European leaders are — finally — wising up to the fact that some countries don’t want over-integration — by David Nonhoff
Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, recently presented a White Paper on the Future of Europe outlining five possible scenarios for the Union’s future. In a joint statement, the French and German foreign ministers have already endorsed one of these, the so-called “Europe of multiple speeds”.
The concept is not new, and bears some risks, but is the only conceivable option given the current political circumstances. Europe of multiple speeds, or as the White Paper frames it “Those Who Want More Do More,” means that countries willing to integrate further in certain policy fields can do so without an obligation for others to follow their lead.
It’s already here
In fact, this is already a reality. The EU currently has 28 member states, 22 of which form the Schengen area that also includes non-members such as Switzerland or Liechtenstein. 19 states have accepted the Euro as their common currency, and Denmark has an opt-out clause in the field of foreign security. However, until now these differences have been exceptions. This could change now. Europe’s leaders realise they need to find a way forward in a Union that is under threat from many sides. “Carrying On” is not an option anymore.
A Europe of multiple speeds runs the risk of excluding countries through a leading “core” group, thereby threatening the unity of the already disintegrating Union. Furthermore, it would make the European construct even more complex and difficult to grasp for citizens — one of the main reasons for Euroscepticism. However, it can also have integrating effects. Neither Schengen nor the Eurozone would have been possible if all states had been obliged to join from the beginning. European integration could thus progress, after almost a decade of stagnancy.
Not a radical step
Most importantly, a multi-speed Europe could weaken the arguments of right-wing populists. They like to blame the EU for many of its policies while ignoring that it is largely member states that implement policies via the Union and not the other way around. The approach could shift blame away from Brussels back to national governments who can freely decide upon the level of further integration. It is not a radical step and, therefore, difficult to attack for those who fear loss of national sovereignty.
As a first step, Juncker’s proposal can therefore help push integration and reforms on a European level. However, much more is needed to prevent a breakup of the Union. There has to be political will to invest resources and grow and work together more extensively in times of Europe’s severest crisis since World War II. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany are the crucial test for the Union’s success.
David Nonhoff studies political sciences at the Free University of Berlin and graduated in European Studies and Philosophy from Maastricht University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His articles have been published in TheEuropean and at CampusEurope.