French President François Hollande calls it “differentiated cooperation,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has talked about “a Europe of different speeds,” while Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni speaks of “different levels of integration.” But the decades-old idea most often rendered in English as “multispeed Europe” recently got a new spin from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as one of five scenarios for the EU ‘s future with the title: “Those who want to do more.”
As Juncker’s handy slogan suggests, the general idea is simple: Individual members of the EU can group together for specific projects, even if others do not want to join in. But pinning down how that should work in practise is much trickier. For many, “multispeed Europe” is one of these ubiquitous catchall terms with blurry contours.
A senior European diplomat compared the idea to the Loch Ness monster: “It appears every once in a while but we have never seen it.”
In reality, the EU has already set up multiple ways, both within its defining treaties and outside them, to encourage the emergence of a multispeed Europe. The eurozone, which uses the single currency, and the passport-free Schengen area, are two prominent examples.
The concept of “enhanced cooperation” features in key EU documents, including the Treaty of Amsterdam, signed in 1997, and the Treaty of Nice, signed in 2001. Under current treaty rules, if at least nine member countries wish to establish enhanced cooperation in an area covered by the treaties “they shall notify the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission accordingly.” The Council adopts a decision to allow enhanced cooperation “as a last resort … when it has established that the objectives of such cooperation cannot be attained within a reasonable period by the Union as a whole, and provided that at least nine Member States participate in it.”
The most recent example of “enhanced cooperation” came on Thursday evening when 19 leaders agreed to establish a European Public Prosecutor after almost four years of difficult negotiations, and despite a lack of support from countries including Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Malta and the Netherlands.
The prosecutor would have powers to investigate and prosecute corruption and tax fraud, which costs EU governments at least €50 billion a year.
The decision on the prosecutor was at least the third time EU countries have used the procedure. In 2010, 14 member countries pushed forward with rules allowing international couples to select which country’s law would apply to their divorce. In 2011, all EU states participated in the creation of a unified patent regime that would apply in every member country apart from Spain and Italy. In 2013, the European Council adopted a decision authorizing 11 member countries to proceed with the introduction of a financial transaction tax (FTT) through “enhanced cooperation.”
But the idea of a multispeed Europe becoming central to the EU’s identity brought a multi-faceted response from national leaders on Friday.
Juncker acknowledged the notion had sparked fears among some leaders that it could lead to “a new kind of Iron Curtain between east and west” — with two classes of membership, one for rich Western EU members and another for poorer eastern members.
“That’s not the intention of this,” he said. “We are not trying to change the treaties.”
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Hollande urged the EU to “move faster and stronger with only several countries, without losing overall solidarity and cohesion among the 27 countries.” He said such a model had worked well on defense, the eurozone and the transaction tax.
He added : “It’s not about having several speeds, it’s not about excluding anyone … But we can’t allow one country, whoever it may be, to prevent others from moving faster.”
“What is essential is for Europe to move on,” Hollande said.
Germany’s Merkel acknowledged that some countries feared a “multispeed Europe” meant there would be different classes of EU membership. She sought to ease these fears by comparing the EU to a family, in which all members were free to join any of the family’s projects but some might choose not to do so.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis told reporters a multi-speed Europe was already a reality, “but we should not make it an objective.”
One European diplomat said much depended on how the idea was applied.
“It works if it’s Option B, like now, when there’s no consensus among member states then there’s the chance of enhanced cooperation,” the diplomat said. “If it becomes option A — a group starts with enhanced cooperation and then checks if the others want to join — then it can become the disintegration of the EU.”