What unanimity means

John Major

EUobserver reports a new threat to the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, arising from the Aaland islands. An autonomous part of Finland, the Aaland government is apparently demanding the same right that Sweden already has to sell snuff. Snuff is banned throughout the EU for public health reasons, but Sweden insisted on an exemption as part of its accession to the EU in 1994. Now the Aaland islands want to follow suit, and are apparently threatening to torpedo the treaty in order to get what they want.

But what has snuff got to do with the changes made by the Lisbon treaty to the institutional arrangements of the European Union?

The answer is nothing at all, except that a revision of those arrangements gives the opportunity for all kinds of other issues to be thrown into the pot at the same time. And, if someone else wants to do it, they are entitled to do so, just as we reserve the right to do so ourselves.

This is what unanimity means. Any decision, on anything, can be overturned art any time. Even if the issue at stake would normally be dealt with by Qualified Majority Voting, it can be attached to some other issue that is decided by unanimity.

Substantial changes were made to the Common Fisheries Policy in order to secure Spanish agreement to the Scandinavian enlargement in 1994. John Major tried to link all kinds of issues to the ban on exports of British beef during his famous “beef war” in 1996. These linkages are common, and are one of the reasons why the legislative process in the EU is complicated and obscure. A more transparent way of making and amending legislative proposals would expose these linkages to the light and probably reduce how many there are.

But if member states want to be bloody-minded, there is nothing, save a sense of shame, that can stop them.

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