Monday 29. November 2021
#206 - July-August 2017

Europe needs a rethink!

Friedhelm Hengsbach, Professor Emeritus in Christian Social Sciences, raises critical objections to the concepts of “core Europe” and “two-speed Europe”.

Reacting to the UK exit from the EU, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in September 2016 at the EU Summit of 27 in Bratislava: “We really would be doing the wrong thing if we were to initiate yet another treaty renegotiation.” Will this be a case of sorting out the European institutional “muddle” by finding a techno-pragmatic way to correct a “disfunction”. Or will some procedure be adopted, one designed to prevent the escalation of alarming crises by allowing them to happen rather than waiting patiently for the crisis point to pass and a more favourable moment to present itself for making changes that would pass almost unseen?


Two-speed Europe likely?

As their reaction to Brexit, the Member States and the EU institutions were instructed, in the “spirit of Bratislava”, to opt for actions that would be feasible and methods that would be practical. This clear message was intended to prevent EU27 from fraying at the edges any further. Would that also cover the reforms that have been stalking the political debates within the EU since the 1980s? Once again there has been talk of a “core Europe and its peripheries”, of a “two-speed or multi-speed Europe”, and of “enhanced cooperation between certain individual member states”.


Recently, the Chancellor has been heard to utter the quasi-oracular words that an “EU of two different speeds” is coming, since “not all Member States will want to embark upon the same degree of integration.” She gave as examples the Schengen area, Poland’s interest in enhanced cooperation on defence and the German-French desire for closer economic and regulatory policies within the Eurozone.


Objections to a core Europe

There is considerable resistance to the current equivocal slogans that are trending on the subject of a multi-layered Europe. But it is still risky to limit a “core Europe” to the relationship between Germany and France because any axis based around two countries would provoke resistance from the peripheral countries. Expanding the “core” to include Italy, Poland or Spain would not provide an adequate response if smaller countries, especially the central European countries, were not involved in a qualifying round of this kind. Moreover, no explanation has been given of how the core countries would be linked to their peripheral partners, or which institutions, procedures and objectives would belong inside the core or peripheral zones.


The frequently quoted examples of the EU, NATO and Schengen can be queried, since overlapping memberships of independent legal spheres should be assessed differently from memberships of entities within the same legal framework governed by the EU treaties, such as the Eurozone. Also, cooperation between the European countries governed by EU treaties is only comparable if they are compared in the same way as the members of the Schengen area. The mantra of a two-speed Europe therefore remains foggy. Should the countries with weaker economies speed up their race in order to catch up with the others, or should the economically stronger countries create a wider distance from the less economically successful countries? The formula of enhanced cooperation between EU Member States sounds nice, but covers up the parallel regime of EU treaties and contractual relationships between countries under international law.


Rising social polarisation

In the public debate, however, discussions always focus on the relationship between members of the Eurozone and the remaining members of the EU. The growing distance between the Member States that see themselves as belonging to the core zone and those that are outside it is creating tension and conflicts, which show up as structural imbalances between domination and dependence. This rift is engendering rivalry and fragmentation. As German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble pointed out in relation to Brexit: “In means in, and out means out.”  That leaves no room for any speed comparison. How can a political fine-tuning succeed inside the core or between core and periphery? If you reinforce the imbalances inside or between the zones, this can destroy the delicate equilibrium between Member States moving at different speeds.


Labelling the currently existing Eurozone as the core Europe is deterrent enough to add fuel to the scepticism about two-speed Europe. The indirect route of intergovernmental treaties, designed to rescue crisis-afflicted Member States, has disavowed the notion of a two-speed EU within a single legal regime. Living standards in the regions have not changed. Social polarisation has increased. Finally, the fact that financial intervention by the European Central Bank as lender of last resort has caused speculative attacks from private investors to fizzle out, thereby saving the Eurozone from crashing, serves as a warning that the ideas of “core Europe” and “two-speed Europe” need a rethink.

Friedhelm Hengsbach SJ

Oswald von Nell-Breuning Institute for Economic and Social Ethical Studies


Translated from the original text in German


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.