Media Briefings

Decision-Making In The EU’s Council Of Ministers: Why ‘Qualified Majority Voting’ Matters

  • Published Date: January 2008

Despite a shift away from national vetoes in the European Union’s (EU) top decisionmaking
body, the Council of Ministers, many decisions are passed unanimously.
This might imply that the replacement of national vetoes with ‘qualified majority
voting’ in many areas of policy as a result of the Single European Act had little
practical effect, even though this shift was hotly contested at the time.
New research by Professor Daniel Seidmann, published in the January 2008 issue
of The Economic Journal, shows that even if a decision made under a system of
qualified majority voting was approved unanimously, the same measure may not
have been passed if one country was able to veto it. This is because outsiders such
as national pressure groups, which cannot observe how a country votes, can infer
voting behaviour of one country from the overall decision of the Council.
The Single European Act allowed the EU's Council of Ministers to change policy
without agreeing unanimously. The size of the requisite majorities (the 'quota') has
subsequently been reduced, and qualified majorities are now allowed in more areas
of policy. These changes have been strongly contested, with UK governments
repeatedly resisting diminution of unanimity rule in order to protect national interests.
The Act was passed after a long decline in the number of agreements, and reversed
the trend. This evidence is consistent with the conventional view that reducing the
quota can only be effective by preventing the committee from gridlocking on a
given proposal.
Having said this, the Council characteristically votes unanimously, even if a qualified
majority would suffice. The proposals would then pass if the quota were raised:
which suggests that the quota is irrelevant. What has all the fuss been about?
Professor Seidmann explains why private committees like the Council vote
unanimously, irrespective of the quota. He argues that varying the requisite majority
changes the policies that such committees agree to. This runs counter to
conventional wisdom, which implicitly assumes that there is a single possible
alternative to the status quo.
Quota variations are effective in private committees because they change outsiders'
inferences from unexpected committee decisions. For example, if unanimity is
required, then the failure to pass a resolution means that an outsider (national
pressure groups) knows that at least one country must have dissented. In contrast,
failure to agree a simple majority implies that most countries disagreed with a
A private committee can therefore choose a quota that induces it to reach policies in
its members' collective interest. Specifically, if the committee would never agree to a
policy worse than the status quo then the policy that the committee reaches
improves as smaller majorities are allowed for. The best quota for the committee is
then a simple majority, which, ironically, is exactly the conventional recommendation.
Although the shift to qualified majority voting is demonstrably superior for the
committee as a group, it may still be undesirable for particular members of that
committee. Professor Seidmann notes that the UK’s opposition to qualified majority
voting may be rational as unanimity can help protect national interests.
Notes for editors: ‘Optimal Quotas in Private Committees’ by Daniel Seidmann is
published in the January 2008 issue of The Economic Journal.
Daniel Seidmann is at the University of Nottingham.
For further information: contact Daniel Seidmann on 0115 846 6737 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768 661095