The best achievement of the European Union is certainly its contribution to peace and stability on the European continent. Enlargement is the first point of reference in this respect.
Of course, not all European states are member states of the Union. However, the Union either maintains, or is in the process to develop, a substantive relationship with practically all those other European states as well. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, for example, are partners in the European Economic Area. The Union has concluded numerous agreements with Switzerland to allow this country to participate in our internal market and Schengen cooperation. A number of Western Balkan countries aim to become full members of the EU, although the accession negotiations have not yet started. On the contrary, the United Kingdom has formally left the EU on 1 February 2020. Shortly, negotiations on how to shape the future relationship with this country will start. With Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova the EU concluded in recent years Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements. And, already in the sixties of the last century the EU concluded an association agreement with Turkey. In 1995 an EU-Turkey customs union was founded.
These examples illustrate that a variety of models does exist to frame the relationship between the Union and European countries who are not member states. Yet, all these (potential) relationships represent an additional contribution of the Union to stability in Europe.
By the way, when we take a closer look at the activities of the Union itself, it appears that in practise not all member states of the Union participate at all times. For example, a number of member states are not involved in the Schengen cooperation. The same applies to the cooperation in the extensive Area of Freedom, Security and Justice. In the same fashion, quite a number of member states are not member of the Euro-group. Furthermore, options do exist for cooperation in smaller circles in the field of defence: coalitions of the willing and structured cooperation. And, the general treaty principle of enhanced cooperation allows smaller groups of member states to act as forerunners in the process of implementing the Treaty objectives.
Even so, the working of these ‘internal’ models of differentiated cooperation does not undermine the stability of the European Union.
From the foregoing we can conclude that the simple existence of the Union has proven to be a vital factor to ensure peace and stability all over Europe. On the other hand, in order to profit from that situation of peace and stability, a European country does not necessarily need to be a full-fledged member of the EU or, if it is a member state, to participate in all the EU policy domains.
Now, an analysis of the functioning of all existing models of differentiated cooperation may demonstrate that it is recommended to review the modalities and procedures on how to apply them. In the ‘external’ domain, for example, the organisation of the accession process may be changed (see in this respect the proposals of 5 February of the Commission: COM(2020)57 final). An ‘internal’ example concerns the question whether the conditions for the application of the enhanced cooperation principle should not be simplified.
Such findings, however, cannot detract from the fact that the EU is playing a central role, for decades now, as a ‘stabilizer’ in Europe. More particularly, in view of all the threats and challenges the Union and its member states are faced with these days – at all our external borders as well as on the world scene – that role must continue and, where possible, intensified.
Jaap de Zwaan, TEPSA Secretary-General