EU struggles with multi-speed idea
By Eszter Zalan
EU leaders in a discussion about the future of Europe after Brexit on Friday (10 March) stressed the need for unity but disagreed over calls for a so-called multi-speed Europe.
The 27 leaders agreed informally on the main elements of declaration to be formally adopted at a summit in Rome on 25 March.
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They struggled however to find common ground between countries which want to speed up integration in some areas, and those, mainly from central and eastern Europe, who fear this could lead to the disintegration of the bloc.
"Our main objective should be to strengthen mutual trust and unity", European Council president Donald Tusk said after the meeting, adding that it was "clear" that unity was the EU's "most precious asset".
"On the Europe of different speeds, some raised concerns that this might mean that there are different classes of Europeans. I said such a difference is in a way is already laid down in the treaties, it is a reality," German chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists.
"United in diversity", is the message the 27 EU want to send out from Rome, she said.
The EU treaties already provide the possibility for member states to move ahead in certain areas with deeper integration. Such clubs already exist within the EU, like the 19-member euro zone or the passport-free Schengen area with 23 EU members.
But, some countries are frustrated with the slow speed of integration in the face of global challenges.
"I prefer a multi-speed [EU] able to continue than a Europe that is not able to move", said Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel.
But that kind of talk rings alarm bells across eastern European member states.
The Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), the Baltic states, and most outside of the euro zone worry about the prospect of having a core Europe moving forward with no guarantees that it would not be detrimental to their interests or they can catch up when ready and willing.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker tried to calm eastern European nervousness about different levels of integration becoming the norm in the EU.
"Multi-speed EU won't be a new iron curtain", he said, adding that the issue had nothing to do with EU funding to the poorer member states.
A top EU official, in an attempt to play down the divergence between member states, said that it was "absurd" to describe opposition on multi-speed Europe as an opposition between East and West Europe.
He added that so far countries that talk of multi-speed Europe have failed to say what the idea meant practically.
Yet fears are not easily dissuaded.
Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban told journalists that his country rejects any idea of two-speed Europe, although is not against some countries working closer together in some areas.
Romania's president Klaus Iohannis warned after the discussions that multi-speed Europe can lead to the disintegration of the EU.
Poland's premier Beata Szydlo also agreed that different "elite clubs" in the EU could gradually lead to the breakup of the bloc. She added that Friday's discussions showed that member states see the EU very differently.
"The issue is more political than technical or legal", another source noted, adding the calls for multi-speed were a consequence of the cleave between countries on how to handle the migration crisis.
At the leaders' previous summit in Malta in February, Orban warned against using the issue of multi-speed Europe as "blackmail" against countries who have refused to take migrants, according to an official.
However, opponents of the multi-speed Europe worry that what happened on Thursday evening, as Poland attempted to derail the re-election of Donald Tusk for internal political reasons, only served to strengthen the arguments of those who want to move ahead and possibly leave other member states behind.
Another major sticking point is the deeper cooperation on social issues within the EU, where the Nordic states are reluctant to move ahead. While the question of further enlargement is also divisive.
European Council and Commission presidents, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, together with the Italian and Maltese prime ministers Paolo Gentiloni and Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, met on Friday morning to discuss the technicalities of the Rome summit and the declaration to be adopted there.
The Rome Declaration will follow the example of the Berlin Declaration issued 10 years ago for the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome that paved the way for European integration.
Just like the Berlin document, the Rome paper is expected to be a short political declaration, a few pages long, focusing on the achievements of the EU, the current geopolitical challenges and a vision for the future.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, along with Belgian premier Charles Michel, and their Luxembourgish counterpart, Xavier Bettel announced that they have invited the prime ministers of the Visegrad Four for a meeting over the future of Europe.
Diplomats say it is planned to take place “before the summer”, but not before the Rome summit.
Later in the year, the Benelux also plan a meeting with the three Baltic countries on the same topic.
The meeting between the three liberal prime ministers of the Benelux states, and the Visegrad countries, among which the governments of Hungary and Poland are actively promoting an "illiberal" style of democracy, represents the meeting of two worlds within the EU.
The Benelux have put out a statement during the Malta summit in early February promoting the idea of a multi-speed Europe, while the V4 have warned in a statement last week that a multi-speed Europe could lead to the disintegration of the EU.
For Rome, they need to find a common ground, a language that allows for countries wanting to move ahead to do so, and has enough guarantees that soothes the worries of all countries.