Analyse and essay
The present paper offers a brief overview of the terminological-historical, theoretical and political aspects of “differentiated integration” scenarios. It argues that although “flexibility” is the only way to consolidate the acquis and pursue the integration project, differentiation does not automatically lead to a more ambitious, more powerful and more European Europe. In order to ensure this outcome, the flexibility pioneers must pay particular attention to two paramount criteria.
First, they should, to the greatest extent possible, implement their project without alienating those EU partners that choose, or are compelled, to remain (at least temporarily) outside their group. Second, they need to manage these relations with outsiders in a way that does not compromise the strategic goals of the smaller group. Since the raison d’être of any meaningful differentiated integration scenario can only be the preservation and enhancement of European sovereignty (i.e. the autonomous capacity to decide, act and promote our interests), in the event of conflict between these two considerations, the second must prevail.
One of the first and most pertinent definitions of the very essence of differentiated integration comes from Paul-Henri Spaak, who spoke about allowing “those who want to go further and farther than the others” to do so. On face value, this seems clearly reasonable and legitimate, particularly since flexibility — without being explicitly named — has been part of the Union’s practices for decades, and in the context of a twenty-five-member Union it seems to be the only viable way to counter the numerous and robust trends towards dilution. However, the whole issue is highly contentious, all the more so because both the proponents and the opponents of differentiation are — or at least, might be — right.
Flexibility in itself is neither positive nor negative. It may be the surest way to dismember and fragment the Union, just as it may be the only way to keep it together. It can be a dynamic motor for further integration, or an excuse for doing nothing more at an all-European level. It may prove to be a sound basis for ambitious future projects, or instead turn out to be merely a comfort blanket for those who fruitlessly delight in the nostalgic evocation of past glories. The balance will tip in one or the other direction according to two fundamental parameters: the political objectives we pursue when implementing a particular flexibility scenario, and the rules and modalities we apply in the process.
We will not dwell here on the numerous expressions used to designate flexibility (such as multi-speed, multi-track, inner/outer circles, variable geometry, pioneer groups, hard core, vanguard, enhanced/closer cooperation, concentric or Olympic circles), but rather limit ourselves to some succinct remarks in this regard. On the one hand, this proliferation of terminology serves mainly to cover up for the lack of substance and detail, as well as to mask the inherent contradictions of the various projects advanced so far. On the other hand, the fundamental distinction is extremely simple: differentiation proceeds either from differences in the rate of integration, or from divergences with respect to its goals. Historically, the approach has been to recognise only the first kind of flexibility, i.e., to pursue the same finalités but at different speeds due to objective socio-economic differences between the member states. Conversely, the recognition of subjective, political-ideological divergences between EU countries’ visions is a relatively new, still very ambiguous and politically hypersensitive development.
Interestingly, the initial project of the founding Six can easily be regarded as the first example of this second type of differentiated solution. The Six constituted a genuine avant-garde in a post-war Europe that was trying out different kinds of cooperation. In fact, the Six were committed to a comprehensive “ever closer union” characterised by explicitly political endgoals and supranational elements, as opposed to loose intergovernmental gatherings restricted to purely economic or human rights issues. Nonetheless, in the decades that followed, this approach was in fact shelved within the European Communities themselves. Created by the Six (subsequently expanded through a series of enlargements), the European “construction” has always been based — at least in rhetoric — on the homogeneity of the goals pursued.
Even though the member states had, from time to time, raised the idea of launching a core group in order to overcome specific impasses, and while they were practising multi-speed solutions at each and every enlargement in the form of derogations and transitory periods, it was Maastricht that marked the definitive break with the official logic. In what might be considered a watershed agreement, the UK and Denmark negotiated so-called opt-out clauses, which resulted in a significant shift from the previous (objective, socio-economic) to a new (subjective, political) approach to differentiation. The genie was out of the bottle. Or — seen from another angle — the cat was at last out of the bag.
After Maastricht, everyone came out with their own particular flexibility scenarios. In the late summer of 1994, within the space of barely a week, French prime minister Edouard Balladur presented his vision of concentric circles, the German Schäuble-Lamers paper launched the idea of a “hard core” Europe, and British prime minister, John Major, riposted by outlining what has since then been referred to as Europe à la carte. The negotiations leading to the Amsterdam Treaty delivered a sort of mixed model, which embodied the very cautious mechanism of enhanced co-operations. Paradoxically enough, whereas the rationale behind the introduction of subjective flexibility was to free the more ambitious member states from the constraints of seeking to advance in the context of a fifteen-member framework, the answer enshrined in the new Treaty was a mechanism that, in the final analysis, retained most of these same restrictions.
No wonder the debate was far from closed. On the contrary, it had only just begun. Within the framework of the Union, the subsequent Treaties (that of Nice, followed by the latest one, called constitutional) limited themselves to attempting to simplify and facilitate the system of enhanced co-operations. Outside the strictly official arena, and with the ever-approaching prospect of the “big bang” enlargement, the polemic continued, and produced a proliferation of core Europe blueprints and discourses. The two “high points” in this debate to date, in terms of media resonance and intellectual mobilisation, came in Spring 2000 (with the German foreign minister’s “Humboldt speech”), and in Summer 2003 (with the publication of the joint Habermas-Derrida article). Notwithstanding these valuable, but poorly crystallised, contributions, this background debate on various flexibility scenarios has continued and indeed intensified.
With respect to the enhanced cooperation clauses already in force through the Treaties, the immediate counter-argument is that they have, so far, never been applied. Some see in this the proof that there is no real demand for flexible solutions, while others conclude that the current system needs an urgent overhaul. But both parties overlook the main achievements of the present formula. First, non-use does not mean no impact. The very existence of the possibility of having recourse to enhanced cooperation within a smaller circle offers valuable leverage in efforts to overcome impasses during EU negotiations. And this is true not only in specific cases: the decision-makers’ overall behaviour is influenced by the fact that an alternative solution is at their disposal.
The Treaties’ enhanced cooperation mechanism can also be seen as a safety valve. And this is thanks, in part, to its role as the Union’s “institutional memory”. Building on the experience of past decades, it embodies the fragile equilibrium between the minimum room for manoeuvre that should be accorded to the most ambitious states and the constraints necessary to preserve the common bases of the EU as a whole. The safety valve function serves another purpose, too. Namely, to keep various options open, particularly in view of the laborious and unpredictable process of Treaty ratifications and the general uncertainty over the Union’s future.
The multitude of differentiated integration scenarios can be divided into three groups, basically according to their approach to the present mechanism of enhanced co-operations. The first approach, that of institutional refurbishing, is limited to perfecting the current system through the introduction of essentially quantitative changes. The second approach can be called the diplomatic realism approach. Its supporters try to highlight the possibility that the intersecting of the various circles created within the enhanced co-operations framework will, in time, automatically lead to the emergence of a more integrated core. The third way of thinking is the most ambitious. For its proponents, the currently proposed system leads to a dead-end, and further integration must be implemented within the closer circle of the most eager and determined member states, be this within or outside the EU’s institutional framework. And preferably, given the ever-growing threat to European sovereignty, this must be accomplished without further delay.
All three approaches present serious flaws. Those who favour mere improvements of the current mechanism fail to explain how the proliferation of various circles of enhanced cooperation can avoid resulting in fragmentation of the EU. Or indeed how it can lead to the emergence of a strong and credible actor on the international scene, let alone an intelligible and attractive political entity capable of generating and retaining the loyalty of the citizens and a sense of identification on their part. The supporters of the second, highly diplomatic scenario remain practically silent on the question of the actual implementation of the core concept, claiming only that it would follow “automatically”. They acknowledge the chronic lack of sufficient political will among the presumably ambitious member states, but they prefer to give priority to managing the sensitivities of those that would remain outside the core. Finally, the third scenario remains highly hypothetical precisely because of these last two issues. There are, in fact, huge question marks as to the existence of a real political will, even among the core group countries, for further integration in all key areas. Furthermore, neither the relationship with the “outs”, nor the institutional arrangements within the core or those between the “ins” and the “outs” have yet been convincingly clarified.
At this point, we will restrict ourselves to a few general observations. First, those advocating some sort of avant-garde fall basically into two categories. Former finance ministers tend to start from the Eurogroup, which they propose to transform into a genuine core by adding other policy areas. On the other hand, former foreign ministers and diplomats, reasoning in both symbolical and practical terms, are largely in favour of an avant-garde built around Europe’s Six founding states. Second, all the flexibility scenarios are built, in one way or another, around the Franco-German axis and emphasise the a priori openness (to candidates willing and able to subscribe to its more ambitious objectives) of the solution proposed. Third, flexibility is never considered a goal in and of itself. It is partly a consequence of the paralysis observed at European Union level, and partly an instrument, namely a means of drawing, sooner or later, the others onto a more politically demanding path.
Assessment of the political significance of differentiated integration is primarily a matter of personal perspective. It depends on how much potential we see and how much we want to see in the current situation and trends. In other words, our appraisal of the entire flexibility problem is influenced by whether we adopt a euro-pessimistic or a euro-optimistic outlook, i.e., whether we envisage the collapse, the stagnation, or a sudden upsurge of the integration process. It also depends on our personal preferences, i.e., whether we see further integration as something to be prevented, as a kind of necessary evil, or on the contrary, as something genuinely desirable. That said, one thing is indisputable: the gradual introduction and development of the differentiation principle reflects the Union’s realities, and in particular the fact that its member states differ from one another not only in their objective capabilities and possibilities, but also, and indeed primarily, in their political outlooks and long-term agendas.
The fact that the progress of flexibility carries the risk of jeopardising the whole integration process is no less undeniable. The spectre of fragmentation is all too real: apart from endangering the Union’s single framework and its political coherence, the proliferation of various circles of cooperation might take an unhealthy turn, with competing circles being exploited to deepen divisions within the EU. Furthermore, a fragmented Union is even less easy for citizens to apprehend and might also be used as an excuse to downgrade community solidarity at the level of the Union as a whole.
Another thorny issue is that of the institutional muddle. While neither the cloning of the existing Community institutions (their duplication within each enhanced cooperation circle) nor their internal subdivision into cliques is a pleasing prospect, the current rule that would leave their composition intact while conferring on them the same role in the closer cooperation’s decision-making process as the one they play in normal EU procedures is also highly questionable. As for the claim that differentiation would reinforce the intergovernmental dimension to the detriment of the supranational paradigm, a brief consideration is enough to tone this down. Any form of enhanced cooperation will most probably be launched in particularly delicate policy areas, which are in any case beyond the scope of the méthode communautaire. Moreover, the shift towards a more supranational approach on these sensitive issues has a much higher probability of being initiated within a small group of like-minded countries than at the level of the twenty-five-member Union.
However, there are also very real drawbacks for the members of the core group. Without the Community priorities and strategic choices to act as a counterweight to the pure logic of the internal market, those wishing to follow more demanding objectives and setting themselves higher standards (for example on social, cultural or security matters) would find themselves penalised in the race for growth, compared to the rest of the member states. In fact, this imbalance between the economic and the political aspects of integration, leading inevitably to a lowering of ambitions, is one of the main incentives behind the avant-garde concept, whose aim is to regroup the most ambitious countries so that they constitute a critical mass able to adopt political-strategic choices and priorities.
From a rational point of view, an avant-garde outweighs, by far, any of the above-mentioned concerns. Nowadays, European sovereignty finds itself in a sort of no-man’s land: the member states abandon entire sectors of their national sovereignty without there being anything, at a European level, resembling a political entity ready and able to defend the Europeans’ capacity to decide and to act autonomously. Negative integration (i.e., the tearing down of barriers between member states) has not been accompanied by positive integration (i.e., the building of a fully fledged geopolitical actor). The result is a situation that a report, submitted by an advisory group at the request of ex-Commission President Romano Prodi, put quite dramatically: “Europeans, your Europe may die”. The authors also offered a solution that, not surprisingly, was along pro-avant-garde lines. In their Proposal n. 50, they propose to “draw the territory of the Union in concentric groupings: a politically closely integrated core open to all; a grouping close to the existing European Union, preparing to enlarge; a wider group of affiliated countries who may one day join, based on economic, financial and social solidarity”.
Of course the devil is, once again, in the details. Or in this case, more precisely, in the actual political content of this core. For the avant-garde project makes sense only if it makes a difference in quality terms. And it can do this only if it is strategically driven, in other words, based on the imperative of sovereignty, guided by geopolitical considerations, and aiming at comprehensive, long-term sustainability. On these crucial points, there is absolutely no room for compromise. Because even if, in the long term, one can hope for the support of all for the project, the launching of the avant-garde does not fit into the logic of a multi-speed Europe. At the beginning, it acts basically as the expression of a differentiated political will (multi-goal Europe). It is therefore necessary to proceed with maximum resolution with regard to the strategic content of the project. Otherwise, through a succession of concessions, granted in order to obtain the agreement of everyone, we would simply find ourselves back at the starting point, with twenty-five members. However, this intransigence over the substance must be accompanied by special precautions as regards the form (the modalities of implementation), in particular, through monitoring of the European citizens’ expectations, and through extremely careful management of relations with non-participant member states.
In order to gain and sustain popular support, it is necessary, on the one hand, to address the citizens’ preoccupations (market economy moderated by social solidarity and inter-generational/environmental concerns, as revealed by a TNS-Sofres poll, in Spring 2005; a Europe independent of the United States as desired by 82 per cent of European citizens according to the latest Eurobarometer). In addition, the avant-garde should deliver tangible results as fast as possible, be it in the field of the infrastructures, in the triad growth-employment-ecology, or in new, specific projects, following the example of Ariane and Airbus.
Finally, to reduce the hostility towards the restricted group, a distinction must be made between those that remain outside it by choice (different or absent political will) and those that remain outside it by necessity (insufficient socio-economic conditions). In the latter case, it is crucial to underline the temporary character of their exclusion. It is therefore advisable to install solidarity mechanisms to facilitate their subsequent accession, and inclusive institutional arrangements (allowing affiliation of future members, but without prejudice to the autonomy and integrity of the avant-garde’s decisional and executive structures).
To sum up, the implementation of an avant-garde project can succeed only if there is absolutely no compromise over its strategic objectives, even making provision for an act of rupture should this prove to be necessary. But at the same time, it must always insist on addressing the citizens’ expectations, as well as on solidarity towards those who — for objective and temporary reasons — remain outside the more ambitious circle. At the same time, it is essential to go back to and revive the founding fathers’ approach, especially on two points. Firstly, by emphasising those “concrete achievements” so cherished by our predecessors. In fact, we should bear in mind that the above-mentioned Ariane or Airbus projects, for instance, have done more for Europe’s sovereignty (our collective capacity to decide and act autonomously) and for its legitimacy (through the perception of a European vitality producing outstanding tangible results) than countless Treaties and memorandums taken together. Second, while focusing on actual projects, we should not forget the importance of the institutions as a memory store and as a sort of conveyor belt transferring one generation’s experience and wisdom to the next. Whether we succeed in translating strategic objectives into institutions depends only on our determination and creativity. As Jean Monnet observed in his Mémoires: “It would be a contradiction in terms to envision the ultimate form of the European Communities that we had wanted to be a process of change. To anticipate the results would paralyse the spirit of innovation. As we progress we will discover new horizons.”
 The following text is a lecture presented at the International Seminar on “The Project of a European Federation with a ‘Core of States’’’, organized by the “Action Committee for a European Federal State” with the support of the “Mario and Valeria Albertini Foundation”, 12-13 November, Strasbourg.
 Building a political Europe, report of the Round Table “A sustainable project for tomorrow’s Europe” formed on the initiative of the President of the European Commission. April 2004.