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Can the UK veto new EU laws?

When the UK joined the European Communities in 1973 day-to-day decisions on legislation were made using a weighted voting system, however, decisions mainly effected the regulation of the Common Market and not national government policy. Members’ veto powers were generally reserved for more important issues.  As the Communities developed into the EU there has been an ongoing process of both economic and political integration. In several stages the member states agreed to make more decisions without requiring unanimous support. The effect of which has been a decrease in the ability of countries to veto EU laws and regulations.

In 1986, the Single European Act meant all decisions on the implementing of the single market could be made by a qualified majority vote. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty introduced a number of non-economic policy areas to the EU allowing decisions on Education, Health and Environment to be made by qualified majority votes in the EU. The Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 saw this also extend to areas of employment, equality and social policy, as well as to areas of joint foreign and security policy.

The Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in 2009, saw the most recent phase of integration, and saw the introduction of qualified majority voting in over 30 policy areas, effectively removing members veto powers in the majority of policy areas.

Where can we use a veto?

There are now only a few areas of EU policy where changes require a unanimous vote. In these few areas member states still effectively have a veto on EU decisions. They are:

  • Common Foreign and Security Policy (with the exception of certain clearly defined cases which require qualified majority, e.g. Appointment of a special representative)
  • Citizenship – the granting of new rights to EU citizens
  • New EU membership
  • Harmonisation of national legislation on indirect taxation
  • EU finances (own resources, the multiannual financial framework)
  • Certain provisions in the field of justice and home affairs (the European prosecutor, family law, operational police cooperation, etc.)
  • Harmonisation of national legislation in the field of social security and social protection.

The UK cannot veto decisions in areas where it has secures opt-out, such as euro monetary policy.

Where we do not have a veto

In almost all other policy areas the EU is capable of passing legislation that affects member states without unanimous agreement. In these areas a vote in the European Parliament and a system of Qualified Majority Voting in the Council of the EU is used to approve or reject proposals by the European Commission. About 80% of all EU legislation is adopted with this procedure.

As there is no one country in the union capable of outvoting the remaining member states, no country has a veto in these areas, and member countries can therefore be subject to EU regulation they did not support.

The policy areas where laws can be passed without unanimous support are in three categories. They are exclusive competences, where only the EU can make laws, shared competences, where countries can makes laws to cover areas the EU has not, and supporting competences, where the EU can intervene without EU laws requiring changes to countries laws.

  1. Exclusive Competencies:
  • Customs union
  • The establishing of competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market
  • Monetary policy for euro area countries
  • Conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy
  • Common commercial policy
  • Conclusion of international agreements under certain conditions.
  1. Shared competences:
  • Internal market
  • Social policy, but only for aspects specifically defined in the treaty
  • Economic, social and territorial cohesion (regional policy)
  • Agriculture and fisheries (except conservation of marine biological resources)
  • Environment
  • Consumer protection
  • Transport
  • Trans-european networks
  • Energy
  • Area of freedom, security and justice
  • Shared safety concerns in public health matters, limited to the aspects defined in the tfeu
  • Research, technological development, space
  • Development cooperation and humanitarian aid.
  1. Supporting competences:
  • Protection and improvement of human health
  • Industry
  • Culture
  • Tourism
  • Education, vocational training, youth and sport
  • Civil protection
  • Administrative cooperation.

The UK also has opt-outs in some areas so EU decisions in those areas do not apply to the UK, this includes decisions about the euro, the Schengen area and some areas of justice and home affairs policy.

So though the UK, and all members retain a veto over some key areas of policy, such as the accession of new members (such as Turkey) and most areas of foreign policy (such as the creation of an EU Army), in most areas of policy within the EU, covering as much as 80% of EU law, the UK does not have a veto on EU decisions.

  • Justin Protts – EU Research Fellow