European integration belongs to the category of things that are simultaneously inevitable and impossible.
Back in the 1990s, I used to discuss the future of Europe with friends and colleagues. We had different aspirations. Some of us, me included, wanted a narrow, federal Europe with a central government and parliament; others preferred a wider, decentralised Europe; and then there was a third group in favour of what they called “variable geometry” — a multi-speed Europe in which overlapping groups of countries would integrate in different policy areas.
We should distinguish between different varieties. The first would consist of deeper integration based on the enhanced co-operation clauses in European law. These allow a group of at least nine member states to press ahead with legislation with each other. This excludes areas of common interest, such as the single market or the customs union.
While enhanced co-operation sounds like a good idea, a word of caution is in order. It has been around since the 1990s and was given more prominence in the Lisbon treaty. One of the authors of this particular clause told me that he wrote it to provide a legal foundation for the eurozone to develop into a closer political union. But the clause has only been used three times — for divorce law, the European patent and on property rights for international couples. Not exactly an ambitious list.
European integration belongs to the category of things that are simultaneously inevitable and impossible.More integration is needed if Europe is to manage an economically divergent monetary union; to strengthen defence-co-operation at a time when Donald Trump, the US president, is casting doubt on the future of Nato; and to remain credible when confronted by assertive neighbours, notably Russia and Turkey. At the same time it is impossible because the kind of treaty change needed to construct such an edifice is unrealistic.
The way out of this trap is to accept a process of disintegration followed by reintegration. The EU as constituted is monolithic. It is stuck with a legal framework for everybody that suits nobody. The best option would be a structure with a reasonably integrated core, surrounded by a less integrated outer layer. All member states would be part of a customs union and the single market but not necessarily the single currency or the interior and foreign and security policy apparatus. Freedom of movement could be defined as a right obligatory for members of the inner group but voluntary for the others.
Europe’s dilemmas are solvable if one opens up the institutional fabric. Otherwise, there is no alternative but to muddle through in the hope that nothing happens. And we know where that ends.