A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Full Multi-Speed Ahead


Two decades from now, theres a surprising amount of unity in disunity. The EU has progressed in leaps and bounds, proving to be the world’s most flexible organization.

Artwork © Katinka Reinke

Brussels, on a spring day in April 2040. Marie Épinard is fretful. A few months ago, the woman who started her career as a member of the young team advising the then French President Emmanuel Macron, moved into the Berlaymont at Schuman roundabout. As President of the European Commission, she sees herself as following in the footsteps of her compatriot Jacques Delors, committed to ensuring the dynamism of the single market. She sees it as the centerpiece of the joint project that is the European Union because this project now encompasses many different things. The common legal entity, the Union of “Equals,” has not really existed since the 1990s—with the euro and Schengen two major fields of differentiation have since developed. Nevertheless, the EU still holds on to its narrative as being about “unity.”

But in recent years, this kind of differentiation has evolved from being an instrument for overcoming blockages into becoming an active organizational principle in the EU. This has had a number of institutional consequences that have changed the way cooperation happens in Brussels. And Paris has been one of the driving forces behind this development.

The principle of unanimity in many of those areas that so urgently required joint action had caused constant blockages due to the primacy of national interests. As a result, groups of member states had finally taken the bull by the horns and started moving ahead in fields as diverse as cooperation on police and intelligence matters, defense policy, technology policy, and taxation policy.

One of Épinard’s most important tasks is to ensure that all of this continues to be done within the framework of the EU Treaties with commonly agreed rights and obligations—and that it remains open to all who want to join later. There is now something like a “common sense” approach among the EU member states as to how such forms of cooperation can be conducted in a way that is compatible with the common good. And this, after all, is a remarkable development, following the many years in which the mental maps in the member states regarding the EU had moved further and further apart. The realization of the extent of their own weakness in the face of an increasingly aggressive global environment certainly had an impact.

Too Complex for a Beer Mat

In the meantime, there is something like a truce in the EU: everyone is committed to the most ambitious single market possible—and some are doing even more. Yet the many different strands, which exist alongside each other without any connection, carry a risk of unravelling. Differentiation comes at the expense of transparency. In the meantime, as a result of the different speeds, the rights and advantages enjoyed by EU citizens are anything but equal, which increases political volatility.

As a consequence, the President of the European Commission spends a lot of her time digesting the opinions of her various legal advisers on the somewhat abstract question of exactly how much asynchronicity a union can tolerate and still go by that name. This morning, there is once again a great deal of differing opinions as to when the point will have been reached when competing systems gathered under one roof will no longer make sense. Épinard herself would like to have a model for the EU that could be written on the back of a beer mat. But that’s just not possible these days.

Most importantly, there is the single market, which is open to all EU member states that have committed themselves to democracy and the rule of law. “Big is beautiful” has been the motto here since the 2020s. Then there is the increasingly aggressive competition between the US and China and the rise of other powers and regions which have ultimately brought Europeans closer together and even allowed for progress on all four fundamental freedoms. After leaving the EU, the British, too, have gradually formed closer ties again with the single market and have strengthened the circle of friends in non-EU Europe. The Western Balkans states, meanwhile, have now become part of the single market, following a deliberate effort by the EU to support them.

Europe’s integration-skeptical governments have finally accepted that the single market cannot function without strong supranational institutions. And the prospect of no longer fulfilling the criteria for membership of the single market is also disciplining those political forces in Europe that had started turning their backs on democracy and the rule of law in their countries. All this has served to strengthen the EU institutions, above all the European Commission. It can now also use its regained strength within the single market to give the EU clout in international trade policy, which offers the potential for both conflicts and opportunities.

It was a long journey to get to this point. For many years, Europeans struggled to overcome the deep rifts that had opened up between sovereignists and advocates of “more Europe” over fundamental issues of democracy and the rule of law. It was only after 2019 and Brexit, which took place at the last minute in an orderly fashion but still hit the economic interests of London and the EU capitals hard, that EU citizens realized just how much internal cohesion they had lost: economically, socially and culturally.

A Hanseatic Alliance

This was also demonstrated by the European elections of that year, which significantly boosted nationalist forces in the European Parliament. Their power to shape policy remained limited, as they still had less than a third of the seats and few overlapping policies. But their repeated tactical alliances considerably increased the potential for disruption of the EU system.

In addition, there was the cooling of the global economy, the effects of which were clearly felt in the EU, particularly in Germany. The euro zone, with its still incomplete architecture, once again revealed its inner weakness. In Rome, Prime Minister Matteo Salvini played with fire: leaving the monetary union was out of the question, instead Italy wanted to change its rules from within.

For the Élysée, the loss of Italy as an ally was a real problem, particularly as successive governments in Madrid had been stymied for years due to unresolved internal divisions over the question of Catalonia’s independence. A new force field had developed in the EU in the form of the Netherlands and its new “Hanseatic alliance” of EU countries with conservative approaches to fiscal policy, a stance that Germany was also sympathetic to. This made it impossible for France to tip the scales to ensure a genuine reform of economic and monetary union.

Paris soon gave up believing in the Franco-German motor for reforming the euro zone. With enormous political effort, President Macron had managed to halt the protest movements in his own country, to moderately push forward his reform path, and to anchor his ideas for the future of the economy, politics and society in Europe in a coalition with the Liberals in the European Parliament, while also keeping Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in check. Berlin under Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, was not prepared to compromise despite all the lofty commitments to strengthening the European Union with regard to an economic union.

In this context, and against the backdrop of a weak global economy, the battles over distribution within the EU increased. The negotiations over the multi-annual financial framework for 2021-2027 were fiercely contested, with the different interests clashing as never seen before. During this period, the forces of the center were also significantly weakened in the European Council and the Council of Ministers. This was partly due to the ongoing electoral successes of nationalist parties and movements that then formed governments, and partly due to their own internal weaknesses and the lack of a common vision from Germany and France for the future of the EU. Had the Maastricht Treaty therefore finally failed, were the states and societies of Europe unready for a genuine political union, for deeper cooperation on issues of migration, internal security and defense?

Looking back, it’s clear that this disillusionment was actually helpful as it led to a new consensus among the member states. In this phase of fundamental differences, the decision was made to focus on the single market as the EU’s “main raison d’être,” something the Commission had already envisaged in 2017 as a possible scenario for the development of the EU.

Security and Migration

“Nobody falls in love with a common market,” Delors had once warned. Yet EU countries had gone through too many emotions in recent decades—negative emotions. So why not a new soberness? After all, without the single market, the EU would be nothing. A number of initiatives were launched to further enhance the single market. In addition to this, real progress in securing the EU’s external borders drew attention to the explosive issue of migration in the short term. However, without any agreement on a common asylum and migration policy, internal border controls tightened over time. In turn, it quickly became clear that the single market could not develop its full potential without being embedded in a more ambitious policy framework.

In retrospect, two developments were decisive for the start of a new phase of differentiation: Firstly, the shift of US security interests towards China and away  from Europe—something that happened gradually rather than with a bang. Secondly, the agreement on a genuine common asylum and migration policy by a group of EU member states in the face of continuing migration pressure, which threatened to trigger domestic political upheavals.

When it came to defense policy, Britain increasingly signaled its interest in genuine cooperation with the EU. The UK’s own position outside the EU structures proved to be advantageous, as the country’s public opinion was still divided about the EU. For France, which had early on made intensive efforts to involve the UK, this was a welcome development as it helped compensate for Berlin’s weakness. During his first term in office, President Macron had convinced the new German Chancellor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to join London, Madrid, Rome and Warsaw in making a genuine offer of cooperation on defense policy to any other EU member states that were willing and able.

The focus here were less on institutional issues than on a few examples of rapid, flexible and, above all, successful cooperation. Needless to say: since the British needed to be on board, the whole thing had to take place (at least initially) outside the treaties. This was hard to swallow for the officials in the chancellery in Berlin, but the EU had long been accused of relying on initiatives within the EU framework to allow it to hide its own lack of ambition. In view of the concrete security-related challenges, it was indeed necessary to demonstrate the ability to act. The European Intervention Initiative, molded on the French model, finally saw the light of day.

Germany’s Conversion

Overall, a clear willingness to change could be seen in Germany’s European policy with regard to a greater level of differentiation. While Berlin had previously placed great emphasis on the cohesion of the EU as a whole and was above all concerned about losing countries in Central and Eastern Europe as a result of closer cooperation with others, it now became convinced that cooperation with like-minded partners in promising core areas of its own interest could be attractive—and can also help demonstrate the value of Europe to the German people.

For although Germany had long been one of the countries that profited most from EU membership, the image of “Germany as paymaster for the crises of the others” had persisted in the country. Organizing the reform of European asylum and migration policy, which had long failed in the EU-27, into a group of EU countries was far more attractive for Berlin than the prospect of closer economic and social cooperation within the euro zone, which France had long demanded. On the issue of migration, differentiation could also be more easily organized on the basis of existing EU treaties by using the instrument of “enhanced cooperation.”

Paris, however, insisted that new forms of cooperation beyond the single market should still be linked to the EU institutions. At the same time, there should be a clear difference made between the member states that participated in these projects and those that did not. For example, only countries involved in a particular issue should take part in votes on those issues in the European Parliament. This should also apply to the Eurogroup.

Primacy of the Ballot Box

While the Commission should have some responsibility for defense, migration and the euro, its rights would vary according to the format. Berlin agreed to the premise that the strong role of the EU institutions in the single market of all EU members should be preserved. And so, the way was cleared for a new experimental field of flexible cooperation between groups of member states—vive l’Europe différenciée! The “New Hanseatic League,” for example, claimed the right to set its own priorities and developed a differentiation project in the field of new technologies. And in this way, new forms of cooperation began to emerge.

So now Marie Épinard is pondering the question of finding the right balance between everyone acting together and the Europe of differentiation—and she finally comes to the conclusion that only the next European elections can reveal what that balance should be. It will be up to the citizens of the EU to decide whether or not the first female European Commission president, together with the governments of the member states, has indeed managed through differentiation to bring the EU closer to its citizens’ expectations of security and prosperity. In 2040, it is now a matter of course in the EU for achievements to be measured not by the yardstick of history—but rather by what Europeans decide at the ballot box.