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Is this the beginning of the end?

Posted by hkarner - 2. März 2017

Date: 02-03-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: Once Scorned, ‘Multispeed Europe’ Is Back

Juncker,CCEven lifelong federalists like European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker are backing off from the concept of a lockstep march to ever-closer union

As the U.K. prepares to launch divorce talks with the European Union this month, the rest of the bloc is thinking seriously about loosening the ties among the 27 countries that remain.

In a report Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for the first time floated the possibility of the bloc handing back some powers to national governments. These could range from Brussels standing down from policing of government financing of companies, for example, to a broader pullback that would essentially strip the EU back to being merely a single market.

Those were just two of five scenarios Mr. Juncker put forward for how the post-Brexit EU might look in 2025. Unsurprisingly, the EU’s disintegration wasn’t among them. But with many governments reluctant to hand over more power to Brussels, leading politicians have renewed talk of a “multispeed Europe.” This envisions some countries pursuing tighter economic and political integration across the board, but leaving others free to pick and choose the policy areas in which they want to move closer.

Such an approach once invited scorn from convinced Europhiles who wanted to see the bloc march in lockstep toward political union. Now it seems to have the backing even of lifelong federalists like Mr. Juncker.

Mr. Juncker, the head of the EU’s Brussels-based executive body, also mooted the prospect of countries being free to stand back from further integration while retaining the option of binding themselves more closely to the others at a later stage.

He highlighted defense, security, taxation and social matters as areas where consensus at 27 has proven all but impossible to achieve and “coalitions of the willing” may emerge instead.

The concept of having various orbits of countries within the EU, based on their willingness to hand over sovereignty on various policies, isn’t new but has never been formally embraced.

Of the 28 nations in the EU now, 19 have dropped their national currency for the euro and 22 have become part of the border-free Schengen area (which includes some non-EU countries like Norway). But at least on paper, all EU members except the U.K. and Denmark are supposed to adopt the euro and all—bar the U.K. and Ireland—are to become part of Schengen one day.

The Juncker paper marks a shift from that tradition, reflecting the growing reality that nationalist, euroskeptic movements have reshaped the political discourse ahead of upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy.

Meant to provide food for thought for the 27 EU leaders meeting in Rome this month to discuss the bloc’s future after Brexit, the paper also discusses the status quo and a federalist scenario, in which the bloc acts as one on the international stage and sets up several “Silicon Valleys” with EU investment funds.

By not endorsing any scenario, Mr. Juncker sought to strike a balance between nations such as Germany, France and Italy that traditionally favor integration and the more euroskeptic governments in Central and Eastern Europe that want to see power repatriated from Brussels.

The five scenarios also avoid any changes to the EU treaty, a yearslong exercise for which no member-state governments have much of an appetite.

Diplomats preparing for the Rome summit expect a multispeed Europe to emerge as the compromise everyone can agree on, as long as it is kept vague.

“The history of recent years has shown that there will be a multispeed EU, and not all members will participate in the same steps of integration,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last month.

The host of the Rome summit, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, reinforced this message by saying that “we need a flexible union, reformed, united where different shades of integration can coexist successfully.”

His Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, said last week that “if the only way in which we can stay united is by doing nothing, it is better not to be so united and do something.”

The problems, however, will start once the leaders start delving into detail. Take migration, where funding from the EU could be linked to countries’ willingness to take in refugees, which countries in Central and Eastern Europe have refused to do.

With less EU money likely to be available after the U.K. leaves the bloc, acrimonious negotiations are expected on the bloc’s budget for the next seven years, including what it should be spent on and what conditions should be attached.

“Multispeed Europe is also a way to put pressure on some countries to reconsider blocking some policies, especially now when the EU is under pressure from Brexit and Trump,” said Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank, saw a new tone emerging.

“This is not the beginning of the end, but it is a realization that the readiness to make a big integration leap is not there,” he said.

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