.7% (-10.6% BM)
10 new members(74.29 million)37 votes (BM 37 votes)84 votes (-6 BM)15.5% (-24.5% BM)15.5% (-17.8% BM)
UE-27 PECOs 10(102.4 million)NA101 votes (+ 10 votes BM)21.6% (-18.4% BM)21.6% (11.7% BM)


In force between 1 May and 31 October 2004.

(2) In force from 1 November 2004 until ratification of Art. 24 of the draft Constitution.

(3) Formula proposed by Giscard d’Estaing and included in Art. 24 of the draft Constitution

(4) Formula proposed by the Spanish government in May 2004.

Boxes in bold type show potential blocking majorities.

Source: MEMO 04/061 and Eurostat T3/20-2003.

The conclusions to be drawn in terms of Spain’s blocking power under the different scenarios are as follows:

(1)     Until the Treaty of Nice comes into play, the existing system of allocated votes, due to last until 31 October 2004, gives rise to a genuine problem of legitimacy, given that, as can be seen in Column A, it paradoxically allows the ten new members of the Union to have a blocking minority (37 votes) despite having only 74.29 million inhabitants (16.2% of the total population). Meanwhile, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, with more than twice the number of inhabitants (169.7 million) cannot attain the necessary 37 votes. This demonstrates that the pre-Nice system was unworkable; overrepresentation of the small- and medium-sized countries means that countries accounting for only 16% of the total population are in a position to block decisions, while countries accounting for 37.2% of the total population are powerless in this respect. What is truly alarming is that such a system should have been countenanced, albeit for only six months.

(2)     The Treaty of Nice is positive for Spain as it almost equates its voting and blocking powers with those of the big countries. However, Nice, which will govern Council voting until the formula approved in the constitution comes into force (unlikely before 2009), does not confer on Spain the ability to block decisions with the support of only two of the big countries; it needs four, or some combination of three big- and one medium-sized country to reach the 90 or 91 votes required in an EU-25 or EU-27, respectively, to block proposals. One untested possibility that few have noticed is that as a result of the third qualifying criterion approved under Nice, that majority decisions represent at least 62% of the population, the so-called ‘safety net’, Spain could obtain a blocking capacity with two of the big countries, such as France and Germany, given that the 184.76 million inhabitants that the three add up to represent 40.6% of the population of EU-25 and 38.1% of EU-27. However, the terms in which recourse to the third Nice criterion, the ‘safety net’ are couched mean that the 62% qualification operates differently from the other two; the dual majority, a simple majority of states and a qualified majority of weighted votes is one requirement, but the representative status of the population is an option that any member state can request, thus making this recourse of limited use and high political cost, similar, to a certain extent, to the Luxemburg and Ioannina compromises.

(3)     From a blocking perspective, the 50-60 formula would be sufficient for Spain, assuming that the political goal is close relations with France and Germany. With 50-60, Spain plus France plus Germany, 38.1%, would only need the addition of a medium-sized country (Greece, Portugal or Belgium) to reach a blocking minority. Under 50-66, blocking coalitions will be easier to come by, with no need for Germany to form part of them. This opens the door to a ‘Mediterranean coalition’, including France and Italy and either Portugal or Greece. Thus, the virtue of the 50-66 formula is that it could operate well in close cooperation with the Franco-German axis, and also as a Mediterranean counterweight to an EU that looks too lovingly on the East. It might also operate –who can tell?– within the anti Franco-German context that the Aznar government was so keen on, given that the combined population of the United Kingdom, Spain and Poland, 28.9%, comes very close to the one-third blocking minority. The problem here is that the price to pay to broaden Spain’s blocking capacity is to extend the blocking capacity of the four large states; with 50-66, Germany and France, with29.3% of the European population, would be just four points short of a blocking minority.

Conclusions: In supporting the 50-66 formula, Spain is clearly concerned to enhance its blocking majority. In doing so it abandons the idea of obtaining more efficient, legitimate and equitable rules that Europeans can understand and possibly even support. When more than 80% of domestic legislation today is initiated in Brussels, defence of the interests of Spaniards is not just a government’s right but its obligation. However, the way intergovernmental conferences work, national interests tend to get put before European interests, a problem that arises inevitably but which should now attract particular concern, and be balanced by a fair and equitable distribution of power if we want our European project to prosper.

Possibly the most interesting feature of Spain’s bid for the 50-66 formula is the fact that it means a return to tough negotiating tactics at the intergovernmental conference, combined with a lack of public explanation of the technical grounds on why this government, like its predecessor, finds this formula so satisfactory. The previous government, interested solely in maximising its blocking power, was unable or unwilling to stress the fact that the 50-60 formula included in article 24 concentrated almost all blocking power in the most populated states at the expense of all the medium-sized and small states, thereby paving the way for control by a ‘directoire’ of large states. In spite of the fact that new rules signify a loss of power compared with those of Nice, not only for Spain and Portugal but for a total of 17 countries, Spain has so far focused its diplomatic attention on formulas which include it within the coveted ‘directoire’, regardless of the extent to which it thereby reinforces the power of the large countries. Yet this study shows that there are other formulas which, while equating Spain’s influence with that of its larger neighbours, do so not at the expense of creating or reinforcing directories of large countries in the Council but of distributing power more fairly and improving the fluidity of the decision-making process in general.

A Union of 25 countries will inevitably require strong leadership, very probably in the shape of an effective directory of major countries capable of providing the political driving force to keep the Union together and on track. That said, the place to exercise leadership, with long-term decisions across all areas of European policy, is not in the Council of Ministers, whose time is taken up with implementing decisions, legislatively or executively. As we saw recently with respect to the Stability Pact, the practical politics of the major states in the Council of Ministers can, at times, be diametrically opposed to the strategies adopted in the European Council and to the ground rules of the Union. In the meantime, many countries, Spain among them, have found solid political and legal backing in the Commission, the Parliament and the Court of Justice whenever the large countries have used their weight to avoid compliance with the rules which they themselves established. Those who know the internal workings of the Council of Ministers well, say much the same regarding how the large nations tend to use their influence more to undermine the rules than to vouchsafe them. The lesson to be learnt here for the future is clear. Greatness is demonstrated in the European Council; the Council of Ministers expresses coherence. With or without votes, the large countries already have enough weight in EU institutions; any additional reinforcement in the Council of Ministers will almost certainly produce additional temptations for the larger states to put their particular interests before the collective interests of the Union as a whole.

José Ignacio Torreblanca, UNED


Bailer, Stefanie (2004), ‘Bargaining Success in the EU’, European Union Politics 5(1) p. 99-123.

Baldwin, Richard and Widgrén, Mika (2004), ‘Winners and Losers under Various Dual Majority Voting Rules for the EU’s Council of Ministers’, CEPS Policy Brief, No. 50, April.

Felsenthal, Dan S. and Machover, Moshé (2000), ‘Enlargement of the EU and the Weighted Voting in its Council of Ministers’, Report of the Voting Power Programme (VPP), VPP 01/00, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mattila, Mikko and Lane, Jan Erik (2001), ‘Why Unanimity in the Council: A Roll Call Analysis of Council Voting’, European Union Politics 2 (1), p. 31-52.

Stokman, Frans and Thomson, D. (2004), ‘Winners and Losers in the EU’, European Union Politics 5(1), p. 5-23.

Winkler, Michael G. (1998), ‘Coalition-Sensitive Voting Power in the Council of Ministers: The Case of Eastern Enlargement’, Journal of Common Market Studies 36(3), p. 391-404.


Table 5. Population and Votes in the EU

EU-27Pop.Pop.Votes EU-15Votes EU-27Convention Proposal
(million)(%)Pre-Nice (EU-27)NiceList AList B
Czech Rep.10,22,10(5)12121
EU-27484,8210087 (124)345271,000
Qualified majority (MC) in votes62 (88) votes255 votes14 Statesand 600 votes
Qualified majority (QM) in percentage71,26% (70.97%)73,91%51%60% pop.
Blocking minority (BM) in votes26 (37)votes91 votes14 stateso 401 votes


Population figures are provisional, based on projections as at 2003.

The votes in brackets in column C refer to EU-25 between 01/V/2004 and 31/X/2004.

The votes in column E are calculated in thousand to facilitate rounding.

Source: CONFER 4796/00 and EUROSTAT T3/20-2003