Events & News


The Future of the European Union after Brexit – Moving towards a Multi-speed Europe?

The Future of the European Union after Brexit_Moving towards a Multi-speed Europe_500x334

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or the EU Centre in Singapore.

A printable version of the commentary is available HERE.


The European Commission published its White Paper on “The Future of Europe: Reflections and Scenarios for the EU27 by 2025” last week. This White Paper was presented by the President of the Commission, Jean Claude-Juncker to the European Parliament for debate. A week after, the EU’s Big Four – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – met in the Palace of Versailles to endorse the idea of a multi-speed Europe as a way forward for the European Union (EU). This was not one of the scenarios delineated in the Commission’s White Paper, though some would argue that it is quite akin to Scenario 3 in the paper that made reference to “Those who want more do more”.  The biggest group in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) has also thrown its weight behind this vision of a multi-speed Europe. What are the scenarios that have been presented in the White Paper and who are the supporters for each scenario?

The White Paper on the Future of Europe
This White Paper on the Future of Europe was to be the first step towards the reflections on what the EU should look like without Britain. Prepared in advance also to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957, Juncker said in his Foreword that as the leaders of the EU prepare to celebrate the 60 years of peace and friendship forged by the Treaty of Rome, it is also time to reflect on a vision for its future as the EU confronts important challenges ahead.

The Paper first laid out the drivers of Europe’s future, underscoring the profound transformation of European societies and economies and the heightened threats and concerns about security and borders in a changing world. It then presented five scenarios for Europe by 2025, explaining the pros and cons of each scenario and their respective policy implications.

The first Scenario termed “Carrying On” basically calls on the member states to carry out and implement the various agenda that has been agreed upon in documents such as the 2014 A New Start for Europe and the 2016 Bratislava Declaration. This scenario recognizes the fact that several policy ideas and priorities have been identified in the wake of crises that the EU faced, but getting to the implementation is the problem. One example of this is the Refugee Allocation plan. The critics would say that this very scenario is what one would call “muddling through”.

The second Scenario refers to “Nothing but the single market”, which is probably close to what many British would have hoped for if they had not chosen to leave the EU. The British who joined the EU much later (in 1973) was in it primarily for economic reasons. Margaret Thatcher who has never been enthusiastic about the EU was stanchly behind the Single European Act in 1986 that advanced the economic agenda of the then European Community and saw the “completion” of the Single Market in 1992.

The third Scenario, “Those who want more do more”, is akin to what is commonly known as the “coalition of the willing”. This scenario foresees one or several coalitions of the willing emerge to work together in specific policy areas such as defence, taxation and social matters. This scenario allows for the unity of the EU to be preserved while maintaining certain flexibility in future areas of cooperation and coordination.

The fourth Scenario, “Doing less more efficiently”, is a response to critics of the ever-widening agenda of the EU, and the allegation that the EU is trying to do too much. The flip side of this is the raised expectations. The fact that the EU was seen as the benchmark of successful integration and enlargement had led to raised ambitions by some policy makers to do more and at the same time higher expectations by citizens about its ability to manage the different problems and issues that arise. The gap in expectations and delivery has led to widespread disappointment and disenchantment. Hence, moving forward, the EU should seek to do less but with better results.

The fifth Scenario “Doing much more together”, a scenario that will appeal to the “die hard” federalists and Europhiles who believe that the EU should further its integration agenda. In this scenario, the euro area is strengthened, joint approach on migration is reinforced, defence and security cooperation is deepened and the EU speaks with one voice on the international scene.

Support for the Different Scenarios
According to VoteWatch Europe, which measures and analyses views of political parties across the continent, the Single Market only scenario (Scenario 2) and the last scenario of doing much more together are the most unlikely scenarios. The former draws support only from “hard core Eurosceptics” and the latter has not gained much traction at all.

VoteWatch Europe also noted divisions between the western bloc and the eastern bloc of the EU. While multi-speed Europe and coalitions of the willing is favoured by member states such as Germany and France, and the Benelux countries, the Visegrad group (comprising Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) prefers “doing less, more efficiently”. Besides this East-West divisions there will also be differences on what areas to do more or less, and how to make the EU more efficient.

The Big Four Support for Multi-speed Europe
The third Scenario was clearly backed by the Big Four, which believe that some member states could deepen integration faster than others. Together these four countries represent 63 % of GDP of the EU27. Analysts writing for Politico said this is a symbolic “show of muscle and solidarity by the four wealthiest and most populous EU countries, and signaled their resolve in forming a unified core of continental continuity after Brexit”.  It was a show of unity against the Eurosceptics ahead of the Brexit negotiations.

Beneath this show of solidarity, however, some subtle differences in the positions can still be discerned. The Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who was touted as the most Europhile of the four, said that he would have preferred further integration.  He was quoted by EurActiv as saying that deeper integration is “an ambitious vision that would require treaty change, something France and Germany are not willing to support in the current climate”.

In some sense, multi-speed Europe, or more correctly, differentiated integration, is already a reality in the EU, though never acknowledged as an official policy. One sees this in area of monetary integration where only 19 out of the 27 EU member states are in the Eurozone. Another example is the Schengen agreement – only 23 EU members are in the passport-free travel zone.

While the EPP has also openly supported the idea of a multi-speed Europe, it is not without its opposition. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council was reportedly against the Big Four’s multi-speed Europe. A senior EU official told reporters that Tusk believes that the Summit in Rome on 25 March should emphasize “unity” instead of “multi-speed”. In another report, it was also highlighted that Juncker was in favour of “more Europe” instead of a two-speed model that would split the EU.

Earlier on, the leaders of the Visegrad Group adopted a joint statement on 2 March rejecting the idea of a two-speed Europe, and instead advocating the preservation of the EU’s cohesion policy. Other governments in the eastern flank of the EU also fear that a multi-speed Europe could entrench divisions to their disadvantage.

Despite that the Big Four in the EU27 have come out in support of the vision of a multi-speed Europe, the debates over the future of the EU is far from over. The results of the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France and Germany are also likely to have impact on the tone and tenet of discussions, and could even throw up some surprises.