EU's big four back 'multi-speed' Europe
By Eszter Zalan
Leaders of the EU's four largest economies threw their weight behind a multi-speed Europe on Monday (6 March) as the European Union prepares for life after Brexit, with rising populism, and an uncertain US strategy over Europe.
The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Spain met in the palace of Versailles to prepare for a 25 March EU summit in Rome, marking the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which gave way for European integration.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the EU's economic powerhouse, said leaders need to find the courage to forge ahead with integration despite opposition from others. Otherwise they risk the fate of the EU.
"We need to have the courage for some countries to go ahead if not everyone wants to participate. A Europe of different speeds is necessary, otherwise we will probably get stuck," Merkel said at a joint press conference.
"If Europe gets stuck and doesn't develop further, then this work of peace may run into danger faster than one might think," she added.
French president Francois Hollande argued that "unity does not mean uniformity".
He called for new forms of cooperation to allow some member states to push ahead quickly in the area of defense and the eurozone, deepening of economic and monetary union, harmonising social policy and tax policy.
Other EU members could opt out of measures intended to deepen integration, Hollande added.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and Italy's premier Paolo Gentiloni also supported the idea of a multi-speed Europe.
Last week EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker proposed five scenarios the EU could take after the UK leaves the bloc. One of the playbooks would for the first time officially back a multi-speed Europe.
While different groups of member states already work together at various levels of integration – 19 in the eurozone, 23 EU members in the Schengen passport-free travel zone – it has never been an official policy to acknowledge and promote the different speeds of integration.
Juncker's proposals aim to have member states commit to one scenario and then sticking to it.
Reforming the block will be the topic at the 25 March Rome summit, as founding members such as the Netherlands, France and Germany all face crunch elections this year amid the rise of populist, anti-immigration, anti-EU, nationalistic parties.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg had supported the idea of a multi-speed Europe.
But some governments, especially in the bloc's eastern flank, fear this could entrench divisions to their disadvantage.
Last week Finland's premier Juha Sipila also said he opposed the idea, arguing that EU countries should move together.