Two-Speed Europe Isn’t the Answer to Britain’s Exit

Rather than force all 28 states into preformulated models of cooperation, why not allow them some flexibility?

British prime minister Theresa May speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, July 20
British prime minister Theresa May speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, July 20 (The Prime Minister’s Office/Tom Evans)

Gideon Rachman argues in the Financial Times that European leaders should seize the opportunity of Britain’s exit from the bloc to formally augur in a two-speed Europe that meets the conflicting expectations of pro- and anti-federalist member states.

As I have reported here, the idea of integration at two speeds was an objective of Britain’s former prime minister, David Cameron, who wrongly betted that a looser relationship with the rest of the EU would convince his electorate to vote to stay in it.

The British weren’t impressed, however, and voted to leave the European Union in a referendum this summer.

As an idea, a two-speed Europe is nevertheless still very much alive. It has been embraced by Germany’s Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, as well as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, its once and possibly future president.

Degrees of separation

Rachman suggests that a first tier of countries, including Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and probably France, could press ahead with closer political integration, pursuing the longstanding goal of “ever-closer union” in Europe.

The countries on the second tier, such as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and maybe the Netherlands, would restrict themselves to participation in the single market and cooperation on foreign and security policy.

Creating two tiers of membership would allow the union as a whole to continue to fulfil its two most important missions: preservation of the single market and the projection of European interests on the world stage.

It might even solve the “Brexit” problem, according to Rachman, if second-tier membership is sufficiently loose for British leaders to justify remaining in the EU after all.

That seems like wishful thinking. But I think Rachman is right that it would create an opportunity for non-EU states like Norway, Switzerland and perhaps even Turkey and Ukraine to deepen their relations with the rest of Europe.

The case for flexibility

There are plenty of potential problems with this approach.

Rachman lists a few:

  • Could a country that uses the euro, like the Netherlands, really opt for second-tier membership? Probably not on current terms, which condition membership of the eurozone on compliance to fiscal rules.
  • What about free movement of people? To get Britain, Turkey and Ukraine into the second tier, free movement would likely have to be restricted. But a country like Poland wouldn’t want to make it more difficult for its people to work elsewhere in Europe.

The problem for many Euroskeptics is that the EU is something of a one-size-fits-all (although the reality is already more complex). If a two-speed Europe is little more than a two-sizes-fit-all, that’s probably not going to convince many of them it’s an improvement.

The better approach — as I argued here in June — may be more flexibility altogether.

The British Isles are currently outside the Schengen free-travel area; Denmark is exempt from joining the euro; some countries are pooling their defense acquisitions, others are working closely together on crossborder policing. This is not a failure of European integration; it’s a success.

Instead of trying to squeeze all 28 member states into preformulated models of cooperation, why not allow national governments to take the initiative and opt in and out of integration schemes? It may not be the dream of European unity, but it’s surely better than nothing at all?

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