The balance of powers in the EU post-Brexit
The British withdrawal from the European Union shall have a big impact on the balance of powers in the Council of the EU, that much is certain. The question is: who profits from Brexit and who doe snot? Especially France and Italy will benefit from the shift in powers, while the Dutch, Swedish and Luxembourg ministers must be on the look out for new partnerships.
Currently, there are three Member States which, if they cooperate, can decide on the main issues within Europe. The big three are Germany, France and the United Kingdom. With these three in charge, the Council has reached an equilibrium. This is due the fact that they do not often agree, which leaves room for small and medium-big Member States to adopt diplomatic strategies and pursue their own interests. When the big three do agree, the smaller states would be dominated.
The United Kingdom leaving the EU will lead to a disruption of the European equilibrium. France and Germany will be able to take control over the European integration progress. This prospect became more real when Macron got elected in May. The French president and the German Chancellor Merkel together can build a federal Europe without the more liberal United Kingdom obstructing the way.
If Germany and France are on opposing sides on a political issue, Paris will have the upper hand based on passed votes in the Council (as documented by VoteWatch Europe in the period 2009-2016). At first sight it seems that Berlin would profit the most from Brexit since Germany disagreed the most with the United Kingdom. However, the crux of the matter is that France is better positioned to stop legislation.
When Member States are in a minority, they try to create a blocking minority which allows them to block legislative proposals from the Commission. Such a minority needs at least four Member States which represent at least 35% of the EU’s population. For Germany and France this means in practice that they need one more big or medium-big Member State in order to block a legislative proposal. Germany does not often vote the same as big or medium-big Member States. France, on the other hand, often agrees on political issues with Italy and Romania. Therefore, France is more likely to create a blocking minority and will profit more from Brexit than Germany.
Because of the blocking minority rule, pro-European Member States such as Italy and Spain, with respectively 15% and 10% of the population of EU27, can acquire more power in the EU. Eurosceptic countries, such as Poland (9%), will have amore difficult time to form a blocking minority since they tend to criticise different policy fields. Italy, having strong partner in France, is most likely to benefit from Brexit the most. Some see Italy as the newest member of the big three.
Besides winners, there are losers. The countries that agreed the most with the United Kingdom in the Council are Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden and the Netherlands. Research from KU Leuven shows the votes of Dutch and British minister correlate in the council formation Transport, Telecommunications and Energy, whilst the Swedish and British votes correlate on Foreign Affairs matters. Therefore the Dutch minister of Infrastructure and Water and Swedish minister of Foreign Affairs should be on the look-out for new alliances. It is recommendable to knock on the Germans’ door.