Qualified majority voting could become a bulwark against Russia and Poland should lead the movement towards it, writes Pierre Haroche.
Pierre Haroche is a lecturer in International Relations & International Security at Queen Mary University of London
This statement may seem provocative, because the Polish government has made defence of the unanimity rule its hobbyhorse. In response to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who presented the extension of qualified majority voting to foreign policy as a condition of the EU’s enlargement to the western Balkans and to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in his August 2022 Prague speech, Prime Minister Morawiecki stated, in March 2023 in Heidelberg, that abandoning unanimity risked dragging the EU into a dangerous complacency towards Russia. Yet history offers us a different lesson—one that Poles should be the first to share with other Europeans, because it comes from their own national experience.
On 3 May, Poland celebrated the anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May 1791, which was one of the first written constitutions in Europe. This text brought a major institutional innovation: it abolished the unanimity rule.
In the 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was a vast state that stretched as far as western Ukraine. However, it was unable to resist the appetites of neighbouring powers—Prussia, Austria and Russia—which divided its territory among them in 1772 and 1793 before completely wiping it out in 1795. These three powers were aided in their enterprise by a very special rule of the Polish—Lithuanian state: the liberum veto.
The liberum veto allowed any member of parliament not only to block the adoption of a text, but also to force the end of the current session. It quickly became a source of institutional paralysis. Neighbouring empires saw its value to them because they needed only to bribe a single member of the Polish aristocracy to prevent the state from taking action. In 1768, Catherine II of Russia and her ambassador Nikolai Repnin imposed the recognition of the liberum veto as a ‘cardinal law’ of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth to better keep the country within Russia’s sphere of influence.
Today, the principle of unanimity is, for the EU, just as it was for the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth: the fissure through which the influence of external powers penetrates. Recently, Hungary used its veto to prevent the EU from strengthening its sanctions against Russia; Hungary was also able to block an EU text criticising China in May 2021. This ‘Trojan horse’ phenomenon largely explains why countries concerned about the risk of Russian influence in the EU, such as Finland, actively support the move to qualified majority voting.
Poland, too, should not reject the use of qualified majority voting in EU foreign policy, but rather should encourage it, not merely out of respect for the lessons of its own history, but to achieve its own goal of building a stronger Europe against Russia.
For Morawiecki, the move to qualified majority voting means ‘giving power to people like Gerhard Schroeder, who made Europe dependent on Russia and put the whole continent at existential risk.’ However, it was not majority voting that allowed Germany to make Europe dependent on Russia, but unilateral diplomacy, which developed freely largely because EU diplomacy is hindered by the unanimity rule.
Today, as Russian aggression against Ukraine makes Poland the new ‘centre of gravity’ of Europe, the country should show more ambition. Why should Poland continue to think of itself as an isolated minority when it could become the leader of tomorrow’s majorities?
Future EU enlargements will only accelerate this trend. Because demography is one of the factors taken into account by qualified majority voting, some experts already anticipate that an alliance between Poland and Ukraine would have a population the size of Germany and thus wield considerable weight in EU Council votes. Ultimately, thanks to its prestige as the vanguard in the fight against Russia—combined with future eastern enlargements—Poland is likely to be one of the major winners of the extension of qualified majority voting in foreign policy.
Moreover, enlargement to Ukraine would accelerate the EU’s transformation into a geopolitical actor. The logic of EU integration is no longer simply that of progressive convergence towards common economic standards, but one of mutual solidarity in the face of Russian threats. To carry out this geopolitical transformation, the EU needs stronger institutions.
By integrating Ukraine, the EU will become the geographical and moral heir of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It will then make sense to draw inspiration from the words of the Constitution of 3 May 1791:
Everything, everywhere, shall be decided by majority vote; therefore we abolish forever the liberum veto […], as being opposed to the spirit of this Constitution, subversive of government, and destructive of society.
Qualified majority voting could become a bulwark against Russian and Chinese influence. Only an EU capable of taking quick and resolute decisions will be able to stand firm in the face of external powers that rely upon its weakness and inaction.
May the spirit of 3 May guide the future of Europe!