4 June 2015

The publication of the new Four Presidents’ Report on the future of the Eurozone is drawing closer. Encouragingly for David Cameron, this is helping focus minds as politicians across Europe are coming to terms with the idea that EU integration as a whole is in need of a rethink. Yet, confusion and lack of understanding remain – showing that the UK Prime Minister will have to put quite some effort into explaining why his vision for EU reform can yield a better deal for everyone, not just Britain.

The good: Acceptance of different levels of integration

Many in Europe now accept that the EU needs different levels of integration. Closer ties for the Eurozone, for instance, and more flexibility for countries outside the single currency. Sigmar Gabriel and Emmanuel Macron, the centre-left Economy Ministers of Germany and France, argue in an op-ed published by several European newspapers today,

Strengthening the euro is not only about the Eurozone. It cannot be isolated from a broader rethinking of the EU, not least because we need to be able to answer the key question: what about the other member states? A stronger Eurozone should be the core of a deepened EU. We need a simpler and more efficient union, with more subsidiarity and streamlined governance. The fundamental instrument of EU integration is the single market; we should therefore make a new step towards a better-integrated internal market, with a targeted approach on key sectors like energy and digital economy.

Sigmar Gabriel and Emmanuel Macron – Europe cannot wait any longer: France and Germany must drive ahead

Also, as we noted in previous posts, the plans for further Eurozone integration currently floating around will inevitably lead to amending the EU Treaties in the not too distant future. The main challenge for Cameron remains the timeline, although – as we explained here – Treaty change is not a black and white issue and a number of solutions can be found.

The bad: Still too much insistence on ‘two-speed Europe’

Countless European politicians keep using the expression ‘two-speed Europe’. Gabriel and Macron don’t mention it in their joint article, but they both did so in recent interventions in Bild and Journal du Dimanche respectively. And so did former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta last month, in what was otherwise generally a very perceptive Guardian op-ed about the future of UK-EU relations.

However, as Open Europe has argued since 2011, ‘two-speed Europe’ implies that the direction of travel and the destination (that is, ever closer union) remain the same for all 28 EU member states – which is not what Cameron has in mind. A much better way of looking at it would be a ‘multiform Europe’, with the single market as the centrepiece of integration at 28.

Another problem is that some politicians in Europe continue to see Cameron’s EU renegotiation efforts as the expression of British exceptionalism. To stick with Gabriel, he said in Paris yesterday,

Our idea for Europe is quite the opposite of the idea of Mr Cameron. Mr Cameron wants to reduce Europe back to a single market. Mr Cameron wants to have a level playing field for companies but no level playing field for people. [Yet] Europe is made for people.

Reuters – Cameron’s idea of Europe is far from ours: Germany’s Gabriel

This gives an idea of the challenge the UK Prime Minister faces. The sooner he manages to convey the message that his proposed reforms will benefit all the 28 EU member states, the better.

The ugly: National vs European

The final paragraph of the Gabriel-Macron article leaves me a bit perplexed. It reads,

We have to find and implement the means by which European general interest will stop appearing different from national interest. Our common goal is to render it unthinkable for any country in pursuit of its national interest to consider a future without Europe – or within a lesser union. We can achieve this goal through a union of solidarity and differentiation.

Sigmar Gabriel and Emmanuel Macron – Europe cannot wait any longer: France and Germany must drive ahead

In a way, this idea that 28 (or even 19) national interests can simply be merged into an overarching ‘European interest’ is ultimately what fuels scepticism towards the EU in the UK and beyond. For a start, who decides what this ‘European general interest’ is?

A more flexible EU is the only way to reconcile public opinion with the idea of Europe. Repeating like a broken record that ‘more Europe’ is the solution to everything will not lead anywhere. This is what Cameron should tell other European leaders. In the end, this should not be about choosing between national ideals or European ones, but finding the right level of decision-making for certain policies. ‘European where necessary, national where possible’ – as the Dutch say.

This links to a final challenge that Cameron will face. Not only will he have to present his vision for a multiform EU and demonstrate how it benefits the EU as a whole, but he will also need to highlight that it is not a question of either/or. A more flexible EU should be able to accommodate a number of visions and reflect that there is more than one way to be a ‘good European’.