Variable Geometry

Variable Geometry in Europe

Description of Variable geometry

The Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union describes variable geometry in the following terms: [1] The concept of a Community in which some countries may integrate more (or faster) than others has been given many different names – among them variable geometry, flexibility, differentiated integration, closer (or enhanced) co-operation, concentric circles, Europe à la carte and two-speed (or multi-speed) Europe (see more in this European encyclopedia). The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam represented the first attempt to formalise this principle (see more in this European encyclopedia). Before that, however, the UK’s and Denmark’s opt-outs on EMU, the UK’s and Ireland’s exemptions from the Schengen Agreementand Denmark’s opt-out on anything to do with a common EU defence policyhad already created de facto variable geometry. Another example was the admission to the EU of the neutral states of Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden, which were not full members of the WEU and would inevitably be forced to resort occasionally to ‘constructive abstention’ in foreign and security affairs. In their different ways, Sweden’s refusal to join the euro and Greece’s unwilling exclusion added to the tally. Given the prospect of the EU growing even less homogeneous with the accession of former Soviet bloc countries, such divergences appeared likely to increase rather than to diminish.

The proponents of variable geometry fall into two camps. On the one hand, there are the integrationists, impatient to accelerate the process of unification and unwilling to be held up by the ‘slowest ship in the convoy’. Such countries, often led by Germany and France, expect the laggards to follow later and rely on the ratchet effect of the acquis communautaire to ensure that there is no regression to national individualism: they refer to themselves as the ‘hard core’ and use the phrase ‘two-speed Europe’ to imply a common destination. On the other hand there are the countries that wish to slow or halt the federal momentum but are prepared to allow others to go ahead provided that they themselves can be left out of policies they consider unsuited to their national interests.

The opponents of variable geometry are similarly divided into two camps. There are those who fear it will be an excuse for creating a privileged inner circle, a ‘top table’ of decision-makers within the EU from which they will be excluded (a particular anxiety of British Europeanists). And there are those who suspect that their exemptions will prove transient and that sooner or later they will be sucked into an unwanted process of ever deeper integration (the chief fear of some Eurosceptics). Finally there are those – from both sides of the debate – who believe that institutionalised flexibility may lead to the ultimate break-up of the Community or its transformation into a ‘mere’ free trade area.

The Amsterdam Treaty’s formulation, entitled ‘closer co-operation’, was that groups of member states wishing to act together, using the Community’s institutions including the Court of Justice, could ‘as a last resort’ do so by qualified majority vote in the Council of Ministers, provided that none of the non-participants exercised a veto at head of government level (the ’emergency brake’). There were other conditions, too. The participants must represent a majority of the member states, the acquis communautaire must remain inviolate and there must be a right of deferred participation by those who chose to stay out initially. Whether the Treaty would prove the point of departure for a radical reappraisal of the EU’s constitutional structure or whether it would signal little more than a form of words to appease the anti-federalists, time alone would show.

Variable geometry and the European Union


See Also

  • Differentiated integration
  • Two-speed Europe


Notas y References

  1. Based on the book “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach (Profile Books; London)

See Also

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