Author: Cécile Barbière
After struggling to overcome their differences on the migration crisis, the EU’s eastern and western members are once again split over the question of a possible multi-speed Europe, a scenario that is gaining traction on the continent as the bloc looks to define its post-Brexit identity.
“Hard core” versus peripheral states
While the idea of building the EU’s future around a “hard core” and a group of less integrated peripheral states has seduced France, Germany and Italy, the EU’s more recent members are eying this development with suspicion.
“The Versailles summit does not look so good if you come from one of the small member states,” said Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin at a debate organised by the Club Grande Europe in Paris on Tuesday (7 March). For this member of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party, if these countries “continue to push for a hard core in the EU they will end up distancing the Central and Eastern European member states”.
French President François Hollande called together the leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain in Versailles on Monday (6 March) to prepare for the EU summit in Brussels on 9-10 March.
But the major subject of the talks was the four countries’ visions for the future of the post-Brexit EU. Despite a certain reticence from Madrid, the eurozone’s ‘big four’ appeared more or less agreed on the need for differentiated integration.
“For a long time this idea of a differentiated Europe, with different speeds and different rates of integration, has provoked a lot of resistance. But today, it is a necessary idea. Otherwise, Europe will explode,” Hollande said in Versailles.
The option of a multi-speed Europe is one of the five possible scenarios for the future of the EU, presented by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his White Paper. Despite staunch resistance from some quarters, this option appears for the moment to be the most popular among the older member states.
“In general I think it is important for countries to have informal debates,” said Petr Drulak, the Czech Republic’s former foreign minister, referring to Monday’s four-way talks. “But any initiatives that come out of them must be open and other member states must be able to influence them,” he added.
The Czech Republic is a member of the Visegrád group (which also includes Poland, Hungary and Slovakia). This informal group allows the four countries to develop and better defend joint positions within the EU.
Yet informal alliances of this kind should not be formalised, Drulak said, for fear of excluding the other member states. “We can begin in a tighter group, but then the debate has to be opened to everyone,” he said.
“I do not know whether Estonia will support a multi-speed Europe because we have always wanted a united Europe,” said Alar Streimann, Estonia’s ambassador in France. The Baltic country will take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU in July this year and plans to make European unity its number one priority. “At 27 states there will always be snags. But from our perspective, the EU works.”