A lot of tension has piled up in the EU over the last decade between the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the signing of the treaties of Rome, which laid the foundation of today’s European Union. When the half-century anniversary was celebrated, the EU had just finished the arduous process of negotiating a huge integration step with the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force back in 2009. The celebration back then coincided with another enlargement of the Union, when Bulgaria and Romania joined. The crisis was yet to come and nothing even hinted at its coming or its magnitude. General sentiments, although a bit downcast were still fit for a celebration. Ten years later the atmosphere is completely different.
The Union went through the greatest trial about one of its most important integration steps - the euro, whose rescue made it necessary to take a few more integration steps in the euro area and the entire EU. The consequences of the debt crisis, however, had the European political elite facing a new challenge, this time political – an alarming spike in anti-establishment, Eurosceptic and populist parties and voices. Their power only increased with each new challenge faced by the Union - the refugee crisis, the Brexit, and the turn towards illiberal democracy in some member states. Some of the Union’s wheels slipped in an attempt to speed up integration, others had their handbrake pulled, and third ones voted to get off straight away.
The entire project began creaking deafeningly. The referendum in the UK last year was the turning point that prompted the Union to start looking for a way to restart. Gaining momentum, the debate reached the main question - what is the EU, where does it want to go, how to get there, and who is staying on board. Inevitably, the old threat to the Eurosceptic camp was revived – if you are not with us, we move to several speeds. But this time it is different and much more serious, since the situation is also different.
Legitimising a multi-speed Europe without changing the Treaties
At the end of the week (March 25), the leaders of the member states will convene in Rome for a grand celebration of the 60-th anniversary of the signing of the treaties of Rome. They are also going to sign a declaration, which will recall why the EU was created in the first place and will point the direction in which the Union will continue to move at. A month prior to the anniversary European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) – a veteran at the European political scene – made a smart move in deciding to catalyse the debate offering the so called White paper on the future of Europe. Similar to his predecessor José Manuel Barroso (Portugal, EPP), Mr Juncker threw to the public five scenarios for the future development of Europe, all of which in fact represent variations of a multi-speed Europe.
Initially, he announced that he will leave it to the member states and their citizens to lead the debate on which scenario they like best and that he will not share his preference, but he could not hold on for long before hinting which is his best preference. The former prime minister of Luxembourg explained on many occasions that the White paper is just a point of reference for a debate, which will continue into the future and its goal is not to serve as a foundation for the declaration to be signed in Rome on March 25, but he was surprised that there were discussions on the scenarios anyway. Talks on the contents of the Rome declaration began on March 10 in Brussels in the framework of the spring EU summit, when all leaders, excluding British PM Theresa May, gathered for an informal meeting.
Moods before the meeting were tense. Some member states and politicians argued for a differentiation of integration, while others declared themselves absolutely opposed to it. European Council President Donald Tusk, who was re-elected to the post after a major conflict with his home country Poland, placed himself once more as a defender of the latter. In this role he is completely consistent. During the Polish Presidency of the Council, when Mr Tusk was still prime minister of Poland, again there was a danger of splitting Europe into two speeds - the euro area and the rest. Back then, he played a key role in preventing such division.
Following the informal summit of the 27 in Brussels Donald Tusk announced that he understands the reasons behind the will for a multi-speed Europe, but the interests of the community of 27 members, especially in the context of exit negotiations with Great Britain, as well as because of the long-term strategic interest of the EU, need to prevail. He urged everyone to aim for protecting the 27’s political unity. “I think the best motto for our debate today could be this proverb: 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together"”.
Jean-Claude Juncker disagreed. This was the moment when he revealed his cards by stating that this is the time for Europeans to show their true colours. “I'm absolutely convinced that those who sit back on their laurels they will get a lot less far than those who run.” He spent a lot of time explaining that with his White paper he did not mean the building of a new Iron Curtain. A multi-speed Europe is a fact of life even now, he said and listed the different speeds – the euro area and Schengen as clubs with restricted access on one side and the enhanced cooperation procedure on the other. With this procedure along several key legislative dossiers there are several separate speeds already – the financial transactions tax, which is going to be implemented by ten member states: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain; the draft for establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office; the legislation for transferring property rights in the case of a divorce of trans-national couples; the European unity patent.
Jean-Claude Juncker stressed that not all founding countries participate in some of these speeds, nor are they all only Western states. Bulgaria and Romania, he said, are an example to many of these speeds, he added, with the idea of dispelling fears that a war is waged against new members. German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the words of Jean-Claude Juncker saying that even now there are disparities in European unity. The motto, she thinks, continues to be "united in diversity". She sees the Union as a feeling that you belong to a particular nation, but at the same time stand behind what Europe stands for, namely European values. She stressed that the elections in any state should not be a hindrance to progress. Among countries having upcoming elections this year she mentioned Bulgaria.
Angela Merkel was adamant that she does not want the Rome declaration containing any hollow principles. “We want to be able to say after 2-3-4 or 5 years what we put down on paper is something that we've actually achieved, and actually have our deeds match our words. And this is very much the spirit in which this debate takes place“, she said at a press conference following the end of the spring European Council. The host of the anniversary celebration – Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni – believes that the summit in Rome will provide an opportunity for a restart of the EU. He believes it is important that the declaration underlines the achievements of the last 60 years, namely peace, freedom, the removal of dictatorships, prosperity and social security, freedom, human rights. Gentiloni stated that this is not about Europe a-la-carte, but a reality, which is already present. The speed of making decisions should not depend on one or two member states. He also appraised the way in which Jean-Claude Juncker clarified the facts about multiple speeds.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who until last autumn was a MEP of the EPP group, stated that for Croatia there are three important points: increasing the democratic legitimacy of EU institutions, which includes avoiding populists and demagogues gaining more power; citizens feeling the redistributive power of the European budget; and the global role of the Union. He expressed concern that Great Britain’s exit will mean less money in the common budget, and thus less opportunities for defence. So the 27 should concentrate on the challenges along the Eastern and Southern borders.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose course towards illiberal democracy is one of the reasons for insisting on a multi-speed Europe, announced he is definitely against. “There is no first-class and second-class Europe; there is no core and periphery. In general, this whole question of a two-speed Europe is one of the most abhorrent ideas for us. At the same time, through strengthened cooperation we are not opposed to the idea of some countries making more progress than others on some issues”, he said following the end of the summit. Viktor Orbán is for a looser Union, in which member states have all the power and institutions are just figure heads.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani (EPP, Italy) also stated that Europe needs to be relaunched, but believes now is not the time for amending the treaties. “The existing treaties allow us to cave in for different realities. They allow for countries to make certain choices and other countries can then come on board”, he said. His message was that the EU needs to change, but not in the direction of becoming weaker.
In a debate in the European Parliament later, Maltese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of European Affairs Louis Grech stated that a reform of the EU does not mean a new design for Europe. We have to admit the reality that European horizons have shifted, he said. Liberty, equality, and the rule of law are the soul of Europe, said Louis Grech. This was underlined by several leaders, which is a clear sign that not everyone are prepared to tolerate what is going on in Poland, Hungary, and other countries.
Talk of a multi-speed Europe was heard even from the most pronounced federalist in the EU Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberals group in the European Parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, author of a number of ideas about the deepening of integration within the EU. Even he, however, admitted the reality by stating that several spheres need less Europe and even less commissioners, but more Europe is needed in other spheres. It became clear from the debate in the European Parliament last week that already many of the pro-European groups as well as individual politicians have accepted the fact that the battle against Euroscepticism cannot be won by forcing Euro-federalism.
Are you confused yet?
If you have reached this part of the text you are surely asking yourselves how come everyone wants a multi-speed Europe and they are at the same time saying it already exists. The answer lies in the enhanced cooperation procedure. It will be the instrument, through which the so far dominating concept is going to be overturned – we all walk together, but some choose not to go this or that direction. The new concept will be the reverse – unity at all cost will no longer be sought. Instead of the opt-out principle, the opt-in principle will be pursued. As there are no moods currently for EU treaties change, the enhanced cooperation procedure will be a more and more often used instrument in European law-making. It allows for a minimum of nine member states to adopt laws, which are unwelcome by the rest.
Slower-moving countries insist on avoiding the restriction of access for new members to certain laws, as is now the case with Schengen and the euro area, membership in which is only possible after fulfilling certain criteria, but even that is not sufficient as the cases of Bulgaria and Romania show.
The Visegrad group, of which Hungary is a member, came out with a special declaration on the event of the 60-th anniversary, in which it shares its vision for the EU. There are several important points in the document of the four Central-European states. The first one is that they denounce as obsolete the paradigm “more Europe” versus “less Europe”. To them the EU remains an instrument for dealing with day-to-day problems. They confirm their commitment to freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights, which is especially curious, having in mind the ongoing procedure for violating the rule of law against Poland and the similar problems in Hungary. Slovakia, Poland, The Czech Republic, and Hungary recognise the differentiated speeds principle, but insist that the direction remains one – a strong and prospering Union. They agree to enhanced cooperation becoming the main method of lawmaking, but point out that this needs to be open to all member states and that the dissolution of the common market, Schengen, or the EU itself need to be avoided.
The draft for a Rome declaration, approved by the Sherpas on Monday, which is at euinside’s disposal, talks about different paces. “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”, is said in the text, which can undergo several more revisions by Saturday. Four commitments are made: a safe and secure Europe; a prospering and sustainable Europe; a social Europe; and a strong Europe. Everyone so far stated demands have been taken into account, including those of the new members, who insisted on keeping the instruments for economic convergence and cohesion. European funds are not expressly mentioned, but it is said that there will be work on economic convergence.
A major focus in the draft declaration is placed on the need to put an end to the “Brussels vs. Capitals” confrontation. A commitment is made for decisions made to be implemented as well as working on all necessary levels in order to make them happen – at the European, national, regional, or local one, in a spirit of loyalty and trust. A promise is made that national parliaments will be involved more closely.
What does it all mean for the future?
At first glance, consent to focus on the enhanced cooperation procedure seems completely harmless. A very good example of the gap that this procedure leads to was the negotiation on the European Prosecutor's Office. This is one of the most difficult dossiers, which ministers worked on for more than three years. The reason is that there was precisely this clash that led to legitimising a multi-speed Europe - some states wanted the EPPO to be a strong supranational body with wide powers, including fighting organised crime, while others thought that their judicial systems work well enough to need such a body. Following long negotiations and splitting the dossier into parts, it all ended up in significantly trimming the original proposal of the European Commission. Despite these efforts, however, several countries refused to participate.
It is very likely that this can be avoided in the future by asking member states from the very start to state clearly whether they will participate and under what conditions they would(not). This would save a lot of legislative efforts and especially contradictions and ambiguities. Attempts to reach a compromise for the sake of consensus often lead to legislative nonsense aimed mostly at soothing Eurosceptic voices, not at achieving efficiency. This means that in the future there will be a move towards much more serious and compact pieces of legislation that will have a much stronger integration effect. Despite the stated desire to preserve unity, this will create problems for the single market in the future, where areas with a stronger integration pull than in others will be formed. This can have an impact on the attractiveness for investment and the influx of talent and respectively the outflow from less integrated member states.
It is important to note, however, that in the draft declaration of Rome it is explicitly stated that the EU will be a Union of equal opportunities and the right of a person to study and seek employment where they will. Falling back to the enhanced cooperation procedure is a temporary solution that will enable faster running countries to move forward while waiting for the right time to open the treaties for changes. This will be a period during which there will be serious changes in the Union. They will not be felt immediately, but will set the stage for a new conversation about the future, probably around the 70th anniversary of the union.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev