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EU - bloc vote or blocked vote?

Richard Black | 17:48 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The somewhat abstruse and legal-jargon-adorned world of internal European Union politics is likely to have a key role to play in two big forthcoming decisions concerning some of the most charismatic life in the world's oceans.

EU nations are supposed to adopt a common position on such issues, either by consensus or qualified majority voting, and then cast their collective 27 votes within international fora en masse.

On climate change, the process has not been without its hitches, with some countries such as Poland and Italy opposed, at times, to the more stringent policies that others such as the UK and Sweden wanted to pursue.

Matters at the last meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) came to a more clear-cut head over a possible trade ban on red and pink corals, which are harvested from the Mediterranean Sea by Italian fishermen and used to make jewellery.

That situation saw one EU country - Italy, naturally - fighting its corner against the remainder of the bloc's joint weight. Of course it lost, in the end - but the delay while deliberations went on took many days and many long evenings.

The next CITES meeting, which begins this coming weekend, sees a similar but much more complex situation emerging over Atlantic bluefin tuna.

SushiMonaco last year proposed banning international trade in the beleaguered species. Most EU nations support the notion - not a permanent ban, but a suspension until stocks recover - but others don't.

It will come as no surprise to find that the nations having doubts are those with significant tuna fishing operations - Spain, France, Malta, Greece and Italy.

When it comes to deciding a common position, EU rules assign each member country a number of votes depending partly on the size of its population. So Germany, the UK, France and Italy each have 29 votes - then it ranges down through the 27 of Spain, the 14 of Romania and the seven of Denmark right down to Malta's three votes.

In order to adopt a position, it's necessary to have a simple majority of countries in favour or against a proposition, and to have at least 73% of the total votes.

A country finding itself on the losing side can also then demand verification that votes cast account for at least 62% of the total EU citizenry.

The German government has thoughtfully provided a calculator you can use to see whether motions meet the criteria for success.

And as you can see if you plug in the numbers, if Spain, France, Malta, Greece and Italy all vote against an international trade ban, there aren't enough votes in the house for it to become an EU position.

In that case, the bloc has to abstain.

You could argue that this would be a seriously odd position to adopt given that the trade ban was proposed by Monaco, which resides within western Europe, and is supported strongly by many EU members.

(Serious Europhiles will have noticed that Monaco is not officially an EU member, although most of the time its interests are obviously aligned with those of France.)

WhalingMore pertinently, abstention would significantly alter the balance of power within CITES.

Motions need a two-thirds majority to pass, so the EU's 27 votes are a pretty major component of the voting bloc; there's also the issue that a number of developing countries tend to align themselves with the EU position.

This becomes much more significant within the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which may well vote at its meeting in June on a proposed 10-year plan that involves a whole raft of measures I flagged up a couple of weeks ago.

Eighty-eight countries are currently members of the IWC, and a three-quarters majority is needed to make a major change. So if the EU votes en bloc against anything, that alone will stop it going through.

The EU is split on the proposed 10-year plan, though final positions will depend on what numbers of whales Japan, Iceland and Norway eventually say they are prepared to hunt in the immediate future - numbers that, in true negotiating style, will probably not become clear until the final evening of the June meeting.

On the tuna issue, lobbyists for every interest group are of course working their socks off right now in an attempt to secure EU support.

It may hinge on what compensation packages governments are prepared to offer their fishermen in return for withdrawing from the water.

We shall see whether they succeed - an EU decision on whether to support the trade ban may emerge this week.

Keep the calculator page handy...

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