A high-level meeting of member states is today (20 September) expected to acknowledge that the widely accepted requirement for unanimity in votes on Council conclusions has no legal basis.
MEPs and campaigners, attempting to bypass Poland’s persistent vetoes on EU climate policy, are mounting a challenge to the practice of requiring all member states to approve Council conclusions for them to be adopted. These conclusions are used to request policy proposals from the European Commission or endorse mandates for international negotiations.
Poland has vetoed the adoption of two Council conclusions on climate matters this year – the Commission’s energy roadmap in June and the low-carbon roadmap in March. Poland objected to language in the texts that appeared to endorse setting interim emissions-reduction targets between 2020 and 2050. Poland also wanted language inserted to indicate that increased EU ambition on climate is dependent on equivalent action from global partners.
The texts were instead adopted by the 26 other member states as ‘presidency conclusions’. Energy commissioner Günther Oettinger said the Commission would treat them as equivalent to Council conclusions, since any actual legislation would require only a qualified majority and could not be vetoed. In the past, the Commission has not proposed legislation if it believes it is unlikely to obtain supporting Council conclusions.
But green group WWF has launched a challenge with the Council’s secretariat, saying official conclusions could have been adopted without Poland. “This failure to act occurred in areas of Union-shared competence in which the Council and other institutions act by qualified majority,” it said.
A draft response prepared by the Council’s working group on transparency last week, seen by European Voice, concludes: “After a thorough enquiry, the Council could not identify any specific document or documents describing the basis on which the Council adopts conclusions.” This response looks set to be approved by a Coreper meeting today, and officially endorsed at the General Affairs Council on Monday (24 September). However, Finland is urging that the response be rejected or the vote be delayed, on the basis that this answer is inadequate. They want the Council to draft a fuller answer explaining why unanimity is being required when there is no written legal basis.
The issue is unlikely to be resolved soon. Yesterday, at a meeting of the European Parliament’s environment committee, Satu Hassi, a Finnish Green MEP, insisted that if there was no legal basis for unanimity, conclusions should in future be adopted by qualified majority. Hassi and five other MEPs have put forward a parliamentary question seeking a response from the Council.
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A quick decision could have immediate consequences. Council conclusions on the Commission’s renewable-energy communication are due by the end of the year, and environment ministers will have to adopt conclusions for a negotiating mandate before international climate talks in Doha in late November.
A change in precedent could have wide-ranging effects for all policy areas, not just the environment. “When Council conclusions can be adopted only by unanimity, that automatically means they adopt the lowest common denominator,” said Dutch Green MEP Bas Eikhout. “It’s giving too much power to the Council.”