A `menu Europe` will prove far more palatable

A `menu Europe` will prove far more palatable

The European Union cannot go on like this. Whether the Lisbon treaty ultimately succeeds or fails, the Irish referendum will have taught us one thing: unanimity and uniformity are things of the past. The EU is now too diverse to expect...

The European Union cannot go on like this. Whether the Lisbon treaty ultimately succeeds or fails, the Irish referendum will have taught us one thing: unanimity and uniformity are things of the past. The EU is now too diverse to expect all member states to ratify any given treaty or participate in all areas of union activity.

Member states have competing visions of the EU and are increasingly divided over what they are willing to sign up to. Is the EU to be mainly an ever-enlarging, borderless free market and security zone - as Britain, Scandinavia and much of central and eastern Europe would have it? Or is it to be more of a values-based community with identifiable borders that stop at Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine - as Germany, France, Austria and many other continental European countries would like?

Should it rather be a borderless, rights-based union open to all democratising countries on its borders - as the European Commission, human rights groups and philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas hope? Can it also be a global strategic actor that promotes democracy, free markets, community values and human rights, whatever its borders - as EU and national leaders have been proposing?

The EU branders were right to replace "ever closer union" with "unity in diversity". But that unity is itself again in question. The Irish No, by stopping the institutional compromise of the Lisbon treaty, risks reopening the debate about what the EU should be when what is needed is a debate about what it should do. Policies, not institutions.

But whatever happens with Lisbon will not solve the underlying problem of how to accommodate member states` visions of the EU.

There is one way: give up unanimity and uniformity. This is easier than one might think. The EU has already breached the principle of unanimity in the wide range of areas covered by qualified majority voting. And it has already given up on uniformity in areas other than the single market.

Thus the UK and Denmark have opt-outs from the Maastricht treaty. The Schengen open-border area includes non-members such as Iceland, Norway and shortly even Switzerland, while members such as the UK and Ireland remain out, as do Bulgaria and Romania temporarily. Denmark is not a member of the European security and defence policy. The eurozone encompasses 15 of the EU`s 27 countries. Freedom of movement of workers excludes Romania and Bulgaria for six more years. Lisbon would exempt Britain and Poland from the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Member states themselves acknowledged the impossibility of a unanimously agreed uniform future by introducing the principles of deeper co-operation among select groups of member states in successive pacts since the Amsterdam treaty.

If the EU were to recognise officially the differentiated integration that it has created and abandon the unanimity rule for treaties, it could solve a number of its institutional problems. Without the unanimity rule, member states could agree on the big policy issues through qualified majority voting, with occasional opt-outs negotiated for members that have legitimate reservations. In areas where qualified majority voting does not work but "enhanced co-operation" between a smaller group of countries might, member states could pursue deeper integration.

For prospective members on the EU`s periphery, membership need no longer be a question of "in" or "out" but rather of "in which areas" or "out of which areas".

Graduated membership would help avoid the big bang of accession (or rejection) after long years of hard bargaining. It would ensure the implementation of EU rules and promote continued democratisation. But why, one might ask, would non-members on the periphery accept graduated membership, rather than wait for full membership? And what might make graduated membership also attractive to countries such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland?

The answer is: having an institutional voice and a vote in those areas in which countries participate. Having a place at the table for all participants to air their concerns and vote on their preferences would ensure that they accept policy decisions as the right ones. But it is also key to ensuring the "democratic" legitimacy of the decision-making process and the EU`s continued democratising power of attraction for countries outside it.

Once the principles of unanimity and uniformity are abandoned, membership of the EU will no longer be an all-or-nothing proposition. Beyond certain basic membership requirements - being a democracy that respects human rights and participates in the single market - member states will increasingly come to pick and choose the policy "communities" of which they wish to be a part.

The result would be differentiated membership of the EU. This is not to suggest, however, that the EU is to be Europe a la carte , as the free marketeers might wish. Nor is it to encourage the communitarians to retreat to a "core Europe", with one dish for all. Rather, this is an elaborate menu Europe , with a shared main dish (the single market), everyone sitting around the table, and only some choosing to sit out one course or another.

By Vivien Schmidt, The Financial Times

The writer is Jean Monnet professor of European integration at Boston University and author of Democracy in Europe (Oxford 2006).

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