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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

EU reform: Impossible, a superstate, or multi-tier?

Richard North at eurosceptic blog par excellence EU Referendum draws my attention to this piece in the Times by William Rees-Mogg, which contains the line:

Most Eurosceptics want Europe to be reformed, not destroyed

This is something of which I remain firmly convinced – but not our man North:

Oh dear! After all these years, and all the failed attempts at seeking “reform”, has it not yet dawned on the man that the EU is incapable of reform[?]

Ignoring the fact that this ignores Rees-Mogg’s actual contention (he doesn’t profess to be in favour of reform himself, merely that a majority favour reform over withdrawal – an unfortunate reality for the withdrawalists of EU Referendum), a question:

How can hardcore anti-EU types maintain that reform is impossible yet simultaneously believe that the EU is heading towards a superstate – which would, in itself, be an immense reform?

North points to an old article in which he explains his logic for rejecting the possibility of EU reform. Yet his “proof” is to refer to an old Milton Friedman article looking at the United States’ Food and Drug Administration, in which Friedman claimed the institution’s very set-up prevented change. Even were this not itself a somewhat dubious contention, backed up more by assertion than by evidence, a monolithic US government agency being compared to a multi-part, multi-country international organisation hardly strikes me as overly fair.

You see the way I reckon it, yes, with current attitudes from the various member states, radical reform is unlikely – just have a gander at the failed compromises that are the Treaty of Nice and Lisbon Treaty, both unsatisfactory to all parties but the best they could manage.

There are several different trains of thought among EU member states as to what the EU should actually be – and whenever efforts to reform come up, as they do on average once a decade, reconciling all these different desires has indeed proved impossible.

But as all major reforms – even after the expansion of qualified majority voting that the Lisbon Treaty brings – still require unanimity, this makes the appearance of an EU superstate all but impossible as long as less integrationist countries remain members (and it’s not just Britain that isn’t keen on ever-closer union).

“OK”, you might think. “So you admit EU reform’s impossible?”

No. Because I reckon the current situation is going to change. How much longer are the likes of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – the core of the original EEC, and still more or less the most enthusiastic member states – going to put up with the frustration of their plans being thwarted? How much longer are those countries who aren’t keen on merging their economies much further going to put up with the perennial drives for greater integration from euroenthusiasts?

We’ve already had countless rhetoric-heavy spats over various aspects of EU reform – not just between Britain and Brussels (as with Thatcher’s battle for the rebate), but between numerous other less fervently federalist member states and the expansionists.

Sooner or later, these clashes are bound to result in an official suggestion of a two-speed or multi-speed Europe – maintaining the union while allowing everyone more or less to go their separate ways.

The idea of a multi-speed Europe is not a new one, and is increasingly gaining ground. Over the last few years, it is a concept that I’ve seen crop up time and again, from House of Lords debates to The Economist, former French president Jaques Chirac to former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former Commission president Romano Prodi to the EU’s own website.

As Prodi said in an interview last year:

it is good if you can go forward together, but you cannot go at the speed of the last wagon.

We already have a two-speed Europe. Euro and Schengen are examples of this and they are very important projects. Moreover, a two-speed Europe does not mean that countries that are in the second group cannot move to the first. Two-speed Europe sometimes means more choices.

So, while anti-EU claims that the EU is heading towards a superstate seem to be backed up purely by decades-old (mis)quotes from the likes of Jean Monet (and the occasional modern superstatist aberration like Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker), my hopes that genuine EU reform may be on the cards seem to have rather more to support them.

So then, how can this whole “the EU can’t be reformed” thing – the mantra of all withdrawalists – be justified? The Lisbon Treaty itself is an acknowledgement that the current system is not up to scratch – and an acknowledgement that getting a satisfactory compromise is increasingly difficult (being as it is an unsatisfactory attempt to rectify the previous unsatisfactory compromise that was the Treaty of Nice).

Especially since the failure of the constitution there is an increasing consensus throughout the EU – both among the populations of the member states and increasingly among the EU machine itself – that some serious, radical changes are needed, beyond the mere stop-gap measures that the constitution (and Lisbon Treaty) aimed for.

Introducing a new, multi-tier, multi-speed system (on top of the existing two-tier Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries) is the most obvious – and, most importantly, easiest – way to give everyone what they want. I see no reason why it won’t eventually happen – the only question is how long is it going to take?


  1. Pingback: Reform of the EU is a Constant Reality | eurealist.co.uk

  2. About change and direction of change within the EU, I believe that Eurosceptics usually point to the Levithian behaviour of institutions without the proper checks and balances. It’s not the problem that the EU won’t or can’t reform itself, even Eurosceptics see reform, just not ones they’d like to see. The problem is that the EU won’t roll back any rules, regulations or policies it has created. This is an especially large problems considering there are about 27 veto’s on any major reform. Therefore mistakes or poor policies are unlikely to be rolled back, even if there is every rationale to do so (CAP, strasbourgh, insert your favorite, etc. etc).

    Not sure whether multi-speed Europe is the solution though. The idea itself is probably as old of the EEC itself, just look at the BeNeLux multilateral agreement, which sits outside the EU framework.

    Multi-speed Europe has been a real possibility since the Maastricht treaty, if I recall correctly. This was when official provisions were introduced for closer cooperation between member states, if a set of criteria were met. This is about 16 years ago, but none came of it yet.

    Examples of multi-speed Europe now-a-days are more about opt-outs or agreements that began their life outside the EU framework, then voluntary closer cooperation between a set of Member States. The Euro is one example, it’s not a set of countries that decided it’s a good idea, and moved forward with. Rather it’s a the EU that has decided to go with the Euro, while those opposed seek various ways to stay out of it.

    Problems for a multi-speed Europe to emerge remain. Nobody has really answered the question on how the acquis communitaire will hold up, and numerous other little formalities. But there is also a more fundemental problem to mulit-speed Europe. Some policy issues can only be solved if all Member States cooperate, issues that require a vigilant Commission and strong ECJ. These are unpopular with someMember States, hence the lack of progress on such isses. The higher the price of harmonization, the greater the reward to opt-out. And giving Member States the option to opt-out of painful or unpopular EU directives will probably make them useless.

    And for those policies that don’t need strong supranational regulations it’s probably more harmfull to organize them within the EU framework. Does the Schengen agreement need EU institutions, or would it be cheaper, easier and faster organized outside of the EU framework.

    That doesn’t mean that multi-speed Europe is an ideal solution for certain situations. I’d love to see 15 countries adopt a single patent system based on the English language. Take that, frogs….

  3. It’s still possible to have paranoid fantasies about a multi-speed Europe. Without the requirement to get the sceptical countries on board, the more federalist countries could integrate rapidly and re-form the ‘core EU’ as a superstate, while ‘peripheral EU’ continues much as before. The superstate might not be all of Europe, but an entity that consists of France, Germany, Iberia and Benelux say and has a unified foreign policy could exert hegemonic influence over the whole continent (with the possible exception of the Russian sphere), having a vastly larger economy than any of the less integrated EU countries individually. Some might then see membership of the EU not as membership of a club of equals, but vassalage to ‘core EU’.

    The flaw in this fantasy, of course, is that there is little popular support for a superstate anywhere except Luxembourg, with its various official languages (but no separatist tension), diverse nationalities that are nevertheless mostly European (eg Portuguese nationals make up 1/7 of the population), and a level of plurilingual competence that puts even the Finns to shame. In each of the large EU states, hardcore integrationists are a small minority. I don’t think this will change quickly unless Europe’s population starts churning itself so much that it all starts to look a bit like Luxembourg, and at least a large minority of the European upper-middle classes speaks Euro-English at dinner parties and has relatives (and eventually ancestors) in long-term residence in different parts of the continent.

  4. Ignoring definitional questions about what changes count as reforms, it’s obviously self-inconsistent to believe that the EU cannot be reformed yet may be reformed into a superstate.

    This is just a strawman. There are some clueless Eurosceptics out there who have taken this word “superstate” (I believe it was in Thatcher’s Bruges speech) and become obsessed by it. Does it mean “very powerful state”, analogous to “superpower” in international relations? Or does it mean “state above other states”, which is the sense I think she was using it in? It’s possible for a state above other states to be weaker, e.g., rump Yugoslavia vis-a-vis Serbia.

    Basically we need a Neoeuroscepticism which disavows the ambiguous words “superstate” and “sovereignty” and concentrates on democracy and accountability. Otherwise Europhiles will always be able to pull moves like this one.

    More broadly, the claim that the EU is unreformable probably reduces to sheer essentialism, and should just be ignored for the trash that it is.

    My personal view is that in the current situation, reform will not make the EU as democratically responsive as any of its first fifteen member states within the remaining thirty years of my working life; I believe credible withdrawal threats will accelerate reform. Attacking withdrawal per se is therefore potentially attacking a means of accelerating the democratisation of the EU.

    You ask how much longer the founding member states are prepared to put up with the frustration of “their” plans. The metonymy here is misleading. Do you mean “the executive branch of the governments of these states”, or the people, or the democratic majority, or each country’s Christian Democrat party or what? I’m sure you don’t mean, say, the German judiciary …

    A multispeed Europe is an attack on the integrity of the internal market and the fundamental freedoms. The internal market is the cement of the democratic legitimacy of the UK’s participation in the EU: that’s what we were told we were voting to be in. Can we really expect to trade and move across the EU without discrimination when there are groups of countries even more tightly integrated than the current Eurozone and Schengen land? Aren’t matters which the core group might wish to legislate on likely to be inextricable from internal market affairs which are the concern of all members? It seems unworkable to me.

    That the EU “cannot be reformed” is not the mantra of “all” withdrawalists. I suggest you just take that back.

    The comment from “Sam” about the difficulty of rolling back changes actually goes very deep: there’s a great book called “Sharing Transboundary Resources” which goes into considerable detail about the optimal lobbying strategy for stakeholders in a resource which crosses a boundary (e.g., a lake between two countries): if you want a particular policy about the resource, and your choices are to get the policy enacted in legislation of each bordering country, entrenched in the constitutions of each country, or in a treaty between the countries, go for the treaty since resisting changes to a treaty is less expensive than the other options. European directives, particularly those requiring unanimity, are much harder to get changed (== much more resistant to democratic pressure) than national legislation.

    Responding to Sam’s recollection: I think the first success of multispeed Europe (a piece of sabotage by the then British government) was the Social Chapter, rather than Maastricht.

    Colin Reid says it is “still” possible to have paranoid fantasies about a multispeed Europe, implying that he believes it may become impossible in the future. Does he envision some means of preventing paranoia or fantasisation, possibly via orbiting mind-control lasers? ;)

  5. We Irish are the only country who will have the people decise whether we want to adopt this so called Lisbon Treaty. For a small nation like us, it is like allowing a Boeing 747 land on a small rural airfield.It will swamp us, and we will lose more economic sovereignty, more judicial sovereignty, lessen our voice in Europe and generally say to the bigger pro-superstate powers, go ahead, we’ll be good little children and do as you say. I don’t want that process to continue and am glad I have a voice on the 12th June to vote No, as will the majority of my countrymen and women.