A multi-speed formula will shape Europe’s future   
The best option is a structure with an integrated core and a looser outer layer
by: Wolfgang Münchau

Back in the 1990s, I used to discuss the future of Europe with friends and colleagues. We had different aspirations. Some of us, me included, wanted a narrow, federal Europe with a central government and parliament; others preferred a wider, decentralised Europe; and then there was a third group in favour of what they called “variable geometry” — a multi-speed Europe in which overlapping groups of countries would integrate in different policy areas.

The debate is back on the official agenda, this time not out of choice but necessity. The EU is in trouble. Its monetary union crawls from one crisis to the next. Its immigration policies are a mess. One member voted to leave. Another, Poland, is isolating itself diplomatically. Beata Szydlo, the Polish prime minister, last week vetoed a resolution of the European Council in protest over the re-election of Donald Tusk, an erstwhile political rival. She is holding Europe to ransom over a battle that is really about domestic politics. In France and Italy, some leading opposition politicians are advocating a withdrawal from the euro.

A few days before last week’s summit, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Spain met to express a preference for a multi-speed Europe, on lines similar to the variable geometry some of my friends favoured two decades ago. They arrived at this conclusion through a process of elimination. A federal Europe of 27 member states is out of the question because that would require deep changes to the European treaties that would stand no chance of being approved by all. Doing nothing is not much of an option either. So there is no alternative to variable geometry. But what would it mean in practice?

We should distinguish between different varieties. The first would consist of deeper integration based on the enhanced co-operation clauses in European law. These allow a group of at least nine member states to press ahead with legislation with each other. This excludes areas of common interest, such as the single market or the customs union.

While enhanced co-operation sounds like a good idea, a word of caution is in order. It has been around since the 1990s and was given more prominence in the Lisbon treaty. One of the authors of this particular clause told me that he wrote it to provide a legal foundation for the eurozone to develop into a closer political union. But the clause has only been used three times — for divorce law, the European patent and on property rights for international couples. Not exactly an ambitious list.

It is worth studying the failures of the procedure. A group of member states wanted to use enhanced co-operation to agree on a financial transaction tax. They became bogged down by disagreements, before the realisation dawned that, if only nine countries signed up to such a tax, they might put themselves at a competitive disadvantage compared with those member states that refused to take part.

The second version of variable geometry is more radical and, in the final analysis, the only one that respects the political constraints and the need to solve the EU’s problems. European integration belongs to the category of things that are simultaneously inevitable and impossible.

More integration is needed if Europe is to manage an economically divergent monetary union; to strengthen defence-co-operation at a time when Donald Trump, the US president, is casting doubt on the future of Nato; and to remain credible when confronted by assertive neighbours, notably Russia and Turkey. At the same time it is impossible because the kind of treaty change needed to construct such an edifice is unrealistic.

The way out of this trap is to accept a process of disintegration followed by reintegration. The EU as constituted is monolithic. It is stuck with a legal framework for everybody that suits nobody. The best option would be a structure with a reasonably integrated core, surrounded by a less integrated outer layer. All member states would be part of a customs union and the single market but not necessarily the single currency or the interior and foreign and security policy apparatus. Freedom of movement could be defined as a right obligatory for members of the inner group but voluntary for the others.

Countries in the outer sphere would have the right, but not the obligation, to join core policy areas. The outer layer would thus not be monolithic either. Such a structure would even allow the UK to rejoin after it leaves the bloc. But it would be rejoining not the EU as we know it but a more flexible successor organisation, with a different legal basis.

Europe’s dilemmas are solvable if one opens up the institutional fabric. Otherwise, there is no alternative but to muddle through in the hope that nothing happens. And we know where that ends.

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