On 25 March the leaders of 27 Member States and of the European Council, the European Parliament and the Commission celebrated the achievements of 60 years of EU cooperation.
Nevertheless, it was also stated that the EU is facing unprecedented challenges, both global and domestic ones: regional conflicts, terrorism, growing migratory pressures, protectionism and social and economic inequalities. In fact we could have added more problems to that list: tendencies of populism and Euroscepticism in several Member States, the cohesion of EU cooperation (Brexit and enlargement), the situation in Turkey, energy/environment/climate and the relationship with the US, for example.
According to the so-called Rome Agenda the Union must work towards a safe and secure Europe; a prosperous and sustainable Europe; a social Europe and a stronger Europe on the global scene. That is quite an ambitious programme indeed!
Then, a rather complicated sentence figures somewhere in the middle of the text: ‘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’.
Actually the sentence is composed of five elements:
- acting together
- at different paces and intensity where necessary
- 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.
The focus of the sentence clearly is on a multispeed Europe. In the past such an approach had often been rejected for political reasons, mainly to prevent the emergence of categories of first and second class Member States. For this reason, the conditions to apply (the Treaty concept of) enhanced cooperation in practice, are difficult to fulfil whereas the impact of what can be achieved by applying enhanced cooperation –by ‘at least 9 Member States’– is only limited.
These days, however, not only has the number of Member States substantially increased, but also the political climate has changed. Moreover, 2017 is a year of uncertainty: in March general elections have been held in the Netherlands; at the beginning of May the second round of the French presidential elections will take place; in June there will be general elections in the UK; and in September in Germany. In 2018 and the years to come certainly similar developments will take place in other Member States.
So, in all honesty, we cannot be assured that the continuous support for EU cooperation will be guaranteed in all Member States in the long term.
Therefore, in the given circumstances, the principle of a multi-speed Europe should be looked at in a (more) positive way. If we cannot commonly agree on new steps to be taken, why not facilitate –a substantive number of– the willing Member States to act as forerunners? Obviously, the result of such cooperation should not undermine the core business of the EU (internal market ‘plus’) nor destabilize the functioning of the EU’s institutional structures.
That said, EU cooperation can only be credible if the fundamental values as embedded in Article 2 TEU are respected and enforced all over the territory of the Union, so in all Member States. Here the reference is to the discussions about the respect of the rule of law in Member States such as Poland and Hungary.
But apart from this, it is better to facilitate those who want to advance, instead of forcing the non-willing to cooperate. As long as all Member States participate –in the overall EU cooperation– in preserving a solid substantive acquis at minimum level, there should be no fear for the emergence of divergence.
Jaap de Zwaan, TEPSA Secretary-General