3 September 2018

Macron’s concentric circles could be a solution for the EU – and for Brexit


Of all the leaders in Europe one would have perhaps least expected Emmanuel Macron, today’s leading advocate of EU federalism, to try to find a compromise with Britain on Brexit. But, in contrast to so many others, he seems to have realised the potential damage to the continent if there is a ‘no deal’ withdrawal.

And with the UK’s exit drawing ever nearer, the French president has urged his colleagues in Europe’s capitals, and especially in Brussels, to finally take a few steps in the direction of the British, and offer a solution from which all parties could emerge reasonably satisfied.

This seemingly comes as part of an attempt to revive the idea of a ‘multi-speed Europe’. Macron has been in favor of this concept for quite some time, having mentioned it in his Sorbonne speech last year: “Europe is already moving at several speeds, so we should not be afraid to say so and want it.”

Now he has found a new phrase for it, and reportedly wants to present his “concentric circles” at the EU Council Summit in October, in which a deal with the UK should be agreed upon. The concept of a multi-speed Europe has been discussed for many years, but has really come into focus since the Brexit vote. It was again put on the back-burner after Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech last September, where he completely excluded the idea and instead argued for a grand, centralised one-size-fits-all European Union.

Nevertheless, a multi-speed Europe could yet be the solution, not only to the debate on the future of the EU, but also for Brexit. As has often been noted, the ways different member states think of the EU couldn’t be more different, and their visions are often hard, if not impossible, to reconcile. There are some who simply want the EU to be a free-trade area with little cooperation in small areas when absolutely needed, there are others who want more integration in one area, but not others – and others who want exactly the opposite. Then there are the arch-federalists who want to go full steam ahead on their way to one united Europe.

So far, almost no one has gotten what they wanted. For the minimalists, the EU has gone too far – in the case of Britain, far enough to call time on the whole project. For the federalists, integration has not gone far enough. A Europe of different speeds could prove a way out of this conundrum, and finally reconcile the competing visions for Europe. Those who want a simple free-trade area could have it, but no more. Those arguing for a common defence scheme on top of that, but no more, could have it. And those who want a United States of Europe could have it as well. But at the same time, no one would be forced to participate in areas they are not interested in.

It would truly be a European scheme of voluntary cooperation between individual member states. Emmanuel Macron said so himself last year: “We have to think up a Europe with several formats, go further with those who want to go forward, without being hindered by states that want – and it is their right – to go not as fast or not as far.”

Every state could sign up to those efforts which it likes. There would be a “Core Europe,” which is in favour of integration on the euro, on finance, the economy, migration, and so forth, and then there are other circles – those on the outside of Macron’s “concentric circles,” where states only participate in some areas.

As for Brexit, it would open the possibility for Britain to be one of those outer circles, perhaps creating a completely new one. This does not mean that the UK would have to be a member of the EU – neither is Switzerland, while it is still part of a European trading structure. It opens the door, however, for a new kind of partnership, for this “unprecedented deal” which EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier talked about recently. Because the structure of the EU itself wouldn’t be so strict anymore, new ideas and ways of cooperation could be thought up and introduced.

Some have argued that a multi-speed Europe is “too complex,” and not realisable. But we need to remind ourselves that such a complex structure already exists: there is the Eurozone, the non-euro EU member states, EEA, EFTA, the Council of Europe, Schengen, and the Customs Union, all including different states. A Europe a la Carte, as the multi-speed idea is also sometimes called, would merely institutionalise this structure, and make differences in integration common practice, adding much-needed flexibility on the European level.

Of course, there remains the question of whether federalists like Juncker and Verhofstadt would jump on the bandwagon. After all, their vision of an “ever closer union” assumes to a certain extent that all member states are participating – and that those outside of the EU would at some point join as well to form one European whole. In a multi-speed Europe, this could only work if everyone was completely on board with their plans, which is almost impossible.

Pressure and force might be the better way to attain their dreams. For all others who do not want to resort to force, though, a Europe based on fully voluntary cooperation might be the solution – and it is more than welcome to see that Emmanuel Macron has brought it back on the agenda. In such a multi-speed world, one-size-fit-all solutions would be replaced by flexibility and pluralism. Thus, those arguing for a small EU based on the subsidiarity principle could wish those favoring an “ever closer union” good luck in their endeavours.

But at the same time, federalists would also have to be fine with some declining to participate, and accept that some people simply don’t share their fervor for the EU. It sounds romantic, if not utopian – but thanks to Macron this vision is back on the table.

Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.