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European Integration on Life Alert: Multi-speed Europe Revisited

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Weifeng Yang (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2025) is a contributor. His interests include administrative law, European Union law, and international and comparative law. Weifeng holds a B.A. in Government and History and a Master of Public Administration from Cornell University. Before law school, Weifeng interned at Human Rights Watch Asia Division. He is a native Mandarin Chinese speaker.

Image of the European Union flag by Christiaan Colen.


On June 23, 2022, Ukraine and Moldova became the two latest countries to achieve European Union (EU) candidacy status, barely four months since each country submitted their application. The process by which the two countries reached their candidacy status was astonishingly fast compared to other countries currently in the EU’s enlargement policy, which usually takes at least a year or more between application and candidacy. Despite submitting its application in 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina has still not yet achieved candidate status. Indeed, the EU’s policy record regarding the West Balkans has failed. Gone was the era of 2004, when 10 new countries with a combined population of 75 million joined the EU in unison.

The same failure is not limited to EU external expansion. Essential aspects of EU internal integration, such as the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, still need to be completed. Despite joining the EU some 15 years ago in 2007, with the European Parliament first urging their entry in 2011, Bulgaria and Romania remain out of the Schengen Area. Only 19 of 27 countries use the Euro, while only two of the eight holdout countries (Croatia and Bulgaria) are remotely near joining.

Indeed, the gap between EU countries more motivated to integrate and those that wish to cling to their sovereignty, for a time, appears to be ever-growing. After his first election in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a core of “avant-garde” countries leading deeper European integration. The specter of “multi-speed Europe,” that some core European countries could integrate among themselves while leaving those unwilling behind, has since haunted the EU project.

Recalling the fast track mentioned above for Ukraine and Moldova’s EU application, prospects for European integration have changed dramatically. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European integration seems to be back on its feet. To better understand the overall picture of European integration in light of these recent and dramatic events, this article aims to provide a rough vision of the concept of “multi-speed Europe” and its future with more holistic integration projects.

The Background of Multi-speed Europe

The idea that European nations hold different opinions on how much (if any) European integration is needed is nothing new. At the European Economic Community (EEC)’s founding, the more pro-integration “Inner Six” countries centered around France and Germany stood in stark contrast with the “Outer Seven” centered around the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. In fact, a separate organization, the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), was founded by the “Outer Seven” to be a counterbalance to the EEC. Unlike the EEC, the EFTA does not have any supranational institutions with a political focus. EFTA members were allowed to pursue independent free trade agreements with other countries without the common external customs tariffs that existed within the EEC.

Though the EEC eventually won out, with almost all EFTA members joining the EEC (which later became the EU), this only brought divergence into the institutions of the EU. The Danish people famously rejected the Maastricht Treaty (also known as the Treaty on the European Union, orTEU, which founded the modern EU) in 1992 via referendum. That was changed after Denmark secured some opt-outs: tailored exceptions for existing members exempting them from participating in some integration projects. Perhaps the most famous “serial abuser” of opt-outs was the United Kingdom, which was famously granted exemptions from participating in both the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, two of the most well-known aspects of European integration.

This “opt-out,” as currently enjoyed by three EU states (Denmark, Ireland, and Poland), lays the groundwork for formal divergence in integration among EU countries.

Enhanced Cooperation: Multi-speed Europe in Practice

Article 20 of the TEU stipulates that when at least nine member states participate in an area of “enhanced cooperation,” they can engage in such cooperation while making “use of its institutions and exercise those competences by applying relevant provisions of the Treaties” subject to limits of certain provisions laid down in Part Six, Title III of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU). With this article, “enhanced cooperation” became the official venue at which EU member states wishing for further integration among a subsector of the member states could do so. Unlike the opt-out option, new laws and integration projects under enhanced cooperation would not even become official EU acquis, meaning that future member states would not have to adopt these integration projects. In reality, despite much fear of its arrival, “multi-speed Europe” is, in practice, built within the constitutional body of the EU.

Even though Article 20 enhanced cooperation should be “a last resort,” such cooperation has now spread to multiple areas and integration as a backup option is being used prolifically among EU member states. These include legal homogenization regarding marriage and divorce, unifying patent law in the EU, and establishing the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

A map showing different levels of participation in "enhanced cooperation." Countries in deep blue (11) participate in all four, countries in blue (nine) participate in three, countries in light blue (four) participate in two, and countries in light purple (three) participate in one.

As indicated above, there is already an emergence of a de-facto “avant-garde” core of 11 countries that participated in the existing formal enhanced cooperation agreements. A clear geographical divergence like the aforementioned historical divide between the EEC and the EFTA exists, with Western and Southern European states remaining more interested in the integration project than the more “Eurosceptic” Nordic and Eastern European states.

National Veto: Origins of Multi-speed Frustration

Article 20 of the TEU provided that enhanced cooperation is for periods when “the objectives of such cooperation cannot be attained within a reasonable period by the Union as a whole.” Time and seeming “impatience” may thus appear as the reason for multi-speed integration. However, what is truly behind such impatience is the required unanimity in many aspects of EU decisionmaking and the reasonable frustration by some of the more pro-European countries against any potential veto.

Since the Treaty of Lisbon reformed the EU towards deeper integration, many institutions no longer require unanimity. In practice, 80% of legislation passed by the Council of the EU (an institution akin to the U.S. Senate, where member states are represented individually) is via “qualified majority vote” (QMV), a process that requires the approval of 55% of EU member states (15 out of 27) and member states representing at least 65% of the EU population to pass. Nevertheless, unanimity remains the format for many key decisionmaking processes, such as foreign and security policy, EU membership, and EU finances. Unfortunately, it is also in these critical institutions where the EU’s operation is most widely known by the public, magnifying the failure whenever a member state threatens a veto.

Even though Hungary’s recent threat to veto EU sanctions against Russia has taken up much of the spotlight for such European failure, it is not just in foreign policy that EU integration has failed by unanimity. Consider the two failures mentioned in the introduction, one concerning EU external expansion and the other concerning EU internal expansion regarding Schengen and the Euro. Both processes currently require unanimity, which is the leading institutional reason behind these failures. Consider the much-maligned EU accession process for North Macedonia. Despite submitting its application back in 2004, Skopje suffered 16 years of stalling due to Greece’s veto over a naming dispute that was finally settled in 2020, granting North Macedonia’s much-coveted candidate status. However, Skopje then suffered another veto by neighboring Bulgaria over a disagreement regarding the cultural status of the North Macedonian language. Only this year, 18 years after their initial application, was North Macedonia able to start formal accession talks, which will take roughly another decade to complete.

Schengen prospects for Romania and Bulgaria are even more ironic. 11 years after their first rejection from the Schengen Area in 2011, despite another European Parliament resolution,European Commission report, and Council of the EU presidency urging their admittance, Romania and Bulgaria once again face a veto from the Netherlands, which has a mere 3.3% of the EU population., Without institutional reform that does away with stringent unanimity, it is hard to imagine multi-speed Europe schemes such as enhanced cooperation not becoming more mainstream.

Multi-speed No More?

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine has provided a much-needed bolt of energy for the EU, revitalizing hopes for some EU federalists that the end of multi-speed Europe may be here. Ukraine’s fast-paced application process heralds this change. More concretely, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called for EU reform that will do away with unanimity on EU foreign policymaking and offeredGerman concessions that will also end unanimity on EU finance decisions.

However, it may be too soon to consider multi-speed Europe a passing fad. With the recent election of hard-right Giorgia Meloni into power in Italy, Euroscepticism remains a consistent political power within the EU. Divergence in attitudes towards European integration is not going away.



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