On March 25 European leaders gathered in Rome to celebrate the sixty years since the Treaty of Rome. The event itself was unlike the typical high level meeting of the European Council, in that the emphasis was on forms and symbols. Europeans needed to show unity in the face of growing scepticism as to the viability of the integration process. The Rome Declaration is meant to dispel any such fears.
The EU is here to stay. The eventuality of Brexit is already treated as a special case. These are confirmed by actual policies: European politics continues to deliver new measures and/or reforms to existing programmes, with much more expected once this election year is over. Nevertheless, the importance of all European leaders standing behind this project cannot be underestimated. In spite their disagreements or differences in outlook, all agree that the EU is the best instrument available to them for coping with the challenges of this century.
Different speeds, different scopes
The Rome Declaration is largely devoid of actual content. That is to be expected given the celebratory nature of the event. Yet apart from a generic commitment to the usual totemic issues—economic growth, social welfare, peace and prosperity¸ etc.—there is one statement that clearly hints at the modal features of the integration process henceforth. From the original text (strong emphasis added):
We will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction, as we have done in the past, in line with the Treaties and keeping the door open to those who want to join later. Our Union is undivided and indivisible.
As I have written before at length,1 the idea of a multi-speed and multi-tier Europe is not new. It is at the very core of the EU architecture in its present state, which allows for a clear divide between euro and non-euro countries, those that are part of the Schengen Area and those that are not, the ones that signed the Fiscal Compact and the ESM Treaty and those that did not, and so on.
The EU has proven to be accommodative and flexible when it absolutely needs to. Put differently, staunch resistance by one or two Member States cannot prove sufficient to hamper efforts at further integration. There are exceptions, but the general trend is for the Union to move forward and then provide for those left behind the option to join later (and accept the fait accompli).
Differentiated integration may not scale
This practice is far from optimal in that it creates [further] complexity. It also risks calcifying existing divides in institutional arrangements that are hard to reverse. For instance, there practically is no going back after joining the euro. Countries that are part of the currency area cannot revert to their pre-euro status without inflicting considerable harm on themselves. Instead, they have to further strengthen their ties and confer more powers to the supranational level in order to make the single currency optimal in economic as well as normative terms. Whereas non-euro countries do not face the same trade-offs and can proceed at their own pace, with whatever costs that may entail. The distinction between euro and non-euro countries is practically unbridgeable.
What this means is that differentiated integration should not be equated to “multi-speed Europe”. The difference is not just between the pace at which policy harmonisation is achieved, but also the scope. And therein lies the ‘devil in the detail’, for we could potentially witness a partialisation and subsequent compartmentalisation of core issues, such as respect for democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights.
Given certain conditions, like a pressing crisis, controversies over issues such as migration and asylum could be circumvented by means of ad hoc measures. Some countries would opt to effectively respect human rights and concomitant principles, while others would choose not keep up ‘pace’ with commitments to that end. That would constitute a direct assault on the singleness of the much-vaunted European values.
To further complicate things, a hypothetical ‘refugee union’ of this sort could need the equivalent of the Eurogroup: a largely informal platform for the countries involved to coordinate their asylum policies. Imagine the same for other areas of policy such as the environment, criminal justice, or security and defence. At scale, this is the end of a United Europe and the beginning of a nexus of international relations, interwoven in varying ways and in different parts.
Complexity can lead to fragmentation
Against such a backdrop, albeit a theoretical and distant one, it will be virtually impossible to hold any one authority accountable for the policies to be implemented. We already see the shortcomings of the euro versus non-euro divide. The former group is in need of institutional arrangements that will correct its unaccountability and inadequate legitimacy. This could take the form of a European Finance Ministry that would control a bespoke budget (fiscal capacity) and answer to either a specialised committee inside the European Parliament or an altogether new parliamentary assembly of sorts. Whether these or similar scenarios are actually realised or not, is secondary to the fact that they are contemplated in all seriousness. Should they be put in practice, the EU’s institutional order would be fragmented at its very core.
We cannot yet comment on the specifics of what the European leaders actually refer to when they allude to differentiated integration. Based on the facts of recent decades of European politics, we can expect them to work within the Treaties where necessary and only use methods of enhanced cooperation for exceptional cases. Still, the longer term implications can be far reaching. There is a delicate balance between (i) inventiveness that actually safeguards the integrity of the Union (such as the ESM Treaty) and (ii) the kind of arbitrary ‘adaptability’ that will turn current controversies into incompatible institutional structures with separate moral foundations (such as the purely hypothetical ‘refugee union’).
Looking ahead to the next sixty years
Only the soothsayer has a strong opinion of what will happen in the distant future. The truth is that it already is hard to predict the actual form of the EU architecture in the next decade or so. Will the Economic and Monetary Union, the euro area specifically, further develop into something akin to a republic? Will there be an EU army or something to that effect? Will we have cross-border lists for Member of the European Parliament? Will the Commissioners be drawn from such lists? Will the Eurogroup become a formal institution or a proper Council formation? The list goes on. The point is that Europe’s future is uncertain.
Looking back at six decades of European integration, what we can identify is two distinct phases. The first starts in the 1950s and concerns the development of the single market. It was about all Member States working together as a Community towards a common objective. It was not perfect, though it did remain in sync with the spirit of reaching widespread consensus. The second phase starts with the Treaty of Maastricht in the 1990s—the creation of the EU that is—and concerns the introduction of a virtually permanent form of differentiated integration: the single currency as the final stage of Economic and Monetary Union, where some countries were not legally bound to be a part of. Since then, Europe proceeds along the lines of the second phase. It has proven to be more efficient in terms of the timeliness with which results are delivered, though it already starts to show its longer term effects: complexity and the need for a multi-pronged approach to reform.
It is not clear whether this “Maastricht paradigm”, as we may call it, is a mere exercise in ‘muddling through’, with no downsides whatsoever. Perhaps it carries with it the unintended consequence of setting countries on different path dependencies. There are indications that would suggest the latter. Though grounded in pragmatism this approach is actually consolidating differences of political outlook, to the point where some present disagreement is aggrandised by being allowed to evolve into distinct institutional orders with no overlap, with varying needs and priorities.
The unity of the EU is a laudable ambition, though it might prove elusive should differentiated integration become the default modus operandi. Pragmatism combined with a certain degree of arbitrariness can have deleterious implications over the long term. The vagueness of the Rome Declaration renders it open to interpretation and speculation. One can only hope for the best, but cannot rule out less desirable states of affairs. Hopefully, sixty years from now we will be speaking about the “European Union” rather than the “European Unions”.
Below is a list with some of my recent articles where I comment on differentiated integration (title followed by date in ISO 8601 format):
- On the near future financing of the EU (2017-02-04)
- On EU differentiated integration (2017-02-08)
- Thoughts on the White Paper about the future of Europe (2017-03-09)