2 – Europe. Bend WITHOUT Breaking. Break without Bending
ATTITUDES TOWARDS FLEXIBLE UNION
The results of the research show that the past decade of crises and the weakening of the collective action of the EU have left their marks. Asked why a member state would embrace a flexible union, respondents in almost three-quarters of countries pointed to the potential to demonstrate the benefits of collective European action to win back trust in the EU. There are two elements to this. On the one hand, member states feel pressure from their citizens to point to the benefits of collective action rather than struggle on with a perception of a union unable to act. On the other hand, political elites themselves have started to question the real added value of collective action if efforts do not yield results.
Thirteen countries surveyed also agreed that “Overcoming deadlocks in relevant policies” was a key factor in the growing interest in a flexible union. In this case, one needs to keep in mind the hugely formative experience of deadlock on EU governments over recent years. Meanwhile, nine member states believed “Focusing on results in a less rigid institutional and legal EU framework” to be relevant on this question.
Having said that, the research reveals that two countries, Denmark and Greece, see no real advantages in flexible cooperation, as they fear further flexibility would lead to more disintegration. This is an attitude that indeed still resonates more widely across EU capitals. These countries see flexible cooperation as too much of a departure from the objective of a cohesive union.
In response to the question of whether their national government believes that opportunities of flexibility outweigh the risks, or the other way around, no clear picture emerges – 12 are undecided, 11 have an overall positive take, and five countries point to the risk of even stronger centrifugal tendencies. A major theme emerging in all three groups when asked what the main risks of flexibility are, is the clear concern about the overall cohesion of an already stretched union. Lastly, there is also a group of four countries (Austria, Hungary, Poland, and the UK) that see flexibility as a way to “restrengthen national sovereignty on core policies”.
Austria is a bit of an outlier in this group, as it overall shares the vision of strengthening European integration, including the supranational institutions. However, its motivation for embracing flexibility may be explained by its experience of the refugee crisis. During the crisis Austria found itself very exposed to migration, and could see no joint EU action on the horizon to mitigate that exposure. Indeed, it lasted until Austria took unilateral action. At that time, flexibility, understood as subgroups making decisions on their own (possibly even outside of the treaties, which is an option Austria favours), might have provided an easier way out of the EU deadlock.
When asked about any recent shifts in attitude towards flexible cooperation, researchers report that a number of capitals feel that, given the ever growing pressure for EU policies to be clearly seen to be delivering results, flexible ways of cooperation – even outside of the EU’s institutional framework – should be given a try. This is the message communicated by research on Croatia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, and Spain. In general, France is sceptical about anything that might undermine the EU and its institutions, particularly given the reality of Brexit.
But France nevertheless retains a strong interest in a union that can function effectively and is therefore not closed to looking at new ways of working. The Benelux countries, which were all founding members of the EEC, are also sceptics of flexible cooperation. In their contribution to the Rome Summit in March 2017, they conceded that flexible formations might be necessary in some form in order to ensure progress on areas “that affect member states in different ways”.
Analysis of what kind of flexible cooperation European capitals support reveals a contradictory picture. A large majority – almost four-fifths of all countries – favour “cooperation based on instruments provided in the EU treaties”. A clear minority believe, at one extreme, that their member state government prefers looser cooperation outside of the EU before pursuing a Schengen-type transfer into the treaties at a later stage. At the other extreme, even fewer sense that their national government’s preference is to support the idea of a small coalition of powerful states, or even individual states that could lead initiatives for others to follow.
It is particularly striking that the option that has proved the most legally rigid over recent years – cooperation based on enhanced cooperation or PESCO with all the institutional constraints involved – is still the most preferred type of flexibility.
Of all things, this kind of flexibility has hardly been used and cannot be said to have contributed to what EU capitals currently regard as the main objective: to achieve better performance in the EU framework. ‘Deliveringʼ, however, is seen as the main objective of flexibility in EU capitals at the moment.
So how can this contradiction be explained? EU capitals are well aware of the potentially divisive nature of flexibility, especially when organised outside of the legal framework of the EU. This makes countries want to stick with a ‘less flexible flexibility’ – one which in their view has the greatest chance of keeping the EU framework intact. At the same time, a number of capitals have come to acknowledge that the current political and security environment has created a ʻSchengen-typeʼ moment to foster cooperation among a group of countries and explore moving ahead outside of the treaty framework.
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