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Last week the Centre for International Studies held an excellent discussion panel (shortly to be made into a podcast) with Jean-Claude Piris (author and former Director General of the Legal Service of the Council Secretariat), discussing his new book, Towards a Two Speed Europe.

Jean-Claude Piris, who has worked for many years in the highest echelons of European law-making and treaty formulation, is far more qualified than your blogger to evaluate the various implications of a formalisation of the currently observable divergence in paths of the European centre and its periphery. I shall not, therefore, attempt to evaluate his arguments from the point either of a lawyer or a European policymaker. I’m neither. Rather, I write merely as a citizen of Europe and from that very peculiar position of a British citizen of Europe.

The argument made by Piris, that a two speed Europe is both inevitable and preferable, carries some legitimacy. It is inevitable in that it is already happening – the Eurozone countries are now far more economically integrated than the periphery. Indeed, the European Union is, in a sense, is cruising at more than multiple speeds. Think only of the twenty-five members of the Schengen passport-free travel zone (excluding Britain but including some non-EU members), or of the twenty-five states seeking to create a common patent (including Britain, but excluding Italy and Spain). Two speeds would certainly be preferable for some European countries, such as those who would prefer a smaller, more protectionist-inclined EU. France comes to mind. However, the substance of Piris’ proposals – that such differentiated integration paths should be encouraged; should become formalised yet remain avant garde; and should involve not only the economic sphere but also the political and the social — is troubling. At least for some.

It cannot be denied that the Eurozone must integrate further economically to save itself. That is blindingly obvious. Indeed, the folly of entering into monetary union without any form of joint economic governance has now become starkly apparent. Furthermore, the alternative (of letting Greece default and the Euro disintegrate) is untenable — it would not only mean economic catastrophe but would represent a political failure of the EU on such a scale that it might possibly herald its demise.

There are, however, reasons to caution against using this opportunity to integrate as much as conceivably possible in all spheres. The first is that the EU should learn from its mistakes in the past. There are plenty of examples, such as the decision to include 10 new full members in the ‘big bang’ enlargement of 2004 despite warnings of a lack of preparation, or the failure to assess likely resultant migration patterns, or the doomed Constitutional Treaty of 2005 . It should not bite off more than it can chew or indeed try and mend a broken pipe with a sledgehammer. The problem is one of fiscal disarray – therefore the EU should target its efforts at fiscal integration and perhaps once that problem is solved think about a way to move forward in other areas.

Secondly, the EU would need to consider the gargantuan complexity of allowing unfettered differentiated integration. One of the most remarkable aspects of the European project was the ability to harmonise and equalise relations between the different European nations. If we are once again to return to a system of bilateral or multilateral bargaining and co-operation not only will this render the EU bureaucracy paralysed by the sheer amount of negotiations and agreements which apply to different nations, it would signal a regression to previous eras.

Thirdly, there is also a concern that once this road is taken, it will become self-fulfilling. Piris argues that such avant-garde integration of the core should be allowed to take place as wished and that others will catch up if and when they are willing and able. But will they ever be willing or able? There is reason to be apprehensive that integration would proceed in a manner at the core that is unacceptable to the periphery. Similarly, should they choose to follow where the core has led, the periphery states will be catching up to agreements and governance structures made in their absence. For a Europe already concerned by the appearance of a democratic deficit and of coercion by larger nations, it would pay to be wary of formalising the inequality of nations within the EU and of disenfranchising those at the edges. Speaking in Berlin last November, José Manuel Barroso supported this assertion:

Let me be cleara split union will not work. This is true for a union with different parts engaged in contradictory objectives; a union with an integrated core but a disengaged periphery; a union dominated by an unhealthy balance of power or indeed any kind of directorium. All these are unsustainable and will not work in the long term because they will put in question a fundamental, I would say a sacred, principlethe principle of justice, the principle of the respect of equality, the principle of the respect of the rule of law. And we are a union based on the respect of the rule of law and not on any power or forces.

Were such a road to be taken therefore, it is likely that such a move would be perceived as illegitimate and coercive by those on the periphery who, prevented from playing an equal part in EU decision making, may decide either to resign from the EU or may simply cease to regard it as relevant. The first steps toward differentiated integration have already caused friction with the periphery states, particularly Britain. Your columnist by no means supports her Prime Minister’s stance upon European issues but, worryingly, he is representative of British viewpoints. Should Europe at 17 press ahead with full scale integration, it is entirely possible that the project of Europe at 27 will be forgotten and those who are most on the edge may fall off. In short, the project of a two-speed Europe could in fact be a recipe for breaking up Europe. This would be damaging not only for Britain but for the EU as a whole, to whom Britain has a lot to offer (in spite of its frequent recalcitrance).

For myself, however, I am concerned particularly for Britain’s future – should we be divorced from the European project. Not only does being part of Europe offer British citizens a wealth of opportunities in terms of education and employment, it is also instrumental in protecting our rights and endowing us with the privileges of free travel and a real voice on an increasingly crowded world stage.  Rather than an academic assessment of the issue then, let this be a plea – on behalf of all those British citizens who do not read the Daily Mail and do recognise the unprecedented benefits of the EU – to not be left out in the cold.

Kate Brooks is an Oxford MPhil student in International Relations.

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