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10 May 2022

Is Macron’s “multispeed Europe” the future of the EU?

The French president has proposed an inner core of heavily integrated EU states, with a looser grouping that includes all European countries on the outside.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Emmanuel Macron, the newly re-elected president of France, has proposed the creation of a “multispeed Europe”, which would institutionalise different degrees of integration between European countries. In a speech on Monday (9 May) to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron suggested that the most tightly integrated member states might work together separately from the others, while countries not part of the central bloc join a looser grouping.

Europe’s outer layer, Macron suggested, should be a “political community” for European countries that are not members of the EU. This membership group could, he suggested, include aspiring members that may not join the club for some years yet, such as Ukraine and Georgia, as well as countries that have left the union, such as the UK.

“How should Europe – beyond the EU – be organised politically? It is our historic obligation to answer this question,” Macron told the parliament. Membership of the political community, he added, would not commit countries to joining the EU in the future.

The French president also suggested that the need for unanimity among the EU’s 27 member states on some issues was serving as a brake on necessary reforms. The most deeply integrated EU countries – the members of the Schengen borderless zone and the eurozone – should be ready to work together separately, he said.

“We may not always be all in agreement [as a bloc of 27]. But we should not fear differentiation… these avant-garde circles will not exclude but will permit member states which want to go a little further to inspire others,” Macron said. The use of qualified majority voting should be expanded to areas in which votes still require unanimity, such as foreign policy, he added. Paris views the proposals as a response to recent crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, in which the EU was able to act swiftly and decisively, according to Georgina Wright, a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne, a think tank in Paris. European institutions should be reformed so that they can function as effectively in better times too, the view goes.

“This seems like a true rethinking of the future of the European project,” said Tara Varma, the head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “Difficulties remain in agreeing on a new format and perspectives for the members-to-be, however.”

A multispeed EU already exists to some extent. Coalitions of the willing have been used to deepen European integration at times when the EU as a whole failed to find agreement. The Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985 between five member states of what was then the European Community: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. There is not much stopping smaller groups of countries agreeing among themselves to deepen cooperation on particular issues (which, if successful, might later be taken up as EU policy in the manner of Schengen).

The reason such initiatives seldom emerge is that deeper integration is rarely a political priority for member states. A coalition of the willing requires the willing. “There are no legal or technical obstacles to further cooperation between member states – but there are political ones. The EU works because everyone around the table has a say,” said Wright. “Smaller member states will be worried that the balance of power within the EU will be upset if core groups of countries agree to move in a certain direction.”

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Indeed, a foreshadowing of the political challenges his proposals will encounter came on the same day as Macron’s speech when 13 smaller member states – including Schengen and eurozone members such as Estonia and Slovenia – issued a joint statement decrying suggestions of treaty change supported by Macron and the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. “We do not support unconsidered and premature attempts to launch a process towards treaty change. This would entail a serious risk of drawing political energy away” from other issues including the war in Ukraine, the statement said.

On the outside, most non-EU countries on the European continent have some kind of institutionalised relationship with Brussels. These range from Switzerland, which participates in the EU single market and Schengen zone, to the Eastern Partnership, a grouping intended to deepen economic and political relations with the former Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

[See also: Risk of a direct clash between Russia and the West is rising]

The UK negotiated a complex agreement loosely linking most of the country to Brussels when it left the bloc’s political and economic structures in 2021. The countries of the western Balkans – Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo – are stuck in a seemingly interminable EU accession process, with their applications for membership seeming to make only slow progress over recent years.

If an outer layer of European integration was to standardise these ad hoc relationships, it would run into several issues. The states that could be associated with it run the gamut of those already integrated into many European institutions, which could fairly easily become EU members if they chose to apply (Norway, Switzerland), to much less stable countries plagued with issues, including corruption and authoritarianism (Turkey), and even war (Ukraine).

It is not clear how an association of all of these countries, which have different demands of their relationships with Brussels, could be structured. “This is a very French thing: make a proposal first and figure out how it would work after,” Wright said. “But I think it’s a realisation in the context of the war in Ukraine that geography matters. The EU can act together, but we also at times will need a European response. And so how does the EU work together with those countries that are not members?”

Macron has proposed deep reform of European institutions before, notably in a speech at the Sorbonne University soon after his first election in 2017. Many of his proposals failed to get the support of enough member states to be put into practise. Whether this latest set of ideas are put into effect will depend on whether Macron has become more effective at building coalitions since first coming to power.

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