Hit by a wave of crises, the European Union is urgently searching a new model of functioning in order to survive in one form or another. The need to balance between unity and diversity is a dilemma faced currently by the bloc. Currencies, politics and interests differ to make a new pattern of European integration a reality.
It is expected that the final decision on the future functioning of the community will be made in December. The coming months are likely to see further turbulence. The EU faces legislative elections in the Netherlands this month, followed by presidential elections in France in April and May. Germany holds legislative elections in September.
French President Francois Hollande hosted his counterparts on March 6 in Versailles, near Paris, to prepare for a larger EU meeting in Rome on March 25. France, Germany, Italy and Spain used the occasion to express support for a multi-speed Europe in a joint effort to cushion the impact of the Brexit. «Unity does not equal uniformity», French President Francois Hollande told reporters ahead of a working dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Italy’s Premier Paolo Gentiloni. «For this reason I support new forms of cooperation», he said at a joint press conference with the other leaders. Some EU member states could «go more quickly» and «further in areas such as defence and the eurozone, by deepening the economic and monetary union, and by harmonizing fiscal and social policy», the French president said. Other EU members could choose to opt out of measures intended to deepen integration, he added. Hollande also emphasized the need for a European defense that would operate in coordination with NATO.
He was backed by his German counterpart. «We must have the courage to accept that some countries can move forward a little more quickly than others», German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. She insisted that other member states should be able to join the more advanced ones when they are ready. «A Europe of different speeds is necessary, otherwise we will probably get stuck. If Europe gets stuck and doesn't develop further, then this work of peace may run into danger faster than one might think», Merkel noted. The chancellor was one of the first to mention this solution in February at the informal EU summit in Malta.
The concept allows some member states to press ahead with integration faster than others. Those in the «slow lane» would restrict themselves to participation in the single market and co-operation on foreign and security policy.
Besides Germany and France – the European Union’s «engine» – the concept of multi-speed Europe is supported by Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg and several other rich EU nations. The Baltic States are likely to back it too.
In the preparation for the EU summit in Rome on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European Commission unveiled on March 1 new ideas to keep the bloc unified. The White Paper on the Future of Europe foresees five possible scenarios for the continent by 2025: to carry on as usual; function as a single market only; do less but be more efficient; allow groups of member states to advance at their own pace; or do far more together. Thus, the EU’s executive branch is passing the buck to the member states to decide in which direction the EU should be heading.
The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, argued in the European Parliament that a multi-speed Europe was the best solution. EU leaders are now considering Juncker's options ahead of the Rome summit, where they will make their own declarations about the way forward after Britain's expected departure in 2019.
The implementation of the multi-speed Europe concept would see some EU countries grow more united on economic and defense matters while allowing other states to catch up later. The «core» EU states could move faster and further in deepening the eurozone and harmonizing their fiscal and social policy.
The idea presupposes breaches in the basics of European integration, such as the single market, or the four freedoms of movement, capital, goods and services. In a nutshell, it all boils down to EU integration in subgroups, which is already de facto happening.
Today, the EU is divided into clubs, at times overlapping mini-coalitions based on shared geography or interests. Some countries belong to the Eurozone, some belong to the Schengen Zone, and some EU members strengthen cooperation within the European Patent Network. Germany, Sweden, Belgium the Netherlands and Austria consider the idea of creating a «mini-Schengen» and collectively close off their borders to the rest of Europe to halt the flow of refugees into their countries.
Last September, Greece organized a summit of Southern European countries – the so-called Club Med. They are prone to support more protection measures and want Brussels to give individual governments more leeway to spend and borrow as they see fit.
There is the Visegrad Group of emerging Central European powers – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (V4). There are the tiny Baltics who share much in common. And there is the Nordic Council (whose members include non-EU Norway and Iceland). Actually, Scandinavia is already a bloc within a bloc. These nations are historically close to make them natural bedfellows. The Nordic Council’s activities never hit media headlines, but this union already exists to aid the Northern European international governance.
The Visegrad countries have refused to take asylum seekers and migrants despite EU demands for solidarity.
Hungary's leader Viktor Orban wants to build an «illiberal democracy« and the Polish government is under EU monitoring over alleged constitutional violations. On March 2, a day after the White Paper came to light, the Visegrad group members issued a joint declaration to the effect that find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives or second-class citizens.
Multi-speed Europe would create rival blocs and perpetuate divisions, with France and Germany setting the rules with others left to catch-up. Countries outside the core will be marginalized being kept outside of the decision making process. The EU is to become a loose alliance, a patchwork of blocs within blocks.
Calling a spade a spade, the EU is a bloc on the verge of destruction. The process of disintegration has started and it is unstoppable. A multi-speed Europe is merely recognition of the reality. This is the time to say goodbye to the EU we once knew. A patchwork of clubs is emerging instead to change the European political landscape once and for all.