The Legacy of the Luxembourg Compromise, 1966–1986


After a dispute between member state governments over agricultural financing at the end of June 1965, French president Charles de Gaulle instructed French ministers and diplomats to boycott the European Economic Community. His conception of an intergovernmental cooperation of Western European nation states, the ‘Europe of the Fatherlands’, contrasted markedly with the federalist ideology of the Communities’ supranational institutions. To secure French sovereignty vis-à-vis the European Communities, he started the ‘empty chair crisis’, also known as the ‘Common Market crisis’.

The so-called Luxembourg Compromise resolved this crisis in January 1966: the French government unilaterally declared that in cases when the Treaties of Rome stipulated qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, member states should hold an informal veto right if they regarded important national interests to be at stake. However, whether the Luxembourg Compromise represented merely a political arrangement, international law, European law (acquis communautaire) or a form of customary law of the Communities remains a subject of debate. Irrespective of its legal status, however, the Luxembourg declaration became the lock-in point of a veto culture that characterised the decision-making of the European Communities during the following two decades. Member state governments invoked the Luxembourg Compromise to prevent the Council of Ministers from voting. According to the literature, this veto culture was one of the causes of the stagnation and paralysis of European politics during the 1970s, which some analysts termed ‘Eurosclerosis’.

The project’s qualitative historical analysis aims to show how this informal political arrangement became established and then, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, progressively de-legitimised. It will study the internal institutional debates (including judicial expertise) and the external public debates over the practice and legitimacy of voting and vetoing, because voting and vetoing stood paradigmatically for different conceptions of the European Union. Empirically, the analysis focuses on European summit meetings connected to key events in European integration history such as enlargements, reform proposals, European elections or treaty revisions. The project will help explain why the Delors Commissions were able to revive European integration processes so rapidly in the 1980s, thus preparing the European Communities for the institutional reforms of the 1990s. The project offers fruitful synergies with other ongoing research projects at the MPIeR on "Key Biographies in the Legal History of European Union, 1950-1993" and the preparation of an oral history of the European Court of Justice.

Photo: Court of Justice of the EU, Treaties of Rome establishing the EEC and Euratom, © European Communities, 1965

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