MEP vote on EU Veto power could significantly reshape Malta’s influence in the European Union’s policymaking.
In a democratic Maltese-European country, who should have a greater say in policies affecting the Maltese? The Maltese parliament or the European Union? Most would agree that familiar and reachable Maltese politicians should have a greater role than obscure and distant EU ones.
That is why the EU was originally structured to respect this unique feature of a union of European states. But a series of votes, the latest one due for November 2023, could significantly alter this balance of power, away from Malta and more towards the EU. In today’s article we will explore this balance of power and how more ambitious Eurocrats want to dramatically alter the balance of democracy for small EU states like Malta
Understanding the EU’s Mechanisms
The EU is a very complex political structure. So, before we go into more detail, it is important to have some basic understanding of how new EU laws are made. There are three political bodies, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
The European Commission, a group of 27 non-elected officials and a Commission President (currently former German MP, Ursula Von der Leyen), is entirely focused on proposing new laws. These laws are approved, amended or rejected altogether by the Council of the EU, or jointly by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament. Let’s explain this a bit further.
The European Parliament is designed to represent the interest of the EU as a whole. It’s a huge group of 705 people from all EU countries, with every country having a number of seats allocated according to its population size. Germany being the largest EU state, has 96 seats. Malta, being the smallest state, has only 6 seats.
Then there is the Council of the EU which is made of national Ministers, depending on the topic at hand. The nature of the Council of the European Union is designed to represent the interests of individual countries. Here votes follow what is called Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). Under QMV, laws are passed when 55% of Ministers vote in favour (i.e. at least 15 ministers must approve the law). There is a twist however. It is not enough to gather 15 votes, these Ministers must represent at least 65% of the EU population. If the smallest 15 EU countries vote the same, that law would still not pass as they only account for 14% of the EU population.
For a law to pass, the Council and Parliament need to both agree. However, for some sensitive areas such as taxation and national defence, only the Council has the right to vote. The reason here is simple: some matters are more delicate and directly affect a country. Therefore, it should only be the national politicians who decide for their people.
Competences – where the EU can and connot intervene
The next thing you need to understand is the concept of competences. The EU was founded by its Member States, and in doing so, they decided in which areas the EU can intervene, and in which it cannot. The competences of the EU are limited, and that is by design. In a number of areas, Member States neither want, nor do they trust the EU to make decisions on their behalf. In other areas, they understand that since EU countries are close to each other, it is important to collaborate and allow the EU to collectively decide the best way forward. So there are three types of competences:
- Exclusive EU competences – areas where only the EU can decide.
- Shared competences – areas where both the EU and member countries are able to pass laws.
- Supporting competences: areas where the EU has no power to pass laws or interfere.
EU veto power – Understanding the influence of Small States in EU decision-making
A small country such as Malta can hardly influence decisions in either the Council or Parliament. Rather, it is the big countries who mostly drive the agenda. This is for two reasons. The first is a practical one, the Council and European Parliament are designed to give a large representation to these countries. The second is that countries like Germany and France have a strong, historically embedded interest in the affairs of the continent, and by virtue of this, their national interests strongly overlap with that of Europe.
So, does that mean that Malta must submit entirely its sovereignty? No, and this is thanks to veto power. There are some areas in which only the Council can vote and does not need a vote from the European Parliament. In these special areas, unanimity is required. This means that all members of the Council must agree, and if one country, say Malta, does not agree, it can use its veto power. These areas are:
- common foreign and security policy
- EU membership
- harmonisation of national legislation on indirect taxation
- EU finances
- certain provisions in the field of justice and home affairs
- harmonisation of national legislation in the field of social security and social protection.
These areas are very sensitive, and that is why they require unanimity. Here, Malta can use its veto power to ensure that nothing is imposed on it against its will. The use of veto delays processes, to the frustration of bureaucrats, and in some cases, the larger players of the bloc. In fact, whenever the EU needs to take difficult decisions in a short period of time, voices wanting to end veto power altogether always resurface. And that is what is happening again in November in a European Parliament proposal aimed at making the EU more efficient and less bureaucratic.
How the European Parliament wants to limit veto power
The proposed reforms focus on two areas. The first is expanding the area of reach of the EU. Areas related to environment and biodiversity, which up to now have been shared competencies, will be moved to exclusive EU competencies. Then, areas that were previously national competencies, will move to shared competencies, and these include public health, civil protection, industry, education, energy, foreign affairs, defence, borders and cross-border infrastructure. This means that the EU will be able to interfere in a more pressing manner in the daily lives of citizens, to the detriment of national parliament autonomy.
The second aspect is the replacement of veto power in the Council with QMV. Combined with the wider scope of EU competencies, this means that not only will the powers of national parliaments be considerably restrained, but even its abilities to resist such policies will be limited. Effectively, much of the policy making is influenced by the big players, potentially overlooking the unique needs and concerns of smaller nations in the process. For Malta in particular, the shift to QMV poses a significant challenge. While Malta is represented in the European Parliament, its voice is much smaller compared to larger states. Losing veto power in the Council would further diminish Malta’s ability to influence EU policy directly, raising concerns about the protection of its national interests.
The EU seems to be missing an important lesson from history. Lengthy procedures are always safer than quick ones taken by a powerful few. This principle aligns with the rule of law, emphasising the importance of preventing too much authority in too few hands.
Critics in favour of this proposal say that the veto in the Council has often been used in a political way to gain leverage in other areas. These critics however seem to forget an essential part of politics. Politics is all about interests, bargaining and pragmatism.
The debate over EU decision-making reforms is a delicate balancing act between the need for efficiency and the respect for national sovereignty. While streamlining processes could make the EU more responsive and effective, it also risks marginalising smaller member states. Finding a middle ground that respects the voices of all member states, regardless of size, remains a critical challenge for the future of the EU.
Retaining veto power is therefore an important way to ensure that the interests of mighty big players do not always overrule the justified concerns of the smaller ones. It’s a good way to keep in check the hubris of European giants, and a nice reminder that in their small size, some countries have valid views they can bring to the table. With so much at stake, and the European elections just around the corner, let’s hope that the local media joins Spunt in raising awareness on this sensitive issue.