The New Reality of a Differentiated EU
Editor's Note: This blog is informed by the parliamentarian conversations enabled by the Mercator European Dialogue network. Despite including quotes, general views expressed are the author's alone. All quotes not ascribed to any source are to be attributed to Members of Parliament from the network.
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and in the midst of Europe’s ongoing crises, references to a multi-speed Europe, two-tier EU, or variable geometry have moved from the fringes to the political mainstream. These suggestions for differentiated integration (DI) would mean that groups of member states can choose to move forward on cooperating in certain policy areas.
There is already a degree of differentiation in the EU, through eurozone participation (19 member states with Britain and Denmark having negotiated opt-outs while the others are required, eventually, to join) and participation in the Schengen Agreement (which includes some non-EU member states). The possibility of smaller groups of countries cooperating on a specific project is in the Treaty ("enhanced cooperation" and "permanent structured cooperation on defense"). German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech at the EU Summit in Malta in early 2017 ended Berlin’s longstanding opposition to a multi-speed EU, turning differentiated integration into a concrete scenario. Indeed, the European Commission’s March paper on the future of Europe included differentiated integration as one of five scenarios.
Many hope that DI will make the EU more efficient by diminishing member states' veto power to block specific initiatives, and that the voluntary opt-in into further integration waves will help diffuse tensions among countries. While some states will choose to move forward together on certain integration projects, those outside will be welcome to opt-in once its citizens see that route as reflecting national interests. An “open” organization of differentiated integration, allowing for voluntary association at a later stage, will help prevent opt-outs and other referendums to leave the EU. Many hope that DI will also make the EU more flexible and able to keep up with the pace of change through deeper integration projects that work as incubators for new solutions, which may later attract growing participation.
Hopes that flexibility will bring progress are matched by deep concerns about unintended consequences. Members who feel they do not have a voice in the matter — smaller as well as newer EU members, particularly to the East — are worried about being left behind. Larger and older members like Italy, Greece, and Spain worry that it will not help address “exponentially increasing divergences within the EU.” The fear is that conflict lines among member states, such as the ones currently playing out within the eurozone, will deepen, multiply, and magnify as economic divergences are exacerbated and the institutional gaps between insiders and outsiders in DI groupings widen.
The security implications of DI also cause concern, especially among countries such as Lithuania, Greece, and Bulgaria who fear they will be left alone in a precarious situation, notwithstanding their NATO membership. There is also a wide-spread consensus that DI's impact on the neighborhood and the EU's standing as a security and economic actor would be entirely negative as “Ukraine, Serbia, Bosnia, and Turkey would inexorably gravitate away from the EU”.
There are also concerns about how a more differentiated EU would further complicate efforts to align the often-discordant security and defense postures of EU states, taking the Union even further from the once acclaimed and perhaps now discredited ambition of “speaking with one voice.”
Overall, members of parliaments across Europe understand that a differentiated EU not as an abstract possibility, but as an existing reality. There is a general sense that this very delicate phase in the history of the EU must be carefully and consciously managed since “there will be no way back.”
Paralysis at this stage, most believe, would equate to disintegration of the EU: “Members are already looking for new allies beyond the EU.” Hence, as one MP summed up “let’s do it better, and let’s start now.”
To avoid centrifugal forces and disincentivize a race to the bottom, DI may need to be based on a non-negotiable core set of values and policies for all member states. Certain basic levels of security and economic cooperation and integration also seem obvious candidates for core, non-negotiable EU-wide policies. In particular, going forward, the four freedoms — the freedom of movement of goods, capital, services, and labor — are likely to be maintained as core tenets of the EU. From this perspective, the Brexit negotiations offer an opportunity to restate the negotiable and non-negotiable boundaries of EU membership.
The crucial political challenge of moving the EU out of the current impasse is linked to the delicate question of leadership and legitimacy of both the process that would lead the EU toward more DI and the governance structures that would eventually administer DI's complexities. Differentiated integration provides an opportunity to address what has been the EU's Achilles' heel for some time now — its perceived lack of legitimacy. “Differentiated deepening must be accompanied by the strengthening of instruments and channels of input legitimacy.” Ensuring a participatory and inclusive process of differentiated integration is essential by, for instance, allowing “outsiders to participate as observers in the decision-making processes of DI nuclei.” Considering an enhanced role for national parliaments is also a measure that boosts the chances of DI being accepted as a legitimate evolution for the EU.
DI initiatives should abide by three key principles: 1) ensure the initiatives are of clear value added for citizens and are strongly respectful of the subsidiarity principle; 2) ensure decision-making mechanisms are legitimate by enhancing the role of the European parliament and national parliaments; and 3) encourage and foster initiatives led by coalitions of smaller member states.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.