University of Exeter: Differentiated integration can foster fairer cooperation between EU nations but should be subject to constraints

Differentiated integration is increasingly a feature of the EU and means that certain laws and policies are not uniformly applied across all member states of the EU. Examples include the Schengen area, Economic and Monetary Union and the European Public Prosecutor.

New analysis says differentiated integration can be warranted to accommodate heterogeneity in the EU and different preferences. However, there are concerns the process could lead to unfairness between member states, including domination or free-riding.

In a new study, Associate Professor Sandra Kröger, from the University of Exeter, along with her collaborators Professor Richard Bellamy (UCL) and Dr Marta Lorimer (LSE) recommend no member state should be excluded from a policy if adopting it means it would become worse off than it currently is as a result. States should not be allowed to opt out of a policy or be exempted from meeting certain standards if that means those who do comply or participate are worse off, and public goods such as the environment, need to be maintained despite differentiated integration.

Professor Kröger said: “Differentiated integration can accommodate both political and cultural diversity, and socioeconomic diversity. It should be considered as an option whenever uniform integration cannot be achieved. However, differentiated integration could also have negative effects. It would undermine democracy at both the domestic and the EU level if used to opt out of upholding equal rights and the rule of law. It would undermine solidarity if exemptions or exclusions from certain core policies allowed either free riding or produced a two tier EU.”

Exclusions and exemptions should be agreed either unanimously by representatives of all member states when negotiating the accession of new members or amending treaties or result from a member state choosing not to participate in enhanced cooperation by at least nine member states.

Professor Kröger said: “Differentiated integration must be procedurally and substantively fair. It must be agreed to and established by a democratic process involving all member states and EU citizens. The differentiated policy should be under the democratic control of the participating states but must remain subject to EU institutions and law and give consultation rights to those states that do not join.

The team interviewed 35 political party actors from seven EU member states (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Romania).

A little over half of the interviewees express qualified support for differentiated integration.

Half of those interviewed as part of the research said differentiated integration was a pragmatic way forward for the EU, a sizeable minority worried about its negative implications for political equality, solidarity, and unity.

Those from poorer and less integrated member states were generally more sceptical about the fairness of differentiated integration than those from older and richer member states because they worried about being left behind and excluded and relegated to a second-class status.

More than three-fourths accepted allowing different rates of integration could be fair and ensure an equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of European integration. Two-thirds feared if left unchecked it could result in issues such as freeriding and some paying less than their fair share.

More than two-thirds said it would be wrong to arbitrarily exclude member states from differentiated policies, and half said these policies must remain open for all to join and be based on clear criteria.

As regards procedural fairness, half said they thought all member states should have a say in the European Council, though only participating states should be entitled to vote. They thought all MEPs in the European Parliament should vote on differentiated policies.

Half of those interviewed said they were worried differentiated integration might facilitate democratic backsliding.

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