The case against unanimity

European Council - Brussels, 19 and 20 June 2008 (source The Council of the European Union)

The phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons is well-known: a resource common to all is over-exploited to the disbenefit of all because there is no means of restraining individuals in their use of that resource. A fish stock is depleted because it is in the interest of each fishing boat, if the others are going to keep fishing until the stock is exhausted, to do the same. A quota system is intended to prevent the tragedy of the commons.

There is also the equivalent but opposite problem. There are too many means of restraining individuals, so that nothing gets done. It is described in an article in the latest issue of the New Yorker (read it here). Examples are quoted such as the nascent American aeroplane industry, where the distribution of patents in the hands of many different companies made it impossible to design and build a new type of plane. The centralisation of patent ownership, or rather of licensing, made it realistic to build aircraft again.

Compulsory purchase orders are used to buy the land needed for new railway lines, on a similar principle. It is observed that:

“When something you own is necessary to the success of a venture, even if its contribution is small, you’ll tend to ask for an amount close to the full value of the venture. And since everyone in your position also thinks he deserves a huge sum, the venture quickly becomes unviable.”

If this is true of commercial ventures, it is also true of political ones. In the EU, when decisions have to be taken by unanimity, decisions are slow and littered with all kinds of problems. Each of the 27 member states has to agree to the decision, which means that each of the 27 can add in all kinds of other conditions before its assent is given.

Under Qualified Majority Voting, the situation is entirely different. Only about 2/3 of the member states have to agree to a proposal – the formula remains quite complicated under the Nice treaty because the Irish people voted against having a simpler one in their referendum – which means that the opposition of others can be overridden. When building a winning coalition, therefore, the first states to join it can add their own additional concerns to the proposal, up to the point at which a sufficient majority is achieved. After that point, the remaining member states will gain nothing from their opposition, as they will be on the losing side in the vote. It is therefore in the interest of each member state to join the coalition rather than to continue to resist it. QMV encourages member states to find and emphasise common interests rather than to focus on their conflicting ones.

That is why the adoption of QMV in the Single European Act was an essential step in creating the single market. It also makes it strange that those people who are most insistent on the pre-eminence of the market in the EU are the most opposed to the use of QMV in creating it.

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