Does the UK win or lose in the Council of Ministers?

EU Council

This is the second in a series of articles on whether the UK is “marginalised” in EU decision-making. The first piece looked at the positions of the UK government in relation to policy outcomes and found that on average the UK was closer to EU outcomes than most other EU governments.

In this piece Simon Hix and Sara Hagemann look at the actual voting records in the EU Council and ask a slightly different question: how often is the UK outvoted in the main EU legislative institution?

The data come from VoteWatch.eu plus data we collected from 2004-09. For full disclosure, we are two of the co-founders of VoteWatch and members of VoteWatch’s board. The dataset includes all votes that took place in the EU Council between 1 July 2004 and 1 September 2015.

Formally, the ministers of the EU governments, who meet in the Council according to their policy portfolios, vote on all legislative decisions and most votes are taken by a “qualified majority vote”.

In practice, though, the majority of decisions are agreed by “consensus”, meaning that ministers work together to seek an agreement that all countries can support. As a result, most votes are recorded with either no or only few countries opposing. Yet, “Opposition” comes in two forms: a government either formally records a No vote, or chooses simply to Abstain. We hence count both abstention and negative votes as failure to publicly support a majority view.

Figure 1. Per cent of times in losing minority

Figure 1 - Hix

So, what does the evidence tell us about a possible marginalisation of the UK in the EU Council? Figure 1 shows the per cent of times each government has been in a losing minority as a proportion of all votes in 2004-09 and 2009-15.

Two things are striking: 1) there was a big increase in the level of conflict in the Council between 2004-09 and 2009-15; and 2) the UK government was on the losing side a much higher proportion of times in 2009-15 compared to 2004-09 (2.6% in the former period and 12.3% in latter period).

The next most frequently “losing” governments, Germany and Austria, were only on the minority side 5.4% of the time in 2009-15. One thing to note, though, is the high level of agreement in both periods. Put the other way round, the UK voted on the winning side 97.4% of the time in 2004-09 and 86.7% of the time in 2009-15.

Digging a bit further into the 2009-15 data, we can look at which other governments tend to vote with the UK. As Figure 2 shows, the UK’s main allies were some of our northern neighbours – Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark – while the German government was least likely to vote the same way as the UK. In fact, the UK and German governments voted on opposite sides 16% of the time. In other words, the two governments who were most likely to vote against the majority (the UK and Germany) were invariably in opposition on different votes.

Figure 2 - Hix

These aggregate patterns might be distorted by the fact that there were more votes on some policy issues than on others, with the UK opposed only in areas that happened to have many votes. As Figure 3 shows, the UK voted against the majority more frequently on budgetary policies, foreign and security policy, and international development, and voted with the majority more frequently on international trade, industry, environment, transport, legal affairs, economic and monetary union, and internal market policies. In most policy areas, though, the UK was again the member state most likely to vote against the majority, and significantly more likely than the average government in the EU. But, the UK was not the most oppositional government on internal market, legal affairs, transport, environment, and fisheries.

Figures 3 and 4

Finally, Figure 4 shows the UK numbers in comparison with the other two largest member states: Germany and France. In general, France almost never voted against the majority, preferring to accept a consensual outcome even when it might have opposed the majority view. However, the German government was more often on the losing side than the UK government on environment and transport, and was as frequently against the majority as the UK on employment and social affairs, internal market, and fisheries.

In short, the official voting records of the EU Council suggest that there has been a significant shift in the position of the UK government between 2004-09 and 2009-15.  In the latter period the UK has voted more often against the majority, and is hence now in the minority more often than any other EU government. There is some variance across policy areas, the UK has some powerful allies, and Germany also often votes against the winning majority.  Nevertheless, on average, these data suggest that the UK government has at times had to accept policy outcomes from the EU for which it was not part of the winning majority.

Nevertheless, there are some important caveats to keep in mind. First, overwhelmingly the Council decides by consensus, which means that the UK is on the winning majority side almost 87% of the time. Second, the UK government might be more willing than other government to publicly register its opposition to EU decisions. Third, these data do not tell us what went on behind the scenes on each of these issues, and hence how much the UK disagreed with the majority position when it recorded its opposition – perhaps the UK was on the winning side on all the key issues it really cared about in this period. Finally, for a fuller picture this evidence needs to be put together with other evidence from the policy process, such as whether a government actually gets the policies it wants (the subject of the first post), and whether the UK is marginalised in the other main legislative body: the European Parliament (which will be addressed in future posts).

Simon Hix is Harold Laski Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and senior fellow on the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme.

Sara Hagemann is Assistant Professor in European Politics at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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