An idea whose time has come

Asle Toje · 16 November 2015
Perpetual crises have made the idea of “EU a’la carte” appetizing

The ongoing refugee crisis is draining mutual trust, which is the fundamental source of EU strength. Suspicions fester, making it harder to reach shared solutions, even more so than at the height of the euro crisis.

Across Europe, politicians are growing increasingly hesitant to cede new powers to Brussels. One reason is that voters in many countries are opposed to it. Another is that past crises have often led to closer integration, by default. Political elites in core countries, notably Britain, are now mistrustful of all proposals from Brussels, in fear of being tricked into Thatcher’s nightmare: A union not in name only.

The tortured negotiations preceding the Lisbon Treaty that came into force in 2009 probably marked the end of treaty-driven integration in Europe. The EU is now locked in a defensive struggle to prevent existing treaties from unraveling: whether informally, as seen in the fraying EU asylum and border cooperation, or formally, through the pending negotiations ahead of the British referendum on EU membership, expected in 2017.

To reverse this trend, the EU must solve three challenges. The first is to create economic growth. Europe’s economy has been flat lining for over a decade. This has coincided with waning public support for EU. As long as millions of Europeans are unemployed or fear for their jobs, many will be wary of deeper European integration. The EU elites’ insistence that it is preposterous to claim that the euro created the euro crisis is simply a hard sell.

Secondly, EU institutions must find a solution to the problem of some members not wanting to take part in all EU policy areas. Not all states want to surrender ever more of their sovereignty to EU institutions. It is getting increasingly harder to persuade people and politicians to believe that power is not a zero sum game.

Thirdly, EU leaders must find a solution to the refugee crisis. For that to happen the EU’s porous borders must be sealed or EU institutions must be granted authority to force members to accept more migrants. On the 22nd of September, the EU attempted to show decisiveness through using the “nuclear option” of qualified majority voting (QMV), to distribute 120,000 asylum seekers among the member states.

This was forced through in the face of intense resistance from smaller states. QMV is regularly used on less controversial issues, but had never before been applied to something as controversial as asylum immigration. To trample the minority was a bold, but shortsighted move. It only found homes for a fraction of the asylum seekers currently in the EU. QMV cannot work as the modus operandi, without inviting an open sovereignty contest between EU institutions and national governments.

During the “empty chair crisis” of 1965, the EU’s forerunner was paralyzed when France simply stopped attending meetings in the Council. That time the institutions had to back down and accept that members could veto policies which went against their core national interests. For this reason, Brussels is willing to go to great lengths to find a way to stop the influx of refugees. Angela Merkel, Germany’s hard pressed Chancellor, this weekend promised to expedite Turkey’s drawn-out membership negotiations in exchange for Turkey taking an active role in halting boat migrants setting off from their shores.  The only problem is that Turkey is far from meeting the requirements for full EU membership.

For this reason, so-called ‘differentiated integration’ is fast becoming a virtue of necessity. British friends of the EU have traditionally been skeptical of “EU à la carte”, because they fear it could create an A-team and a B-team in the EU. But in a context where the pending British referendum on EU membership hangs very much in the balance, those who favor innovation are on the offensive.

Differentiated integration has been a slow train coming. The Lisbon EU treaties already explicitly allow those who want to integrate further to press ahead: in June 2014, the European Council again embraced different paths of integration for different countries, “allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further”.

But it time-honored EU fashion, the Council did not lay out any plan for how states could leave parts they have signed up to, only underline the right to abstain.  Several EU countries have already abstained from integration projects such as the Schengen border zone, the EU’s defense policy and the euro. EU defense cooperation, for instance, started out as an intergovernmental agreement before it was subsumed by the EU.

The danger is that à la carte integration could come to undermine the accumulated rulebook, the acquis communautaire in EU jargon. If some members are allowed to pick and choose, others may demand the same. The struggle will be between those who fear that the EU institutions will be weakened, vis-à-vis national governments, and those who believe that greater diversity is inevitable in an EU with 28 member states.

The shrinking policy space brought on by the inept handling of the refugee crisis is now forcing elites in Brussels to give differentiated integration serious consideration. One conceivable solution is to define a mandatory ‘core curriculum’. This would include trade and competition policies, the internal market and the four freedoms (free movement of goods, services, capital and people). The euro, border control, harmonization of criminal justice and foreign and defense policy, could be à la carte.

Despite the potential drawbacks, differentiated integration may help the Union to emerge as less monolithic and, perhaps, also less authoritarian than the impression left by its handling of the refugee crisis. The price would be to wave goodbye to the federalist dream of a United States of Europe. Overall, the refugee crisis and its fallout may come to shape the future of European integration, and thereby the future of the West.