UCL News


Penrose revived

20 April 2004

A formula devised by UCL mathematician and geneticist Professor Lionel Penrose (1898-1972) in 1946 could break the deadlock over the design of the European Union's constitutional voting system.

Maths students from Poland have revived Penrose’s square root formula In December 2003, talks by member states collapsed as representatives failed to agree on a system that suits both large and small countries. The proposed Nice Treaty aroused controversy as the smaller member states felt that it was unfairly biased towards larger countries such as France and Italy.

However, those opposed to the Nice Treaty were not unanimous in their support of an alternative system proposed at the December convention.

A group of ten maths students from the College of Europe in Natolin, Poland, have suggested a compromise based on Penrose's square root formula.

They presented their solution in person to the Polish Foreign Minister, Mr Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz. The minister was so taken by the proposal that he has brought it to the current Irish EU presidency for further discussion.

The triple majority system of using the formula would mean that a decision would be passed if it had the support of 50% of member states, representing 50% of the population and at least 60% of weighted votes.

Germany, which has the largest population, would still have the most votes, but in most cases the larger countries would not have such an advantage as with the Nice Treaty.

The formula takes the square root of the population and divides it by a given factor. This system would give Germany 29 votes. France, the UK, and Italy would have 24 and Spain and Poland, 20. Under the Nice Treaty, The top four countries would have 29 votes each, while Spain and Poland would have 27.

Danish student Ms Katya Murray said: "We wanted something that wouldn't give as much power to the big countries as the Nice Treaty but would still take into account the size of population."

Lionel Penrose became Galton Professor of Eugenics at UCL in 1945, and Professor of Human Genetics in 1963. He carried out pioneering work on mental retardation and Down's syndrome. He also designed the 'impossible staircase' - made famous in M C Escher's print 'Ascending and Descending'. UCL's Library Special Collections holds many of his personal papers.

To find out more about Professor Penrose use the link below.

UCL's Penrose Papers