Member states sink ‘multi-speed’ EU to avoid new ‘iron curtain’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with European Council President Donald Tusk before the 27 member state summit started on Friday. [Council]

European Union leaders will limit plans for a “multi-speed Europe” to established methods in the bloc’s treaties to head off fears that new mechanisms could widen the divide between member states.

Heads of state and government have made the unity of the EU a priority after Brexit and ahead of the 25 March summit which will mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

Europe faces “unprecedented challenges”, said the document discussed by the EU-27 today (10 March). Britain does not attend meetings on the future of the EU.

The largest EU member states and the Benelux pushed for a “multi-speed Europe” in the previous weeks.

“Unity is not uniformity and this is the reason why I call for new forms of cooperation,” said French President François Hollande after the meeting he summoned with Germany, Italy and Spain in Versailles last Monday (6 March).

'Big four' call for new European dynamic, multi-speed EU

Ahead of the EU’s 60th anniversary Rome summit on 25 March, the heads of continental Europe’s biggest economies endorsed the vision of a multi-speed Europe, in which some members could deepen their integration faster than others. EURACTIV France reports.

But the 27 EU leaders decided to sacrifice bolder steps to deepen the Union in order to shield the unity of the bloc.

“Versailles was Versailles, today everybody is back on the same boat,” said a senior EU official on Friday.

The Rome declaration will be part of the broader process to forge a new vision for the EU that the countries launched last September.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the multi-speed scenario was “prominently” discussed on Friday.

He added that some capitals saw the different speeds in EU integration as “introducing a new dividing line, a new iron curtain between East and West and that is not the intention”.

European Commission President Donald Tusk said that “the unity of the 27 will be the most precious asset”.

“The best motto is: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” Tusk added.

The need for unity was highlighted after a row broke out last night between Poland and the EU. Poland’s conservative government opposed the reelection of its former prime minister Donald Tusk as European Council president. Warsaw was ultimately outvoted 27-1.

EU unity in ruins after Poland's tussle over Tusk

European Union plans to present a united front in the face of Brexit were thrown into disarray tonight (9 March), after Poland was overruled in its opposition to the reappointment of Donald Tusk as European Council President.

“The attitude [today] was much more constructive and positive,” Tusk said.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło said it was “good news” that the Rome declaration that could be signed by all. She had refused to back last night’s Council conclusions.

A senior EU diplomat explained that Szydło was more constructive during the discussion on the future of Europe tan she had been over Tusk.

The core group of EU nations (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) and other countries in favour of deeper integration, including Portugal, sacrificed the possibility of sharing more powers to secure the united front.

Member states that want to integrate further will use the existing enhanced cooperation method, as it has been the case of the EU patent, the Financial Transaction Tax and, the EU divorce law and the EU public prosecutor.

But it will remain as a measure of last resort and be open to every national government.

Accordingly, no “new forms of cooperation” as the Versailles Quartet called for will be considered at this stage.

Tusk against the Quartet’s multi-speed Europe

European Council President Donald Tusk considers the proposal made to deepen the EU project at various speeds a warning, as unity should be the utmost priority after Brexit.

“Some people voiced concerns that this [multi-speed Europe] might mean there are different classes of EU citizens,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the European Council.

No treaty change

The EU is struggling to uphold its motto “united in diversity” after Brexit and amid growing tensions with governments seeking to repatriate competences back to the capitals, like Hungary and Poland.

The working document that framed the leaders’ discussion on Friday read, “An undivided and indivisible Union which acts together whenever possible, at different paces and intensity whenever necessary.”

“I think that is characteristic in this family that each member in the family has access to such projects but not every member has to accept,” Merkel told reporters.

The possibility of opening up the treaties to pave the way for deepening the economic and monetary union, a priority for Madrid, Lisbon and Paris, or giving more relevance to the enhanced cooperation is no longer on the table.

“The treaties of today will be the treaties of tomorrow,” said Juncker.

“We have to respect the treaties, now we cannot change them”, said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani on Thursday.

Timeline

  • 25 March: Rome Summit