Shaky ground for multi-speed Europe

Anna-Lena Kirch / Apr 2017

Photo: European Union


As predicted and feared by policy analysts and decision-makers alike, 2017 has proven to be yet another year that keeps EU policy-makers in a state of suspense. The first round of the presidential elections in France has only been the latest addition to a long chain of sobering events that have put EU resilience to the test. Friction in the EU is no longer limited to traditional the fault lines between Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries, or the pro-austerity North and flexibility-driven South within the Eurozone. On the contrary, the Brexit referendum and the unpopularity of the current European Commission, which has made intergovernmentalism even more central to the EU, have added further layers of controversy and dissent.

The current political contestation mainly centres on differing priorities and conceptions of security guarantees, as well as questions of sovereignty and national identity. This dividing line, which roughly runs between the North-West and the Central-East, has been clearly visible in the rule of law dispute in Poland and the recent developments in Hungary with regard to the closure of the Central European University. Whereas the other post-Communist countries explicitly refrain from too much EU interference in those cases, countries like Luxembourg or Sweden have linked their call for a tough European response with the survival of European multilateralism, which is what grants them a voice in international politics.

When it comes to maintaining a united stance on key policies like sanctions on Russia or pushing for new initiatives in the three policy areas that were defined as future key priorities at the EU Bratislava summit in September 2016 – migration, security and economic development – all eyes are on Germany. Even in policy areas like defense, which is traditionally closer to French priorities, the Franco-German tandem is not perceived as a coequal partnership, with Germany being more visible in the reform process.

While German leadership is still broadly accepted in the EU, the Brexit referendum has triggered a debate among smaller countries and traditionally close allies of the UK in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe on the need to become more coordinated and outspoken on their positions. However, these sub-regional groups are still far from delivering on this narrative of more visibility and more pro-active, efficient cooperation in their areas of expertise.

For instance, the Visegrád countries are internally divided between Poland and Hungary on the one hand, and Slovakia and the Czech Republic on the other, which has kept them from actively engaging in the debate on the future of the EU. The Baltics still struggle to jointly move forward on defense procurement or bigger infrastructure projects. For the time being, it will thus be up to Germany to explore new leadership constellations and to also take smaller EU states on board – especially since a strong Franco-German tandem is no longer a given. Even if Emmanuel Macron wins the Presidential elections on 7 May it remains to be seen how his movement “En Marche” will fare in the parliamentary elections in June. At this point, the most likely outcome will be a weak French government that has to rely on changing coalitions in the National Assembly.

Against this background, the two- or multi-speed Europe idea, which was put back on the agenda by Germany and other EU founding members in the run-up to the Treaty of Rome anniversary earlier this year, won’t lead anywhere before a more substantial debate on single European projects actually starts. A good example is the discourse on Permanent Structured Cooperation in European defense, which – on a superficial level – is perceived as a project and instrument for more cooperation around which a large majority of EU member states could unite. At a closer look, however, almost all relevant questions are still open – be it the extent of joint EU financing or national capability requirements.

While there is currently no coherent core in the EU on which a two-tier Europe or similar models of differentiation could be built, the momentum after Juncker’s presentation of five scenarios for the future of Europe should still be used for a concrete dialogue on how to regain EU solidarity and trust as well as European projects that help policymakers to deliver on practical results.


Anna-Lena Kirch

Anna-Lena Kirch

April 2017

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