Foreign Ministers Propose More Flexibility for Europe

Britain’s exit might give way to a more flexible EU in which countries can opt in and out of integration schemes.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Bert Koenders, the foreign ministers of Germany and the Netherlands, speak with school children in Eindhoven, April 21
Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Bert Koenders, the foreign ministers of Germany and the Netherlands, speak with school children in Eindhoven, April 21 (Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken)

Foreign ministers from the European Union’s six founding member nations agreed in Berlin on Saturday that the bloc must allow for more flexibility in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave.

“It is apparent that Europe needs to deliver solutions the people are asking for,” Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

His Belgian and French counterparts sounded less convinced, but the Netherlands’ Bert Koenders — whose government argued in 2013 already that “the time of an ever-closer union in every possible policy area is behind us” — agreed.

Theirs is the right instinct. There may be a temptation in the Mediterranean bloc, specifically in France, Italy and Spain, to see Britain’s exit as an opportunity to press forward with political union. But all that would do in the short term is aggravate Euroskepticism in countries like Austria, Finland, the Netherlands and indeed France itself.

Multispeed Europe

My hope was that Britain would stay in and the semi-detached status David Cameron had negotiated for his country would pave the way to a two- or multispeed Europe in which countries could opt in and out of integration schemes.

The British Isles are already outside the Schengen free-travel area, which makes sense geographically; Denmark is exempt from joining the euro; some countries are pooling their defense acquisitions, others are working together closely on crossborder policing.

Leaders from Angela Merkel to Nicolas Sarkozy have publicly endorsed this concept, although they might see it as a way to deepen integration in the eurozone while leaving non-euro countries, like Denmark, Poland and Sweden, on the outside.

That would be the wrong approach. The idea is to give countries more autonomy, to do away with one-size-fits-all and work together where it makes practical sense.

If Britain’s choice to leave gives way to such flexibility, it might not be the beginning of the end of the European dream but the start of something new and more durable.

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