Call it “multi-speed”, “core Europe” or even “variable geometry”, there is one thing that we are sure of since Prime Minister Cameron’s speech last Wednesday: this terminology constitutes the new future of the European Union, but maybe also its demise.
If it has been a reality for two decades, we also know that it is not a temporary phenomenon and that the EU, if it wants to integrated further, will have to continue doing so at different paces, and possibly even decelerate on some issues. It is the very fact that Cameron wants to repatriate some competences from the EU to the national level that is the proof that this phenomenon is changing: it not a halt anymore, it is an ongoing process in different directions.
United in how much diversity?
This reality of having the different EU integration is not new. Since the Maastricht Treaty and the creation of the Single Currency, the EU has had very different groups of countries regarding their integration. The UK and Denmark chose directly to opt-out from the EMU. Sweden has chosen a more subtle way: it opted-in but makes sure it does not respect the Maastricht criteria to stay out of it. This situation is very different from, on the one hand, new Member States, who ultimately are meant to join the Euro area (like Cyprus, Malta, Slovenia, Slovakia and Estonia already have), and, on the other hand, countries outside the EU, who benefit from a special agreement with the EU: the European Free Trade Association (Switzerland), the European Economic Area (Norway), or even the EU customs union (Turkey). The first ones are in the EU and mean to be a full part of it as soon as they can; the second ones are not part of it, and do not intend to (apart from Turkey, which is a candidate country).
For the former case, aka. “in the EU but out of some specific policies”, a special procedure has been elaborated: the Enhanced Cooperation Procedure, which allows the willing Member States to pursue further integration whilst still using the EU institutions. First mentioned in the Amsterdam Treaty, the Enhanced Cooperation requires at least nine Member States, must stay open to new volunteers and not allow further extension of competences to the EU. For example, two regulations have recently been adopted through the Enhanced Cooperation Procedure on a Unitary Patent Procedure in December 2012 by 25 Member States (with the exception of Spain and Italy). It will enter into effect as soon as 13 Member have ratified it.
A realistic path
Though the advantages expected by a Unitary Patent compared to the “classical” one still ongoing (three languages, one application, reduces costs) are important, the Enhanced Cooperation Procedure, as said before, does not allow Member States to grant further competences to the EU level. Major steps in integration imply logically transferring more rights to the EU, not the same. The Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the EMU, more known as the Fiscal Compact, was signed by 25 Member States in March 2012, and just entered into force on the 1st January. This international treaty was only possible because the UK and the Czech Republic have allowed the 25 other Member States to use the EU institutions, with one major difference: this time it is the European Court of Justice who will verify the implementation of the Treaty.
This system of allowing those who want to continue to do so was generally seen as a last resort solution, but as a useful one as well. The EU Commission, guardian of the Treaties, usually dislikes this way of proceeding, but has to admit its usefulness in the past. For many ambitious Federalists, it has been seen as the only realistic way of achieving their goal: a more unified Europe.
However, all this might change if a Member State refuses to ratify the Treaty and refuses for others to do so. The Czech Republic has just elected this Saturday as President Zeman, who has a more euro-friendly program than the actual president Vaclav Klaus. But this ultimately means that the whole integration process of the EU can be stopped if one of its Members decides that it’s a “no” for itself but also but for its neighbors.
A dangerous future
For the time being, the British Prime Minister has recognized that the only way for the Euro area to solve its problems is for it to further integrate competences to insure the viability of the Single Currency, but of course without the UK. Nonetheless, it is probable that if negotiations do not turn out as Britain wishes that this will be an effective blackmailing technique when another treaty comes up, and by 2017 there is still time. If this turns out being the case, then the multi-speed Europe will have proved its limits, unless of one of its Members should decide to leave or if some Members decide to do something out of the EU framework.
To go further:
On Nouvelle Europe
- Dossier of February 2013 on European disintegration? The European Project in crisis, 4 February 2013
On the internet
- European Commission, The patent reform: Unitary patent protection (in the framework of enhanced cooperation) and the Unified Patent Court, updated 23 January 2013
- European Commission, Six-pack? Two-pack? Fiscal compact? A short guide to the new EU fiscal governance, updated 17 December 2010
Photo Source: Ma Ning / Ma Ning / Xinhua Press / Corbis