“Russia might be the leverage point for the recovery of Europe, we, the Russians are more Europeans, than the Europeans themselves. We are Christians, ancestors of the Greek philosophy”
In politics prose comes more naturally than rare moments of romance or spiritual elevation. While EU leaders are soul-searching and contemplating the future of the European Union, Russia’s rulers are using Alexander Dugin’s geo-philosophical pursuits into the past to substitute reality with pious beliefs in the infallible Putin and his moral superiority over Western leaders.
Bulgaria’s elite is oscillating between its fears and rare moments of self-confidence.
The notion of a multi-speed Europe, which is riding the waves at the moment, is extrapolated beyond conceivable margins into expectancy of an imminent tsunami that is just about to inundate and destroy the EU. The drama lies entirely in perceptions, not content. The debate is somewhat misplaced as an introverted EU will miss the main homework in identifying a globally competitive upgrade project. Different interpretations of speed and integration deficits, even the well-intended, fail to address the lack of long-term vision and strategy.
The key challenge is not whether EU leaders would come to a consensus on a mutually acceptable future track – which would then become mainstream EU policy – but whether the product of this debate will be sufficiently credible and attractive to impress the world and hold the Union together.
The root of the problem lies in diverging perceptions on what has brought the Union to this state and the causation between political acts and impacts on economies, society and institutions.
Juncker’s five scenarios really boil down to two real ones, as the ‘business as usual’ and ‘do less more efficiently’ have already been explored and found non-starters.
The European Union could either disintegrate silently and slowly – including via the do-nothing ‘business as usual’ track – or engage in a critical path analysis and a destruction-creation scenario in various, not necessarily mutually exclusive, formats. For example – the ad hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’ option might be a mixed blessing, as quite often in the past the faux pas has been the ‘privilege’ of the larger and the ‘willing’ to lead states. Just like inspirational thinking and breakthroughs do not necessarily go with size and majorities, it is essential that the EU’s silent minorities and ‘periphery’ have an equal say in determining its future. This could limit the abuse of the dominant position by the founding members in determining the Union’s future.
Chancellor Merkel or President Jean Claude Juncker are not the source of ultimate wisdom.
Multi-speed Europe is just a euphemism for the factual state of affairs in the EU. It is moving, indeed, at various speeds, which in itself is an essential part of the Union’s cohesion and evolutionary history pattern. 19 of the member states are in the Eurozone, 23 are in the Schengen passport-free travel zone and even fewer are participating in various exclusive formats, reserved for the founding states of the EU. Somehow, the latter bestowed upon themselves the right and the duty to identify the optimal strategy for the EU project. Although the ‘big’ four – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – have versed support for multi-speed scenarios, their various leaders have spelled out divergent versions of the specific ‘speeds’ countries would be a part of.
The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg also seem supportive of the multi-speed EU. In the Eurozone format, three is the classic split between debt-ridden Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and France on one side and Germany and the Netherlands on the other. The contribution of the Eurozone to the seismicity in the EU can hardly be overstated. Who will believe that a redesigned or new legal algorithm would serve better than the ‘old’ EU Rome treaty, whose provisions were simply ignored by the older members. This undermined the credibility of the Union more than anything else. And it was not CEE member states that were in the lead.
The key question facing EU member states before pondering multi speeds is whether they are ready to adhere to and observe the new rules once new formats are adopted — as was the case with the refugee reallocation mechanism obligations, which member states simply ignored.
If the answer to this is negative, different speeds will solve little to nothing. If the EC institutions are not empowered to enforce them at the expense of the sovereign rights of the member in violation, it would not matter whether the EU leaders agree on the new formats.
Europe needs new drivers and new common goals and challenges and a fresh optimism in order to overcome the integration fatigue and the deficits in its original design. There is nothing wrong with the ‘coalition of the willing’ approach leading to further fragmentation into different speeds, which would not prevent individual members states from pursuing globally competitive accelerated growth strategies. This could benefit the EU by positioning the best practices in the mainstream, originating in the trend-setting EU member country.
Some countries are seeking to harmonize tax systems, including tax rates in order to avoid tax competition from new member states. This pretense starts with the assumption that the countries with the higher taxation set a better example. Tax competition, as well as competition in growth strategies actually benefits the EU and should not be stifled. Any attempt to consolidate the Union and find a new raison d’etre that would impair the ability of individual governments to seek innovative and globally competitive policies and sacrifice individual country policy pursuit for the sake of EU policy standardization and ‘averages’ alignment will kill the future of the European Union. There is a marked difference between problem resolution via vertical hierarchies management, i.e. giving further power to Brussels’ supranational institutions, on one side, and management in network environment – the so called management of independencies where individual members delegate only a critical, but sufficient minimum of their sovereignty to a central authority that brokers and oversees compliance for decisions taken at the national level.
There are two poignant examples in understanding what went wrong in the past – the refugee crisis, which played an instrumental role in breaking the consensus mold within the EU, and the problems in the Eurozone, which contributed to the overall EU stress and loss of direction. Both do not stem from lack of different speeds (the Schengen zone) or insufficient legal base – the Treaty Rome (in the EZ case) state clearly that there is ‘no bail out of member countries’. In both instances crisis management from Brussels did not work because involved member states choose to ignore and bend the rules. The Commission was never expected to be in the driver’s seat, even less so to be strong enough to enforce common ground rules. Some member states opted for pursuit of individual interests at the expense of common gains. Crisis management soon switched to manual control instead of resource pooling and joint policy planning.
The Greek crisis exposed the limits of Potemkin’s village tactics, concealing or even avoiding fundamental problems in the Eurozone. If banks are essentially not allowed to default, then member states should not go bankrupt either. The chain reaction spread to bank crisis management in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even Germany.
The leaders of large EU countries opted to recuse them of responsibility and chose instead to contemplate how to disguise their failures as multi-speed and multi-scenario platforms. While Europeans were looking for leadership from the German Chancellor, few were ready to accept the prescribed medicine.
Henceforth, multi-speed Europe should be considered both as a potential boon and a bane.
Multi-speed Europe is a boon, following the logic behind the EU’s architecture upgrade from vertical or hierarchical integration to network or horizontal functional convergence type, where member states and regions are allowed to pursue their own best strategies, while sacrificing ‘sovereignty’ for rules and regulation enforcement.
In this scenario, the EU framework does not harness or prevent member states or regions from growing and excelling beyond EU averages.
The multi-speed track could end up in disaster if and should it translate into a ‘sauve qui peut’ policy line, compromising the integrity of the Union and weakening the centripetal bonds.
The future of the EU would be related to the fate of Brexit. If the Brits succeed in striking a better deal while outside the EU, this could lead to a sequence of fresh exits.
The balance in addressing the multi-speed Europe options for Bulgaria is fragile – between the healthy skeptic and the stooge. While complaining about the damage of separating the center of the EU from the periphery, members of the Eurozone from the non-members, West from East, South from Northern Europe, we should admit that the country itself moves at various speeds – Sofia and the countryside, political elites and the commoners, the beneficiaries of the transition and the losers, the holders of the status quo and the reformers.
Ultimately the European Union is only a supranational framework that could potentially act as a booster to economic and social development, not as alternative or an end in itself. The ‘speeds’ debate therefore reflects functional features and form, not core content.