The Story of David Cameron’s “National Veto” That Isn’t

The machinery of the EU is awesomely trifling. I was reading earlier today about David Cameron finally reaching an agreement that allows Britain some special privileges designed to keep them from exiting the union. But it was odd. One of the concessions he won appeared to give Britain “a national veto over EU legislation,” and yet every news report treated this like a minor afterthought. So I got curious and tried to figure out what was going on. Here’s the provision Cameron got:

  • If the EU proposes a new law, it is required to send out a draft to all member countries for a 12-week review.
  • If 55 percent of the member countries object, the Council will “discontinue the consideration of the draft legislative act in question” unless they choose to amend it.

OK. That’s something, I guess. So what was the rule before? Feast on this:

  • If a third of the member countries object to a new law, it will be reviewed. But that’s it. No action is required.
  • If half of the member countries object, the new law will not only be reviewed, but the EU Commission will have to explain why it thinks the law is OK.
  • After that, the Council and the European Parliament are required before the first reading to “consider whether the legislative proposal is compatible with the principle of subsidiarity.”
  • If 55 percent of the Council Members (or a majority of the European Parliament) believe the proposed law is incompatible with subsidiarity, it will be shelved.

So under the old rules, if half the member countries object to a proposed law and 55 percent of the Council subsequently agrees, it’s shelved. Under the new rules, if 55 percent of the member countries object, it will be shelved immediately.

It would take a high-power microscope to see the difference here. The new rules eliminate the Council vote, but that would only rarely make a difference. You have to figure that if 55 percent of the member countries object, they’re also going to vote against it in Council—and no law can pass with only 45 percent approval anyway. You’ve needed 55 percent for the past couple of years. I suppose that eliminating the Council vote eliminates time to pressure folks into changing their minds, but that’s about it.

It is stuff like this that greases the gears of the EU. Veteran EU watchers will snicker at me for being captivated by this, but captivated I am.