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Changing EU voting rules would be undemocratic

By Hannu Reime

There exists an almost universal consensus according to which smaller member states like Finland, Ireland and other countries of similar size have too much relative power in the top echelons of the EU. A new study shows, however, that this view is based on a serious misconception.

In a recent issue of the weekly magazine, Suomen Kuvalehti (13 August 1999), Professor Esko Antola, a leading Finnish expert on the European Union, is quoted as saying that "small countries have proportionately quite a lot of power, in particular, voting power in the Council of Ministers", the main decision-making body of the EU. Professor Antola's view is quite widespread, almost universally accepted by European politicians, diplomats, journalists, and scholars.

Decisions are made by the Council according to the so-called Qualified Majority Voting principle where the vote of each member state is weighted: the four largest countries (Germany, Britain, France, and Italy) have ten units each, Spain has eight, the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece have five each and so on down the line; Finland's vote has three units, the same as Denmark's and Ireland's. The smallest member state, Luxembourg, has a two-unit vote. The total number of voting units is 87, and the quota for a bill to be passed is 62.

The view that the Council of Minister's voting arrangement strongly favours small countries is based on the fact that the four largest member states "together possess only 46 per cent of the Council's votes, even though they represent 69 per cent of the EU's total population". The four smallest countries, on the other hand, represent only four per cent of the EU's population, but they "enjoy no less than 13 per cent of total Council votes". (A.L. Teasdale in Political Quarterly #64:101-15.)

A new study by Professor Dan Felsenthal, a political scientist at the University of Haifa in Israel, and Professor Moshé Machover, a mathematician at London's Kings College, proves with mathematical rigour that the opinion that the small countries are over-represented is misguided, confirming the results of earlier research, in particular the work of the Finnish mathematician M. Widgren. Felsenthal and Machover show, furthermore, that the present voting arrangement is quite fair – close to perfect, in fact – and any change in favour of the big countries would be undemocratic.

Felsenthal and Machover's work (The Measurement of Voting Power: Theory and Practice, Problems and Paradoxes. Edward Elgar 1998) belongs to the field of study that could be called quantitative political science, which is part of the theory of social choice. Their main concern is, as the title of the book suggests, to measure the so-called a priori voting power, the ability of individual members of a decision-making body to influence the outcome of a vote in a yes/no voting situation.

Felsenthal and Machover demonstrate that the perception that the small countries are over-represented in the EU's Council of Ministers is based on two fallacies. Firstly, that the voting power of each member state is proportional to the weight accorded to its vote and secondly, that the weight given to each country's vote should be proportional to the population of the country in question.

A simple example from the early years of the European Community, when there were only six member states, illustrates the first of these misconceptions. At that time, the big countries – France, Germany, and Italy – had four voting units each, the Netherlands and Belgium had two, and Luxembourg one. So the total number of weighted votes was 17. The required quota for a bill to be approved was 12.

So the question arises, did Luxembourg in those early years have half as much voting power as each of its two Benelux partners because it had only one voting unit, and its neighbours had two apiece? Or one quarter of the voting power of each of the three big countries? One is, after all, a half of two and a quarter of four.

Simple arithmetic shows that Luxembourg, in fact, had no voting power at all, because either way it voted, its vote had no effect on the outcome. The three big countries together, or two big and two middle-sized countries, could pass a resolution, but whether Luxembourg voted yes or no in either combination, its stand made no difference. So its voting power was zero, although its vote was weighted as one unit.

In fact, in those first years, the Council of Ministers always made its decisions unanimously. Subsequently, when new states joined the Community, the situation changed, and in recent years with the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties, an increasing number of issues are decided on a vote.

The second fallacy according to Felsenthal & Machover rests on the assumption that the voting power of each country should be proportional to its population. Based on the original ideas of the British mathematician Lionel Penrose and the American lawyer John Banzhaf, who also had mathematical training, the authors show that the voting power should be proportional not to the population but to the square root of the population.

This square root rule is based on the fact that in an indirect representation like the EU's Council of Ministers, what should be counted is not the total population of each country, but the difference between the supporters of government and the supporters of opposition. Why? In an interview for Eagle Street and the Finnish Broadcasting Company, one of the authors, Professor Machover, explains that "it can be proved by normal methods of mathematical statistics ... that the average size of the margin of the majority over the minority is proportional to the square root of the population".

When these two incorrect assumptions – that voting power equalsweight, and that the voting power should be proportional to the population – are revised so that the real voting power is compared to the square root of the population, it can be shown that the present weighting of votes in the Council is acceptable from the point of view of representative democracy. If the index for a perfect proportionality is 1, then deviations from it are very slight. Finland is over-represented by only 0.025 points. (See table below)

In the view of Professor Machover, there is no justification for reducing the relative power of Finland and other small member states of the EU. It would be against the principles of democratic representation. This can be prevented only if more people are made aware of the reality of the present situation.

Voting power index

France 0.944
Germany 0.797
Italy 0.951
Belgium 1.190
Netherlands 0.964
Luxembourg 2.309
Britain 0.943
Denmark 1.013
Ireland 1.224
Greece 1.171
Spain 0.952
Portugal 1.204
Austria 1.088
Sweden 1.039
Finland 1.025

A table showing the ratio between the voting power and the square root of the population for each of the 15 EU member states. The most over-represented country is Luxembourg, and the most under-represented is Germany. Luxembourg is a special case because of its exceptionally small size (population 400,000). Germany's under-representation is due to its unification combined with political and historical considerations. (Table adapted from Felsenthal & Machover, p.167.)

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