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Making the Case for a Multi-Speed Europe

EU will only be able to move closer together if a smaller group of courageous states take the lead

By Werner Weidenfeld

30.07.2008 · dw-world.de

The enlarged EU continues to makes its influence felt far beyond its frontiers. The heterogeneity within the bloc has, however, grown as a result of new members joining over the last few years. Economic, social and political differences continue to exist between the member states despite the steps towards convergence.

Ideas about how the body called the EU should develop in the future have become increasingly divergent. It will become more and more difficult to achieve greater integration simultaneously. This should not just be regarded as a problem, but also as an  opportunity for the future of Europe.

European leaders were already pursuing EU enlargement and greater integration in tandem in the 1990s, while planning both the accession of new states in Eastern Europe and economic and monetary union. They were thereby returning to an idea that Willy Brandt and Leo Tindeman had already come up with 20 years earlier: the concept of "differentiated integration." Since then measures have been taken towards integration in all sorts of different political areas that have not included all EU members.

Mutli-speed integration already in operation

For example, the Eurozone now comprises 15 countries since the recent accession of Cyprus. The Schengen area consists of 24 members, including two states, Iceland and Norway, which are not EU members. These are just two of the projects that demonstrate that differentiated integration has been a fixture of the integration process for years.

The idea was first laid down in law in the Treaty of Amsterdam. However, it was acknowledged that the rules established were complicated and not applicable in practice. Steps have been taken to change these rules and the areas where they can be applied in the Nice Treaty, the failed EU constitution and the Lisbon Treaty, making it easier for EU states to proceed towards greater integration at different speeds.

In the new treaty this option was even extended to include defense policy. The procedure remains complicated, but pursuing "differentiated integration" is easier now than it ever has been in the past.

An exciting testing ground

The EU will be able to test out its innovation potential by proceeding towards integration at different speeds. The heterogeneity of the bloc and the sheer number of differing interests are practically an invitation to do this. It would offer the chance to push ahead with projects that a group of states regard as important, but which would have no chance of being realized across the entire bloc.

Nevertheless, caution is warranted. To avoid things getting out of control, the principle should be tied, as a strategic instrument, to certain conditions.

Firstly, multi-speed integration should not run counter to the general aims of the EU. Secondly, all member states should be allowed to participate, if they wish, no matter what the project. Thirdly, the process -- despite all the positive experiences so far -- does have the potential of releasing centrifugal powers.

A carrot, not a stick

It is therefore not suited for use as a means of bullying reluctant member states. Nor should it be used as a tactical, political instrument. Political leadership is desperately necessary to embed existing and future integration projects in a general European context. The council president, the commission president and the high representatives for foreign and security policy must play a decisive role here as well as the member states. "Differentiated integration" should be executed within the framework of EU treaties and not via purely intergovernmental co-operation as in the past.

Finding the right model is important

There are numerous buzzwords and models linked to differentiated integration, such as graduated integration, "Europe à la carte" as well as the idea of a core Europe. If the differentiation model is to have a future, then it must orient itself towards the idea of an "open area of gravitation" comprising the sum total of individual cooperation projects and the intersection of the participating countries and attracting other EU states to engage in a more intense level of cooperation.

A fixed, closed core of member states that always advances together would lead inevitably to the break-up of the bloc, as would the possibility of cooperating in any possible kind of way.

Differentiated integration is not about introducing a two-class system of European states. Instead, practically-oriented, precisely targeted forms of cooperation should come about not all member states can be involved in further integration.

Once a project of this kind is successfully realized, it will attract other EU states to join in. Differentiation should be regarded as something of limited duration. There should be no permanent separation of competing integration areas, but instead various differentiation intiatives that can gradually be extended to take in the European Union as a whole.

Differentiated integration represents an opportunity and not a threat. This view must first of all come to be accepted by those politically responsible and the proponents of integration in academic institutes and society at large. Differentiated integration could perhaps lead dangers and problems to arise.

But if all states are forced to advance at the same speed, then they will come to a standstill at some point. That would be fatal for the grand European project.

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