Thursday 22 November 2012

Veto of Diminishing Returns

Back in 2010 I wrote about the then Dutch government's approach to the EU, and noted that it wasn't particularly fond of vetoes, despite the perception that they're better for smaller Member States to protect their interests. This is because when there must be unanimity, the bigger states can rely on their greater power to get a greater say since they don't have to be afraid of being outvoted. However the UK's veto policy is showing that the value of waving the veto around - the nuclear option in EU politics - doesn't really work for the big states either, and that use devalues the veto heavily.

But it's not just the use of the veto, it's how it's being used. It's ridiculous to announce the circumstances of when you'll use the veto before  negotiations, because if you declare yourself to be uncompromising, then it will be harder to find allies to hammer out a winning position - that process inherently means compromising. Aggressive use of the veto means that the UK becomes less attractive as a negotiating partner, and the focus will switch to building a majority with the rest. Which potential ally could be sure that a British PM could get their minor compromise through the British Parliament - would it not be better to spend time on building a majority that would be more useful in the annual budgets after the UK wields its veto? The majority position after the veto will probably be the basis for any final deal when it comes to finally hammering out the multiannual financial framework, so why waste time on an unreliable partner like the UK?

With officials considering just using the back-up annual budget procedures, which are decided by qualified majority voting, there's talk of EU officials trying to "find a way" around the British veto. It's not trying to find a way around it - the annual procedure is what happens when there isn't agreement and the vetoes are used. If a Member State walks in with hardline conditions and little room for compromise no wonder everyone else in the club turns to what the follow-up will be.

And this brings us back to pre-vetoing (or should that be premature veto-casting?): vetoes are their most effective when at the end of a negotiating process, at the early hours of the night, when everyone else is invested in getting things done that particular way. By pre-announcing the veto and giving the other negotiators time to get used to the back up procedures and situation - maybe even turning to negotiate on that basis - you effectively devalue the veto before you even get to use it.

The veto will also be devalued back at home. The hardliners who cheer every time the veto is used won't be long in complaining that it has no discernible effect whatsoever. This veto policy is not only ineffective for the British government on the European stage, but is poisonous to its European policy generally - it will lead to more paranoia that the UK is not listened to within the EU institutions, and grow more disillusioned by its lack of allies, all while missing the fact that negotiations are not simply about other people listening to you.

In any case, this blogger supports the rise in the EU budget, since there wasn't enough money for the last one, and the policy commitments made by the Member States need to be paid for.

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