How can the EU resolve tension between expansion and integration?by Jonathan Derbyshire / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
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When he visited London in June 2015, Emmanuel Macron, France’s Economy Minister, said that Britain’s attempts to renegotiate the terms of its membership of the European Union were incompatible with the “common responsibility” of member states. Britain, he said, couldn’t expect to have a Europe “à la carte.”
The UK has negotiated opt-outs from various bits of European law ever since it joined the European Economic Community in 1973, of course. But while it is the member state with the most exemptions, it is not the only country to which European legislation applies selectively—far from it. Macron’s protestations notwithstanding, the case for a “pick-and-mix” approach to EU membership is gaining traction elsewhere.
There is nothing new about the notion that the ideal of “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,” enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, can be achieved at different speeds. It dates back more than 20 years, to the end of the Cold War, when the eastward expansion of the EU was first mooted. The entry of the countries of the former Soviet bloc into the EU—but not, at least for the time being, into the single currency (with the exception of Estonia, which joined the euro in 2011)—entailed what is sometimes called, in Brussels jargon, “variable geometry.” As Jacques Delors, the nemesis of British Eurosceptics, acknowledged in 2000: “One can only reconcile a deepening of EU integration with enlargement of the EU by allowing some countries to go further.”
The crisis in the eurozone, which began in 2010, made Delors’s argument irresistible. If the single currency is to survive, it needs a more integrated set of economic arrangements. But, as a report issued recently by the heads of various European institutions (including the European Council, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) recognised, this raises the question of what the countries outside the eurozone, including Britain, can do to protect their interests. In David Cameron’s renegotiation attempts, this may prove more important than immigration benefits, which have generated all the political heat.
If the member states of the EU are now moving not just at different speeds, but also towards different destinations (with several likely to remain outside the single currency for at least the next 20 years), then some sort of formalisation of the relationship between the core (the eurozone) and the periphery (the rest) is required. This is the only way to resolve the tension between expansion and integration identified by Delors. It might also offer an answer to the perennial question of what Britain’s role in Europe should be: leadership of the EU’s “outer ring,” anyone?