Power of balance in EU decision making

By Ida Horner


The balance of power is a simple concept that argues that no one power should be predominant in any relationship. The assignment therefore considers the meaning and usefulness of the concept of power in the decision making process within the European Union (EU).

In the European Union balance of power can be examined within institutions that have responsibility for the decision making process and for that reason that assignment considers reasons how and why nations form institutions and highlights the key institutions in the EU’s decision making process. Finally the assignment provides a practical example of the decision making process in the EU as it applies to the Common Foreign Policy and alternative concepts that could explain the decision making process within the European Union


A balance of power involves a particular distribution of power amongst states of that system such that no single state and no existing alliance has overwhelming or preponderant amount of power Dina Zinnes (1967:272) cited in Sheehan M: 1996)

Historical background

The threat from America to pull its army base from Europe meant that was there was no sovereign power to defend weakened the European state against Russia if it invaded. With this in mind France, German and the Benelux countries came together to balance Russia’s power. The agreement or terms of reference came in the form of treaties as well as various instruments for economic integration (Rosato: Spring 2011)

France and German are credited with European integration due to the effort that the two countries have put into the process but some have argued that this was a ploy on France’s part to tie German into Western Europe because German had emerged as a monetary and industrial power in Europe. France was concerned that German would become powerful and act independently as had been the case in the Second World War. German agreed that it would not be in Europe’s interest if hegemony existed between France and German (Kohl 1996 cited in Webber D: 1999).

This desire for France to balance German’s power is said to be responsible for France and German’s cooperation in Europe’s integration as well as the integration projects such as the European Council, the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty which introduced the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Monetary Union (Bocquet 1997:5, Mazzarelli 1997, Klaiber 1998:39, Moravcisk: 1991 cited in Webber: 1999)

Why do nations build Institutions?

The balance of power concept is about ensuring that no single power becomes greater than that of the rest in a system.

When a great power emerges its power must be balanced to maintain equilibrium within the system. Where there is no other great power to balance this power, small and weaker nations may decide to cooperate or form an alliance in order to balance the great power. Having pooled all their resources the small states may still be much weaker than the great power and it is at this stage that small nations seek ways to maximize their resources by ensuring that they are organized under a single authority (Rosato: 2011)

Because this has implications for sovereignty and security nation states have to weigh up their options especially what alternatives might be available to them. Once the decision to integrate is taken the terms of reference are agreed and these set out what is and isn’t acceptable behavior from members, as well as expectations. Institutions are then formed to ensure that the group’s Resources and efforts are coordinated and managed effectively under a single authority. The duration and transformation of these institutions will be dependent on the distribution of power within the institutions (Rosato: 2011).

Institutions in the European Union

European Union institutions have been developed by member states to oversee governance and policy making within the European Union.

Key Institutions within the European Union

  1. European Council   – provides political direction within the EU, is responsible for decisions on enlargement, integration and the economy. The Council’s decisions are made by consensus but have not framework within the EU but provide a framework for community legislation
  2. European Parliamentis responsible for the EU external relations as well as the democratic scrutiny within the EU and its powers stretch over administration, legislation, the budget, external agreements as well as appointments
  3. European Commissionis the Centre for policy process within the EU with a legally recognized President. Its powers are cross cutting and stretch over, administration, legislation, implementation and enforcement of EU treaties.
  4. European Court of Justicehighest court in the European Union responsible for correct interpretation of the law as it relates to EU treaties, settling disputes between EU institutions and member states as well as ensuring that EU institutions do not exceed their power and that member states comply with EU legislation. (White B: 2001)

The decision making process of the EU

The various EU Treaties guide decision-making by the EU Institutions and decisions are voted on by member states using a Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). However in practice decisions are made by consensus. But sometimes decisions are taken the other way i.e. where a decision should be taken by consensus a QMV is used as in the recent financial bail outs, presumably this was to ensure that a desired outcome. According to Baldwin and Widgren this is because member states go through a mental process that Baldwin and Widgren have termed “shadow voting”. This process sees member states making decisions as to their likely success should they vote in a certain way and if they are unlikely to succeed members opt for consensus instead of QMV (Baldwin and Widgren 2003).

Attempts have been made by the EU to improve the decision making process through the Maastricht Treaty. However Baldwin and Widgren point out that this is simply about enabling the EU to act such as during the Yugoslavia conflict. The reason for this Baldwin and Widgren argue is because it is not possible for the EU to be efficient in it decision-making given the fact that membership of the EU changes constantly and so do the decisions that have to be taken. The enlargement of the European Union is gradual process, which pushes through changes, for instance the Common Agriculture Policy where transitional arrangements have to be applied to new members (Baldwin and Widgren 2003).

Decision making in practice

It was hoped that agreements at Maastricht would bring coherence to the Common and Foreign Security Policy policy area.  However as in the Common Agriculture Policy this policy area has been impacted by enlargement. Under the European Political Cooperation (EPC) some items that member states found sensitive were left of the agenda such as the situation in Northern Ireland in the case of Britain, but under Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) introduced by the Maastricht Treaty everything was up for discussion (Haseler et al 2010)

The launching of European Security Defense Policy (ESPD) crisis management operation provides a good illustration of the decision making process. The ESDP is an instrument of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy  (CFSP) European Security  (Bjorkdahl and Stromvik: 2008)

Prior to the launching of such an operation an item has to be placed on the agenda but this isn’t as straight forward as it seems and at this stage we can observe how EU institutions are structured to avoid any one of them becoming too powerful or subverting the agenda of the member states. If we take the Commission and the Council as an example, the Commission has responsibility for setting the agenda and decides what goes before the Council in doing so the Commission is said to be very powerful since the Council can only decide on matters that have been put in front of it. For its part the Council has the power to veto any item placed in front of it and the fear of this veto means that the Commission only puts forward agenda items that are likely to go through. (Baldwin and Widgren 2003)

The next stage is identifying resources. The resources required here are money and personnel where personnel include both military and civilian. This process involves the lobbying/sounding out of individual member states to establish if they would be willing to contribute resources to the operation should the initiative go ahead (Bjorkdahl and Stromvik: 2008)

Because ESDP is an instrument of EU common policy the implications for decision-making at this stage are that members cannot veto but have the option not to join the operation but it also has implications for coherence as it means that Europe cannot speak with one-voice examples of this are

  1. The Balkans, German wanted independence for Croatia whilst France and Britain did not agree to the breaking up Yugoslavia,
  2. The Iraq operation, France and German did not agree to Europe’s involvement in the war, whilst Britain, Spain and Italy did,
  3. In Libya France and Britain led the operation whilst German refused to participate. The stance of the EU major powers within respect to Libya was divided but since German is not influential in military affairs the operation went ahead anyway.

Once the resources are identified the formal decision-making process starts and this involves assessment of the availability of sufficient capabilities for the action being proposed, obtaining relevant permissions United Nations Security Council (UN). If there is agreement in the council to take action then the working paper is adopted as the legal basis for the operations or Joint Action (Bjorkdahl and Stromvik: 2008)

What complicates decision making in this area is the fact that each stage involves different Treaties, EU departments and procedures all of whom have different and perhaps conflicting interests (Baldwin and Widgren 2003).

Alternative concepts

As well as the balance of power there are alternative concepts that explain the decision process. These concepts are useful because they explain the behavior of the actors (States and Institutions) behind the decision making process within the EU


An intergovernmental arrangement in which states strategize and cooperate to get what they want and a balance of power emerges due to the effectiveness of the decision making process that ensures that everyone gets what they want Institutions are seen as agents of member states in a system where States remain in control and delegate powers to Institutions that they have formed (Schmitter 1996). This has been demonstrated by the recent financial bail out of those EU member states facing financial difficulties such as Greece. In this instance member states have set side rules laid out in EU treaties.

Institutions are believed to become powerful over time and seek to control States, for instance decisions taken by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) impact the legal process in member states, member states who do not comply can be referred to the ECJ as was Britain in relation to the EU’s working directive. A question arises therefore as to who is in charge of the EU.  In order to ensure that EU Institutions do not subvert the member states agenda they have been designed in such away that enables them to “keep an eye” on each other(Baldwin and Widgren 2003).

Neo- Realism – Sovereign states as the key actors in hostile and anarchic environments. Whilst states can cooperate with other states they do so only to protect and or enhance their interests and the EU is an Intergovernmental organization as it recognizes the authority of member states (Schmitter 1996) .

Social Constructivism- although nations come together because of material interests they are changed and or shaped by interacting with other nations. According to this concept a convergence of norms and ways of behaving are internalized by actors based on the durability and profound detailed interaction.  A balance of power emerges and the effectiveness of the decision making process ensures that everyone gets what they want (Schmitter 1996)  .

Liberal Intergovernmentalism– advanced by Moravcsik who argues that states seek to advance national interests and that national interests are a result of states interacting with each other.

Moravcsik argues too that there exists a hierarchy of power in the national governments that make up the EU and that the there largest countries France, German and Britain have the ability to influence the outcome of any European Union negotiations by using their veto. In addition that the real bargaining happens between these three giants of Europe and that the smaller nation states can be bought off (Moravcsik 1991 (cited in Webber 1991)

This is contrary to the balance of power concept and simply explains the reality of politics in international systems where nations with more resources wield a lot of power over those without.

For instance the current financial crisis has demonstrated France and German’s ability in particular to shape the financial policy of Euro Zone using the newly proposed Fiscal Pact, which would ensure that all member states comply with EU rules whilst formulating and implementing their budget. On the other hand Britain has argued that that what is being proposed is not in its national interests and in using its veto it has ensured that that EU Institutions cannot be used to enforce the Fiscal Pact because Britain believes the new rules are not within EU law and such are an intergovernmental agreement (BBC News)


The balance of power a simple concept that argues that no one power should be predominant in any relationship. The reality of world politics means that in and of itself, it cannot help us understand the decision making process within the European Union(EU). This is because the issues on which the EU has to decide on are constantly changing because the integration process of the EU is a gradual process. The admission of new members brings with it new challenges and has implications for decisions taken previously.

In addition it is not easy to establish who is charge as the Institutions that member states have set up to coordinate their efforts and resources at times appear to be powerful than the member states. Moreover member states have different interests and therefore enter into inter-state bargaining in order to get what they want. The hierarchy that exists amongst member states mean the three large powers of Europe, German, France and Britain dominate the decision making process contrary to the concept of the balance of power.

They are alternative concepts that can help us understand the decision making process and this is because they help us understand the behavior of the States and Institutions of the European Union.


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