1 – Europe. Bend WITHOUT Breaking. Break without Bending
- Faced with internal and external pressures, the EU is increasingly focused on “cooperation” and “deliverables”, rather than “integration”. ECFR’s research shows that a critical mass of countries agree on the need for more flexible cooperation within the EU.
- Many member states believe that more flexible cooperation will help to demonstrate the benefits of collective European action, and to overcome policy deadlocks. There is also a clear preference for flexible cooperation under existing EU treaty instruments.
- However, there is a group of swing countries that may not be ready to engage in flexible cooperation just yet. This group is concerned about the risk of the EU framework and institutions being hollowed out, and about the dominance of big countries with larger resources.
- Hungary, Poland, and the United Kingdom, see flexibility as an opportunity to increase national sovereignty in some areas.
- While inclusive approaches are clearly favoured in EU capitals, continued pressure to deliver might push core countries towards even looser types of flexible cooperation in a style reminiscent of Schengen.
The idea of adopting “flexible” modes of cooperation – as opposed to all countries moving at the same speed on the same issues – is a longstanding subplot in the European story of ever-closer union. Over the years, various, often diffuse, concepts of flexibility – “variable geometry”, “Europe of two or multiple speeds”, “core Europe”, to name just a few catchwords – have made their appearance in the debate on the future shape of Europe in both political and academic circles.
Indeed, out of the notion of “flexibility” have emerged some of the most significant forms of integration in Europe, most notably the eurozone and the Schengen area. While the single currency has been part of the EU’s legal framework right from the start, the Schengen model was different. The Schengen agreement on the abolition of border controls was officially established in 1985 separately from the European Economic Community (EEC) by five of its members (the Benelux countries, France, and Germany). The agreement gained traction over time among other members, and the growing Schengen area was incorporated into EU law 12 years later with the Amsterdam treaty.
Now, with the EU facing internal and external pressures which, under some scenarios, imperil its very survival, a new round in the debate over whether flexibility can ease the EU’s travails has emerged in European capitals. In February 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters at the Malta Summit: “We certainly learned from the history of the last years, that there will be as well a European Union with different speeds that not all will participate every time in all steps of integration”.
In early March 2017, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presented a white paper with five options for EU-27 cooperation after Brexit, including one of greater flexibility, to be discussed at the Rome Summit in late March which will commemorate 60 years of the Treaty of Rome.
Against the backdrop of unprecedented challenges to European prosperity, security, and cohesion, EU leaders will want to leave a sign of strength by mapping out the way forward. Ahead of Rome, French President François Hollande convened a meeting with his counterparts from Germany, Italy, and Spain in Versailles on 6 March.
There, the four leaders expressed their conviction that different speeds would re-establish confidence among EU citizens in the value of collective European action. But modes of flexible cooperation carry with them the risk that they might accelerate disintegration rather than strengthen collective action in core policies. Such an outcome runs directly counter to the main argument for greater flexibility – namely, to deliver better results in a union of ever more voices. It is a more than valid question to ask how much asynchrony an ever-closer union can handle.
- In order to guard against such a deleterious course of events, over the past quarter of a century, EU governments have sought to incorporate methods of flexibility into the European treaties themselves. With the general instrument of “enhanced cooperation”, and “permanent structured cooperation” (PESCO) in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, for example, member states acknowledged flexibility as a feature of the EU’s institutional design.
- Enhanced cooperation was devised with the Amsterdam Treaty, signed 20 years ago in 1997, and revised in successive treaty reforms in Nice and Lisbon. Enhanced cooperation is stipulated as a procedure whereby a minimum of nine EU countries are allowed to establish advanced cooperation within the EU structures. The framework for the application of enhanced cooperation is rigid: It is only allowed as a means of last resort, not to be applied within exclusive competencies of the union.
- It needs to: respect the institutional framework of the EU (with a strong role for the European Commission in particular); support the aim of an ever-closer union; be open to all EU countries in principle; and not harm the single market. In this straitjacket, enhanced cooperation has so far been used in the fairly technical areas of divorce law and patents, and property regimes for international couples. Enhanced cooperation on a financial transaction tax has been in development since 2011, but the ten countries cooperating on this have struggled to come to a final agreement.
PESCO allows a core group of member states to make binding commitments to each other on security and defence, with a more resilient military and security architecture as its aim. It was originally initiated at the European Convention in 2003 to be part of the envisaged European Defence Union. At the time, this group would have consisted of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. After disagreements on defence spending in this group and the referendum defeat for the European Constitution which meant the end of the Defence Union, a revised version of PESCO was added into the Lisbon treaty.
This revised version allows for more space for the member states to decide on the binding commitments, which of them form the group, and the level of investment. However, because of its history, some member states still regard it as a top-down process which lacks clarity about how the groups and criteria are established. So far, PESCO has not been used, but it has recently been put back on the agenda by a group of EU member states
While the treaty-driven logic of flexibility has so far not lived up to expectations, can Schengen-style approaches – international treaties of EU members concluded outside of the EU framework, with the perspective of a later inclusion and expansion to other EU members – be devised in the present day? Could it strengthen European cooperation in areas where groups of EU members wish to move ahead more quickly than others?
Against this background, the European Council on Foreign Relations’ new research project set out to understand attitudes towards different forms of flexible cooperation. This included, in particular, foreign and security policy and the potential use of PESCO in this area.
This is a current focus of discussion inside the EU and across member states. ECFR’s team of researchers, based in all EU capitals, conducted more than 100 interviews with government officials and experts at universities and think-tanks across the 28 member states.
They questioned respondents about member states’ attitudes towards different types of flexible cooperation, and explored whether there have been recent changes in attitude regarding the tension between “effective functioning” and “disintegration”. They then asked what specific projects in foreign and security policies member states believe are worth exploring. The research on which this publication is based reflects the discussions in European capitals by February 2017.
The findings show that overall commitment to EU membership remains strong. In a number of member states it has even intensified in the light of the UK’s referendum vote to leave and the election of Donald Trump.
The fact that numerous member states are considering a “Europe of different speeds” or a “flexible union” is not necessarily a sign that the EU is in the stages of further disintegration. On the contrary, the research detected no appetite among member state governments, or publics at large, for abandoning the EU as their preferred model of regional order. Instead, out of the crises has comes a search for new ways to improve how the EU works.
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