On the Capacity to Adapt and the Concept of Differentiated Integration

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At a time when the EU is confronted with new challenges in the wake of the Russian attack against Ukraine, it must show resilience and above all a capacity to adapt to new circumstances. This is true in the area of policies like handling flows of refugees or using the EPC to finance weapons for Ukraine, but it also applies to the way the EU functions.

In this context it may be useful to cast an eye back to the history of European unification and the concept of differentiated integration (DI). The reason is simple: differentiated integration has for a long time been a way to handle diversity within the EU, and indeed in relations with neighbouring countries. The Russian aggression in Ukraine has squarely put on the table our future relations with Ukraine as well as Georgia and Moldova, including a possible accession to the Union. The Commission will provide a first opinion before the June European Council. This is a process that normally takes months – if not years – since it is supposed to assess in detail the readiness of a candidate state to start negotiations. In view of this fact and the ongoing war in Ukraine it is obvious that this is primarily a political signal. The process will be long and fraught with uncertainty. Whatever the outcome of the debate, the lessons of past DI will be relevant. Flexible solutions, at least on a temporary basis, will have to be sought if and when negotiations on accession proceed. In fact, they will also be relevant in case the final outcome will not be accession but some other form of very close association.

DI arose out of necessity. Decision-makers in the EU did not wake up one morning and say to themselves: “Let us think about defining a concept helping us to differentiate.” They started thinking about it when the sheer number and diversity of Member States prevented the Union from advancing into new fields of activity. It was a way to allow those who wanted to move ahead to do so, while keeping the door open for the others to join later.

Over the decades DI has taken various forms and shapes: .

  • Transition periods for new entrants: the latter need time before fully taking over the whole acquis communautaire; and existing MS need time to prepare for the day when the new Member States will benefit from the acquis (CAP, free movement of workers…).
  • Schengen: in 1985 5 MS (the founding countries minus IT, which are all close geographic neighbors) decided to abolish border controls between themselves. There was no way to do this within the treaties. So they created their own treaty in 1985. Quite a radical step, but not as radical as it looks: they made it clear that the ultimate aim was to transform this into a Community policy. That is why they associated the Commission from day one. Schengen was integrated into the treaty with the Amsterdam treaty. Today, 26 States participate: the 27 minus IE (opt out), BG, RO, CY and HR (waiting for the others to accept they fulfil all the conditions) but with CH, LI, Iceland and Norway.
  • EURO: this is a form of DI created via the treaty. In order to join the third phase of EMU (monetary union) you had to fulfil criteria. This is a bit like transition periods, but in this particular case one cannot know how long it will take to catch up. Once a country fulfils the criteria, it is supposed to join! The Swedish example is a bit of an anomaly because it did not do so after the Swedes said “no” in a referendum.
  • ESDP: here, we have a natural differentiation since the treaty explicitly accepts NATO membership for the majority and a neutrality status for some others. In the Lisbon treaty, a new article 46 was inserted about permanent structured cooperation. PESCO was built around strong criteria. But the pressure to participate and not be excluded was such that in the end 25 MS made it, which shows that the interpretation of the criteria was quite lax. This was good for political climate in the EU, probably less so for efficiency of the European defence sector.

In all of these instances the objective was more integration, in line with the principle of an ever closer union among the peoples. They were pragmatic responses to difficult issues. Research followed, rather than preceded, the recourse to DI. A number of concepts arose in this context. Multi-Speed Europe reflects the fact that in some areas Member States join a particular policy at different times, either by choice or more frequently by necessity because they have to fulfil certain criteria. Europe à la carte highlights the tendency of some MS to pick and choose and to request opt-outs from policies the others are part of or will be part of. Enhanced cooperation is a more neutral denomination that was chosen when the idea of DI found its entry into the Amsterdam treaty. Interestingly, once the concept became part of the treaty, it was less used. This is less paradoxical than it looks: the reason is that the authors of the treaty were focusing on the need to prevent an abuse of flexibility (yet another term) via the exclusion of countries against their will. . So they set quite stringent criteria for the use of enhanced cooperation in Article 20 TEU (only in non-exclusive competences; as a last resort; at least 9 MS part of it; all members of the EU may participate in the deliberations).

There were some attempts in the crisis period starting in 2008 to have recourse to DI as a solution. But the problem here was different from the one experienced earlier. It was not about allowing the majority to move ahead but about excluding some countries from some existing levels of integration. The most glaring example of this was the talk about a ‘Grexit’ from the euro. This would have meant disintegration rather than integration. The EU resisted this temptation that would have spelled disaster. The overall reaction to each of the major crises that hit Europe has been more integration and a more unitary approach: we see this with the European Stability Mechanism, the increased role of the ECB,  the Fiscal compact treaty, the strengthening of external borders including via a beefed up FRONTEX, , the Recovery and Resilience Fund, the joint procurement of vaccines, the use of the EPF to finance weapons for UA.

There have always v-been two fears concerning DI.  Opt-out clauses, particularly if they happen in an area linked in some form or other to the Single market, are dangerous in that they can endanger a level playing field. They can also lead, as we saw in the British case, towards a country finally opting out of the EU as such. The second fear concerns the various ideas of a core Europe advanced by in the 1990s (the Schaüble/Lamers paper of 1994, the Mitterrand and Balladur proposals of a European conference model with various degrees of integration). They gained little traction because aspiring candidates were simply not interested in having a secondary status in some form of a definitive variable geometry scheme.  

The question arises as to whether the time has come to have a fresh look at the concept of some form of Variable geometry model, i.e. the idea to have a core Europe with concentric circles around it, with diminishing integration as you move away from the core. Why? For two reasons. The first is that it may provide for a staged approach towards accession for countries that for the time do not fulfil all the criteria. In this spirit the model would in fact  become a tool for opening doors rather than  closing them! At the same time, this  approach would provide some  form of re-assurance in case actual accession may in the end not be possible in one or the other case,  for various reasons. It would then still  for a structured relationship with the highest possible association with the EU.

– TEPSA Secretary-General Jim Cloos

For more on the concept of differentiated integration, and on policy areas in which it may not be applicable, take a look at the article by TEPSA Board Member Frank Schimmelfennig: “Differentiated integration and the future of Europe : potentials and pitfalls”.