As the European Union flounders under a myriad of challenges from the populist movements to migration to growing confrontation with President Trump’s America, flexibility has reborn as the fashionable concept of the day. At the last European Council June session, the fragile compromise reached on migration found its way thanks to the possibility of flexible bilateral arrangements between Union members. More recently, in Lisbon, Emmanuel Macron rekindled an old French idea about reshaping the European architecture around three concentric circles that would embody different shades of integration. And with the new momentum over the debate on the so called re-foundation of the European Union, the flexible option has been popping everywhere, be it in MEPs’ interventions, intellectual circles’ discussions or governments’ informal papers.
This renewed interest for the flexibility concept should not come as a surprise. As Europe strives to demonstrate it is serious on confronting the numerous challenges that lie ahead while preserving the fragile coherence of the EU, flexibility comes out as the perfect compromise between movement and unity, action and cohesion. It offers to those European governments looking for enhanced integration the right recipe to deliver new momentum to European affairs without openly advocating division or separation.
Yet reality seems to undermine this inflated hope of a one-size-fits-all solution. If only one observes the many attempts in the past to push ahead any ambitious flexible scheme, the results have been far from convincing. Efforts at the launch of the Economic and Monetary Union to set up a core group of Union members inside the euro zone never happened to fly; implementing the enhanced cooperation provisions foreseen in European Treaties for the last twenty years only caught halfhearted support; and recent attempts in the security and defense field at encouraging a pioneering group finally ended up last Spring with the PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) decision which gathers nearly all the member states with the exception of UK, Denmark and Malta.
Why has flexibility delivered so little so far? There is a difference between two different ways of handling flexibility that is often wrongly appreciated. A first pragmatic approach looks for inclusivity; its purpose is to smooth the integration process to a more united Europe; it foresees different paces with the same destination and allows some to move faster and others more slowly but with the common objective of a more integrated union. This multi-speed Union has in fact many illustrations in EU legislation when a Union member or a group of members is granted a temporary derogation to the rules agreed by all. Dogmatic flexibility is of a totally different nature: it exploits the flexible option for the purpose of differentiation and even possible fragmentation; its divisive nature favors a multi-tier Europe with the admission that all union members may not share in the end the same goals for the future of Europe. It then opens the door to differentiated membership which often takes the form of opt-outs as already conceded in the past to individual member states like UK or Denmark.
Much as pragmatic flexibility can be endorsed by all, dogmatic flexibility is conversely a much more controversial matter. For those members who feel they are about to be left out of a substantial flexible arrangement leading to a new multi-tier framework, this scheme sounds very much like a relegation. And for members willing to take part in a core group of that sort, this flexible scheme brings the advantage of a process leading to gradual separation without saying so. This antagonism is further complicated by a growing perception that this debate hides a more fundamental confrontation between Eastern and Western Europe as Eastern Europeans see flexibility as a trick to gradually lock them into a second class zone.
Unsurprisingly, European Treaties only provisioned the pragmatic version of flexibility as their permanent objective was and remains the cohesion and unity of the Union. For the promoters of a more ambitious flexibility leading to deep political reforms, the only channel for their plan then requires a process outside of the Treaty provisions. This is how the first steps of what became later the Schengen provisions started in the 80’s. And this is why more recently France, unsatisfied with the extended PESCO membership, proposed to a few like-minded members to join its European Intervention Initiative (EII) as an inter-governmental process outside of the Lisbon Treaty.
At the heart of this ambiguity between the two forms of flexibility lies a misunderstanding over the nature of flexibility itself. It is a tool, not a policy. If the endgame of the ongoing discussion is significant reforms capable of tackling the structural problems of Europe, flexibility as envisaged by the Treaty cannot deliver the appropriate solution as it is not an organizing principle for the future of Europe. The definition of a genuine migration policy, the consolidation of the euro zone, the protection of the rule of law or the conception of a new architecture for EU external partners, including post Brexit UK, are challenges that call for an orderly vision of what a renewed Europe should look like.
Expecting flexibility to single handedly deliver a revisited Europe can only feed delusion and disappointment. Flexibility can help smooth the way forward. It cannot replace a clear understanding among Union members about their perspectives on the future of Europe. No one doubts this discussion will not be a smooth ride. It is likely that, as in the past, EU members may prefer to resort to the old recipe of going for half-baked compromises. Yet the merit of debating flexibility could well be in the end to underline that the usual way of handling European affairs may have reached its limits and that a new process for defining and implementing genuine reforms is necessary.