Why we need two Europes

5 min read

David Cameron’s opening bid on the UK’s renegotiation of its European Union membership offers an important, if unwitting, opportunity for a necessary reshaping of Europe’s structure. The British prime minister’s proposal for an exemption from the commitment towards an ‘ever closer union’ has been widely interpreted as an essentially formal request with little or no substantive implications.

I believe the opposite is true. The British request raises a fundamental point, and obliges everyone to recognise that the mantra of 28 states having the same ultimate objective (albeit to be achieved through different routes and timescales) is officially dead. Talk of a single – though multi-tiered and multi-speed – Europe is over.

In future, we should aim at two Europes: a Europe of states looking to a political union, centred around the euro; and a Europe based on a free trade zone-plus (with a political-judicial overlay), centred around the UK.

The two Europes would progress along independent, parallel paths. But they would both form part of a broader European Union of nations sharing the basic principles of democratic representation, market economy and fundamental rights. That could include Turkey and Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

Such a scheme would respond to UK needs without diluting others’ priorities. Relations between the parts of the new, broader Union would be redefined, and mutual associations and link-ups envisaged. This approach would require an in-depth revision of the treaties but it would give the EU the flexibility for which it has long and largely unsuccessfully been searching.

It may be very difficult to accomplish such a plan within the timetable deemed as feasible by Britain and its European partners. There will be a constant temptation to make recourse to a muddle that leaves everyone tolerably dissatisfied. This outcome will probably prevail. But the problem will not go away.

As the crisis over immigration has shown, the culture, tolerance and inclusiveness of our European societies are a powerful magnet for the world’s dispossessed and persecuted.

Precisely these characteristics represent a fundamental challenge for all types of terrorists to the civilisational change they want to impose through intimidation and bloodshed. Europe’s answer to these problems must lie in protecting, not reneging on, our system of values. Otherwise we would impoverish our moral stance and play into the hands of our enemies.

Purely national responses would lead us nowhere. We need a common set of policies grounded on closer political (and, yes, the dreaded word: supranational) co-operation. And yet, in Europe at present, the trend appears to be the reverse, as the rise of intolerant nationalism in central and eastern Europe and the ascent of France’s National Front underscore.

With regard to migrants, the difficulty lies less in the absolute numbers (not unsustainably large relative to the EU population), more in the rate of growth, which worries public opinion and engenders a strong, at times overtly racist, backlash.

Europe is and will continue to be a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. Tackling the inflow requires better controls coupled with measures to stop the process at the source. The border-free Schengen system was conceived for a limited number of closely-knit states. It has become increasingly unmanageable as EU membership has grown.

Yet scrapping Schengen would be a colossal mistake. Europe needs an outer border able to provide the first ring in a multi-tiered system, in which national police and border agencies would add a fundamental further level of security.

After the 1991–92 Maastricht treaty, the EU has been increasingly identified with its economic dimension. The single currency’s prolonged woes have raised questions about the Union’s ability to ensure stability and prosperity. And this has been transformed in eurosceptic minds into a crisis of legitimacy for the entire construct.

The single currency was conceived (not exclusively, but significantly) as a tool towards the political union of Europe. Its problems are due to a lack, rather than a surfeit, of political integration. The euro’s survival is inextricably linked to the ability of its members to agree on an appropriate form of supranational economic governance, on which all the other arrangements for members and non-members will ultimately depend.

If the euro area fails to progress towards a closer union of all (or most of) its members, the common currency will fail, and it will not be long before the entire European process falls apart. But if it succeeds, the EU will have to decide what level of political integration will be best suited to fulfil its promise of providing a more secure, socially responsible and democratic environment for its peoples.

And this will require not one Europe – but two.

(By Antonio Armellini, Italian Ambassador to India from 2004–08. He is a member of the OMFIF advisory board and is also a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.)

David Cameron