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European East-West Divide Widens Ahead of Brexit

Posted by hkarner - 12. März 2017

Date: 11-03-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

EU leaders are debating how to proceed with deeper political and economic integration

BRUSSELS—The divide between the European Union’s more affluent western nations and its less well-off members to the east deepened on Friday, as their leaders wrangled over the future of the bloc after the U.K. exits.

The last day of the summit of EU leaders in Brussels was intended primarily to focus on preparations for celebrations later this month marking the 60th anniversary of the bloc’s founding Treaty of Rome.

Instead, it became embroiled in debate over whether the world’s biggest trading bloc should continue on its path of deep political and economic integration across the Continent or moderate its ambitions.

Specifically in dispute are proposals to allow some of the 27 remaining EU countries to decide how much and how fast they wish to integrate into the bloc.

The so-called multispeed Europe recommendations call for a bloc hewing less to the across-the-board political and economic standards than the union’s champions originally envisioned.

Officials representing the more economically strapped nations of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic said such proposals would leave them behind, especially after the U.K. leaves the bloc and EU coffers shrink.

Abandoning the idea that poorer and newer member states of the bloc should have the same level of European integration and prosperity would have profound consequences, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis told reporters after the closed-door debate.

It would increase fears among the people of Western Europe that their jobs would disappear, replaced by competition from the east. Meanwhile, he said, worries about being left behind would grow among the people of Eastern Europe.

“Both are likely to lead to more divisions among states instead of deeper cooperation,” Mr. Iohannis warned.

In a separate news conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that allowing for different degrees of economic and political integration wouldn’t create “first- and second-class citizens” in Europe. Diversity in the bloc is already set forth in treaties and is a fact of life, she said.

Proponents of multispeed Europe such as Xavier Bettel, prime minister of Luxembourg, say it is partly aimed at reducing the power of a small number of member nations to veto measures favored by a majority as the bloc tries to navigate its future.

“I prefer two speeds than no speed at all. For the moment we have a Europe where we are stuck,” Mr. Bettel said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was surprised at some leaders who see multispeed Europe “as introducing a dividing line, a new kind of Iron Curtain between east and west.”

“That is not the intention of this. The so-called multispeed Europe [means that] those who want more, can do more,” he said.

Poland has vigorously opposed multispeed Europe, but Donald Tusk, a former Polish premier who is now European Council president, sought to strike a conciliatory tone.

“Some expect systemic changes that loosen EU ties. Others look at the opposite, at deepening integration. I will be urging everyone to strive toward political unity,” he said.

Some leaders attending this week’s two-day summit acknowledged that the timing of Friday’s debate might not be auspicious, with the U.K. about to start divorce talks with the bloc and populist and nationalist forces in Europe and abroad are questioning the very rationale of the EU.

“It is true that it might have been better to do this two years ago or five years ago perhaps. But the reality is what it is,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.

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