What turkeys don’t vote for …

Following on from my previous thoughts on this, the Prime Minister interviewed earlier today on the Sky News 3pm bulletin (Friday 29 January) was explicit about the benefits issue. It’s “about cutting immigration” he said.

Now the idea of the emergency brake apparently being tossed around at the moment is a brake on benefits, not on immigration. While nothing has been said about the details of procedure, other emergency brakes have all been subject to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in the Eur0pean Council — that’s the term for a get-together of the EU heads of state. There’s often confusion about what this entails as it’s about numbers of countries and population size too. The Council has a fun and colourful calculator though that lets you put in any combination of countries voting for, against or abstain and neatly shows you the result. Abstentions count as votes against!

This gives results based on the need for 55% of countries with at least 65% of the EU population to vote for something for it to be adopted, which is the present basic rule for proposals put forward by the Commission. That’s 16 countries minimum. This means of course, simply for the purposes of argument, that even if all the Eastern European member states (of which there are eleven now Croatia is in the EU) voted against a brake, as long as the other 17 member states were all in favour the brake would be adopted. The game here is about numbers of countries, as the eleven only muster 20% of the EU’s population between them.

However, if the procedure agreed were that any proposal for a brake was to be made by a Member State and not by the Commission, then the QMV calculations are different. In such cases a proposal needs 72% of countries in favour with 65% of the EU population. That means 21 countries minimum, and so only eight countries voting against or abstaining could block the application of an emergency brake, and regardless of population share.

So if an emergency brake is agreed then as and when any details emerge, worth looking out for any mention of “on the basis of a proposal by the Commission” or alternatively “on the basis of a proposal by a member state”. In practice they mean very different things. If the latter, although a brake might have been conjured into being it could never be applied if the Eastern European countries en bloc voted against it or even merely abstained.

Whichever, in the circumstances, one might think that if ever anyone gets to vote on such a proposal the Prime Minister’s words today might turn out to have been a bit of a hostage to fortune…

P.S. For legalistic types who wonder whether it might be possible to invoke the ‘old’ QMV provisions if a decision on applying the brake were made before the possibility of the old option expires in 2017, the eleven Eastern European countries have 108 votes under those procedures, leaving everyone else with only 244, short of the 260 needed for approval.