In this era of headlines-seeking media and twitter-like attention span, the decision-making process by the European Union (EU) is constantly being criticized, dramatized, and derided. Let’s write instead in praise of this uniquely consensual process that is not only a valuable model of decision-making for all aspects of personal, collective, economic and cultural activities, but also reflects the most fundamental values and principles of our democratic societies.
How does the EU decision-making process work?
First, let’s describe what the EU’s decision-making process is. The process was made very clear to all during the latest meeting of the European Council on 17-21 July 2020. While some decisions can be made by a simple majority of 14 states and some others by a majority of 55% of member states representing 65% of the population, all decisions of significant importance must be adopted in unanimity, all heads of state negotiating a final consensus that they must all approve. The issues debated during the 17-21 July meeting were of fundamental importance and therefore required unanimity.
Indeed, the European Council that met in July had to decide whether the EU would take another future-defining step towards more integration by issuing joint debts and envisaging tax-raising powers. This was seen as a potential “Hamiltonian” moment (after Alexander Hamilton, the first US treasury secretary who in 1790 engineered a political agreement on public borrowing that helped transform the loosely confederated 13 former colonies into a more tightly bound federal union). Issues of debt mutualisation, debts issuing, and tax raising are generally of immense impact. Previously considered taboo, they have plagued the EU ever since the Eurozone crisis of 2010 that saw heavily indebted countries such as Greece, Spain or Ireland sink under a mountain of bad debts. Progress towards a more federal finance system was made then but one essential ingredient was missing, the power to raise debts.
Condemned to compromise
Understandably, a decision-making process that requires unanimity is bound to be difficult. At first, the position of each state is laid out in a calm, determined and friendly manner. But, discussions soon begin to focus on unresolved issues, on finding ways to bridge apparently irreconcilable stances, negotiating a consensus that all can embrace. As the larger meeting breaks up into smaller ones to facilitate consensus-building, as the night time hours slip by, as sleep-deprived heads of state see their patience run thin, unavoidably, words are said that one regrets, but shared apologies and, finally, success repair relationships: after all, it is not a meeting of friends (many are) but a meeting of professionals who all have their convictions, opinions, and…. an electorate. It is a necessarily messy process but also a miraculous one where 27 individuals from various political horizons, with the most disparate background and varied personality, manage to come to consensual agreements that are undoubtedly history-making. It is simply admirable. Let me explain why.
Firstly, it is worth reminding everyone that not so long ago, conflicts between nations were resolved in a very different way: by wars. It is unfortunately a well-known feature of humankind that new generations forget the lessons drawn by older ones from the traumatic events the older generations have experienced. This explains why most of our contemporaries, born after WW2, find ridiculous the idea that the European Union might still be an instrument of peace and reconciliation. Yet, this is exactly what it is. It was born out of WW2 to guarantee peace in Europe. It was also built in opposition to the authoritarianism of the communist East and built as a beacon for democracy and liberal-democratic ideals. Yet, younger generations, although often very close to Europe and the EU (they voted against Brexit in the UK 2016 referendum), do not identify with this EU’s peace mission. It is indeed difficult to imagine war between European neighbours but this is precisely what Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia experienced in a recent past between 1991 and 1995: a war that seemed unthinkable was indeed fought, with its trail of misery, ravages, spilled blood, and tears. Had Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia belonged to the EU at the time, war would have been avoided. If France, Italy, Germany, the UK or Spain have not come to blows for 75 years, it is precisely because of the EU and its conflict-resolution mechanisms.
System 1 versus system 2
Secondly, it is well known in social psychology that humans are not the best decision-makers. In fact, humans’ instinctive response to events and situations is irrational in nature Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the fathers of cognitive psychology, were indeed the first to reveal a two-tier model of cognition in humans: “System 1” is quick, intuitive, mostly irrational, while “System 2”, by contrast, is slow, deliberative and less prone to error. Over decades of experimental work, they have demonstrated that most of the time and in most humans, it is System 1 that is invoked in decision-making. Their research was instrumental is laying the foundation of behavioural economics for which Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economics (Tversky had died earlier on but would have received it too if he had been alive). Their scientific discoveries, although in many ways depressing, also offered the hope that steering decision-making processes toward maximizing the mobilisation of System 2 could potentially help politicians, managers, CEOs, or heads of state make the right decisions.
I would argue that this is precisely what the EU’s decision-making process does. Indeed, by coming together to agree unanimously on any issues to be decided, no decision can be taken quickly because all need to be discussed and evaluated thoroughly; none can be arrived at intuitively because the intuition of one head of state is unlikely to be the same as that of the 26 others; finally, none is irrational as every aspect, every consequence of a decision is considered, weighted, discussed over hours and days(nights!) of discussions. The EU’s decision-making is the opposite of System 1’s decision-making: it is not quick, not intuitive, not irrational. Instead it is entirely driven by System 2.
Better decisions, greater acceptance
Unanimous decisions might be a difficult process where tempers may flare, particularly at dawn after endless sleepless nights when the only way forward is to convince your interlocutors, not subvert them. But such decisions build consent. Whether you are Merkel and Macron, the heads of two governments representing 150 million people (France and Germany combined) or you represent the 42 million of the so-called “frugal” 4 countries (Denmark, Holland, Austria, and Sweden), you have an equal voice at the table. Even tiny Malta does. No one is forced to capitulate. Once agreed, no one feels coerced by the process of implementation.
Does it lead to better decisions? Undoubtedly! The best decisions are the ones taken collectively with the consent of everyone. It is not to say that a maverick leader acting alone without seeking to build consensus and agreement inevitably take the wrong decisions. But he/she often does. The rare times when he/she takes the right decisions, his/her autocratic management style fosters a culture of deference to and consequently dependence on the omni-potent leader. It inevitably backfires on the organisation one way or another. Management books of the past were all about maximizing output and treating workers has mere cogs (usually recalcitrant) in an overall hierarchical machine piloted by an all-powerful leader. No longer. What goes for company business also goes for the business of state. Witness the rapid spread of the concept of citizen assemblies whether in Ireland where the citizen assembly on abortion helped to break years of political deadlock or in France where the citizen assembly on climate change is helping redefine attitudes and policies on this issue on which the future of humanity critically depends. Citizen assemblies are the epitome of proper decision-making: based on debate and consensus, their recommendations are much more likely to be embraced by the people than if they had been imposed from above.
The media to embrace slow, consensual, decision-making
The media, of course, does not see it that way. The thoughtful process of System 2-driven decision-making is for most media considered too slow, boring, and brainy. What the insatiable media beast really needs is daily drama where any little bites on offer can be whipped up into a “news-worthy” event. The way European Council meetings are reported illustrates that point: even the Guardian, a newspaper who campaigned for remaining in the EU, cannot help describing the event as mildly ridiculous, any flare being described as posturing, any potential deadlock being seen as a result of leaders marking their territory. Journalists seem pathologically unable to understand what a negotiation process consists of, and, instead of letting it be or even praising the extraordinary process of consensus-building, peaceful negotiation, and unanimous decision-making, they seek to undermine it by presenting it as an epic battle of will between egocentric leaders. What a pity! Isn’t it high time for the media to stop embracing System 1 thinking for a more mature approach where decisions are taken collectively and unanimously after a lively and thorough debate. Emotional and fast System 1 decision-making is leading us to catastrophes such as the mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis in the UK and America, the UK exit from the European Union, or the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. A little more “slow-thinking” of the type inevitably triggered by the constraints of unanimity-seeking, would have gone a long way in avoiding the trauma those decisions do already and will inevitably cause.