November 2000

Confusion reigns over voting in EU Council

Whilst a substantial reweighting of votes in the EU Council of Ministers will be discussed in the forthcoming Nice summit, confusion reigns over how to assess the various propositions on the table. According to Professor Moshé Machover (King's College, London) even the EU officials and politicians are not clear as to what criteria to use. In a press briefing at the London School of Economics, Machover said that "hilarious blunders" have been made in the past.

On the eve of the summit, the prevailing view is that the present distribution of weights favours unfairly smaller member countries. This view is contradicted in a new report by Professor Machover and his colleague Professor Dan S. Felsenthal (University of Haifa) titled Enlargement of the EU and Weighted Voting in its Council of Ministers (LSE Voting Power Programme, 16 November 2000).

Machover and Felsenthal say in the report that "the true imbalance in the distribution of power is far, far less extreme than according to the naïve view, which assumes that voting weight ought to be strictly proportional to size".

The authors thus draw attention to a false analogy with proportional representation.

"Most people -- including politicians and otherwise well-informed journalists -- automatically tend to assume that the 'fairest' or 'most democratic' decision rule for a council of representatives such as the CM would assign to its members weights that are strictly proportional to the respective size of their constituencies."

This view then holds that the present distribution of weights is grossly biased against the five biggest member states and in favour of all the other ten.

"However, (...) strict proportionality of the weight to size does not in fact produce (...) voting-power distribution that is in any reasonable sense fair or democratic..."

Felsenthal and Machover argue that in order to have an optimal weighting of the votes, each member of the Council of Ministers needs to be assigned "weight proportional to the square root of his or her constituency..."

The authors say that the larger the constituency, the smaller the citizen's direct voting power within it.

"But, somewhat surprisingly, the citizen's direct voting power is inversely proportional not to the constituency's size, but to the square root of that size."

Felsenthal and Machover's conclusion is that the present weighting of votes is actually reasonably fair. They also analyse criteria which one can use to assess various proposals.

Equitability requires that "the decision rule of the council ought to be such that the (indirect) voting powers of all citizens (...) in the various constituencies should be as nearly equal as possible, irrespective of the different sizes of these constituencies".

The rule of majoritarianism "used by the council should arguably come as close as possible to producing outcomes that conform to the wishes of the majority of the entire electorate".

The third desideratum, according to the authors, is sensitivity. "Roughly speaking, the sensitivity of a council's decision rule is the degree to which the members of the council collectively are empowered as decision-makers."

The fourth criterion for evaluating a decision rule of a council is its resistance: "the degree to which the rule tends to favour the defeat of any proposed bill -- the preservation of the status quo -- as opposed to its approval. Arguably, a decision rule that has a very low degree of resistance may be undesirable, as it tends to make approving new bills too easy. On the other hand, a decision rule whose degree of resistance is very high tends to engender immobilism."

Download the report from:

See also:

From our archive:

Changing EU voting rules would be undemocratic by Hannu Reime

October 1999




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