European Variations as a Key to Cooperation

The European Union will have to offer more room for variation. That is the main thrust of ‘European Variation as a Key to Cooperation’, issued by the Scientific Council for Government Policy in the Netherlands (WRR). Enjoy a vivid discussion between council member Ernst Hirsch Berlin and Federico Fabbrini, professor of EU law at the School of Law and Government of Dublin City University and founding director of the Brexit Institute in Ireland. “Goals are to be shared, the means to reach them may vary.”

©WRR

European Variations as a key to cooperation

Transcription WRR European variations: Ernst Hirsch Ballin and Federico Fabbruini

Voice over 
Since the early beginnings of the European Union, uniform membership has been the rule.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
We are stuck in a sort of dogmatic approach, which was explainable from the origins of the European Union in the time of the European community of only six states, which requires uniformity as much as possible.

Voice over 
Now that idea is changing.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin
With a European Union with 27, 28 member states, we know, of course, that meanwhile, the United Kingdom has left the European Union, you can't expect the same degree of uniformity is still acceptable.

Voice over 
Until recently, a multifaceted membership was something to be avoided.

Federico Fabbrini 
It is interesting to emphasize how traditionally lawyers and European lawyers had seen variation as a potential threat to the unity of the EU legal order.

Voice over 
Ideas about a more flexible structure have been written about in the report 'European variations as a key to cooperation', which has recently been published open access by Springer.

Federico Fabbrini 
Actually, this report, in a sense, is important because it outlines a normative mix, a normative case in favor of variation and differentiation as something that is to be looked after and wished for in the context of the European Union.

Voice over 
In this podcast, the ideas in the book are discussed by Ernst Hirsch Berlin, the main writer on behalf of the Scientific Council for Government Policy in the Netherlands, who authored this report together with Emina Ćerimović, Huub Dijstelbloem and Mathieu Segers.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
The title of the report tells a lot. I think about what we want to say European variations as a key to a cooperation.

Voice over 
And Federico Fabbrini

Federico Fabbrini 
I am a full professor of EU law at the School of Law and Government of Dublin City University in Ireland, where I am also the founding director of the Brexit Institute. The Brexit Institute is Ireland's only and Europe's first centre specifically created to analyse the implications of the UK withdrawal from the European Union, both from a research and a policy perspective. The institute was established in 2017 and since then has positioned itself as a leading centre for analysis and discussion of Brexit and the future of Europe. It runs massive open online courses, and it coordinates a number of European projects on issues related to the future of Europe.

Voice over 
The report was written on request of the Dutch government, but...

Ernst Hirsch Ballin
We hope that our report will be useful not only for the Dutch government but also elsewhere in the European Union.

Voice over 
The general idea behind European variations is you cannot change the wind, but you can adjust the sails.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
One of the complications with the enlargement of the European Union, where manifestly the different historical experiences in the Central European and Eastern European member states, and we have to not only to accept these differences in history in understanding, but also to build on that.

Voice over 
Europe can be seen as an association of democracies.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
We think that it's so fundamental, so important for us to remain involved, but also do well to reconnect the project of the European Union with the democracies in the member states. Therefore, we endorsed also the idea, which was developed by colleagues elsewhere of a demoicracy with the demos in in the plural.

Voice over 
Variations can be applied in several dimensions, like policy, decision making and membership, and in several areas like the internal market, the euro and concerning refugees, migration and border security. But there is a limit to this flexibility.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
There's one condition: we must never do away with the fundamental principles of the European Union, the acceptance of the rule of law, the protection of human rights, solidarity and of course, also the principle of free trade in goods, the freedom of transfer of capital, the freedom of movement of people. These are fundamentals of the European Union, which are not suitable for variation in themselves, but the means in which we arrive at these goals may be differentiated.

Voice over 
And that is crucial. Goals are to be shared, the means to reach them may vary. On the other hand, variations are not so new to the European Union.

Federico Fabbrini 
Variation has become empirically a fact of life in the European Union today. It is, I think, very easy to see for most observers how in an ever expanding European Union, the policy areas where member states participate in different ways to European integration have increased from an economic and monetary union and the eurozone to the area of freedom and security and justice, but in fact, also in the field of the internal market. Increasingly, we see variation or differentiation between the member states.

Federico Fabbrini 
To be specific. Not all members of the European Union take part in the euro, nor in the Schengen zone. While some states that are not members do take part in the European Economic Area or the Euro.

Voice over 
How did these variations come about?

Federico Fabbrini 
The emergence of differentiation or variation in the European Union was and has been the result of British pressures. The opt outs at the time of the Maastricht Treaty were designed to accommodate the United Kingdom, which didn't want to join the euro as a single currency. And we knew that no country more than Britain has obtained derogation and opt outs from common European policies. Before Brexit, Britain was outside the eurozone, outside the Schengen zone. It wasn't participating to any of the enhanced cooperation mechanism, and in fact, it didn't join the Permanent Structured of sCooperation on defence. So many scholars have argued that in fact, the driving force for differentiation in Europe was precisely the United Kingdom. And this, I think, raises some interesting questions because the expectation for two decades, at least in the 1990s and 2000s, was that differentiation could have been a solution to keep Britain within the European Union without forcing it to adopt all the common European norms.

Voice over 
But it didn't. Brexit was a shock to the system and one of the reasons for developing ideas about variations, while at the same time one could raise the question: could these variations be the axe to the roots of the European fundament? If they didn't keep the United Kingdom from bailing out, well...

Federico Fabbrini 
What is the relation between differentiation and disintegration? Is there any chance that in fact, differentiation might ultimately lead towards exit from the European Union because a country doesn't feel it fully belongs to the European project? It's very hard to answer this question, but I think again, the example of the United Kingdom and of Brexit also shows what are some of the potential shortcomings and drawbacks of an ever more differentiated Europe. So I believe there's more food for thought there in terms of further research as well.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
I fully understand Federico's observations concerning the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom was only partly involved in several of the important European Union projects. But here maybe I should stress, although I am not always consequent myself in the terminology, but we deliberately have chosen to call what we propose what we recommend European variations. We avoid it as far as we could the word differentiation, because differentiation has indeed often become just the acceptance of differences, whereas the variations that we have in mind is variations in the means within the framework of shared goals. And shared goals, which must be acceptable for the European Union as a whole.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
But what we want to do in this report is to free ourselves from the mindset that there are only two alternatives: having the same rules or accept that there is a difference in the rules, not only in the rules but also in the goals in the involvement of the policies. I think that it's really important that we should continue to underline the importance of a shared view on the future of the European Union with variations in the means.

Voice over 
A question for Federico Fabbrini: if a structure of variations had existed before, might that have prevented the United Kingdom from going its own way?

Federico Fabbrini
Well, I think my answer is no, because as I as I was just saying: the UK had already received the maximum variation one could think of. So effectively, the UK already had a foot out of the EU when it was still a member state. We all know, for example, it has been quite easier for Britain to withdraw because it's not in the eurozone. If a country where to leave the eurozone, that would make it extremely complicated as we, as we know from the difficulties around the Greek bailout at the time of the euro crisis. So I think the jury is still out on whether differentiation is a way to prevent disintegration or whether in fact sometimes differentiation might facilitate disintegration. And I think we, as scholars need to be open to consider those questions.

Voice over
What are the specific differences between the member states that can be accepted or even stimulated? And when does the European Union have to draw the line?

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
Let me give an example. As far as the legislation concerning health and safety requirements for goods are concerned, we should continue to have uniform rules because otherwise the consumer protection and health protection would be endangered. But as far as the very important goals of reducing of the rise in temperature in the global climate are concerned, it may be for a state like the Netherlands or Germany or other member states more nearby, we can work with rules concerning the emissions of the industry and other activities. Whereas in other member states, which very much depend on unsustainable sources of energy, it might be better to start with a change in the infrastructure and to spend money and of course, agreed goals concerning energy transition, before we introduce the same kind of rules applying to every situation.

Voice over
This flexibility of tailored agreements might also stimulate the commitment of states and their people to the tasks the European Union has to address, like taking measures against climate change.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
The most important objective of our report: don't be so dogmatic as with respect to the notion of uniform legislation that in the end we will be stuck with a lack of acceptance and lack of future perspectives for the European cooperation.

Voice over 
Hirsch Ballin reminds us of a uniform development that, in his opinion, caused a lot of damage to the European project, which in its turn caused another initiative to hamper.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
Well, it was, of course the experience of a complicated situation and in the history of the European Union, the project of the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe was rejected in two of the original member states in France and in the Netherlands. That had certainly to do with the crisis situation, the economic and social crisis, aspects of the of the time. It was also the time in which the so-called Bolkestein directive brought forward a dogmatic approach to liberalisation of services in the European Union. And apparently given the precarious situation of many workers in the member states, that was not the right approach. The European project was put at risk at that time. So we needed clearly a new approach that would allow reconnecting with the populations, the peoples of the European Union. And therefore, I referred also to the notion of the demoicracy: that means variations in the means, but strengthening our shared goals.

Voice over 
The European variations proposals are definitely proactive, moving towards a European Union that might handle and overcome crises better than it did in the past or even prevent them from happening. And this goes for internal matters as well as for Europe as part of the global community.

Federico Fabbrini 
This is incidentally a point that also the report that Ernst and his colleagues edited emphasizes: the role of Europe in the world is becoming ever more important, and the world is becoming ever more threatening for the European Union. So I think strengthening the ability of the EU to act on the world scene in the next few years. And as I was saying before, I think variation will be one of the core strategies of the European Union and its member states moving forward.

Voice over
How are the responses to the report so far?

Ernst Hirsch Ballin
It's too early to say whether this will work, but I think that it is important at least to try to make this work because the most fundamental, the most worrying aspect of the present situation of the European Union is the declining acceptance among our constituencies of the notion of shared European future. That is the most important that is at stake right now, and therefore we need to reconnect with the constituencies in all the member states.

Voice over 
But have the waters been tested? What's the temperature at the conference on the future of Europe that is currently being held?

Federico Fabbrini 
Just last Sunday, I had the enormous pleasure of being invited as an expert speaker to the second European citizen panel organised within the framework of the conference. I was asked to speak about institutional reforms and decision making in the European Union and a point that I really noticed and I was quite impressed to see, is the degree to which European citizens were aware of the need to endow the European Union with a stronger voice, particularly on the on the international seats.

Voice over 
Talking about European citizens, what does all this mean for them?

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
Well, let's go to the issues that are really important for our citizens. We have presented a short update to our report in 2021 concerning topics like migration and also some features of economic policy. There is a large number of citizens, European citizens for whom the economic situation has been troubling and worrisome. The concerns of the citizens are always related to their life projects, life projects of themselves and their families. To understand that there is no abstract European citizen, but only people living in their own conditions in their own country, often moving around to other member states. This has become important for a growing number of European citizens. But having this understanding of the life conditions of our citizens is tremendously important, and I hope that the Conference on the Future of the European Union will end up not only with abstract language, but also with an expression of understanding of the importance of solidarity. Solidarity also with future generations, with respect to climate change, is also among the fundamental values of the European Union that should be maintained.

Voice over 
So what should Europe look like in, say, 2030? What should one wish for?

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
Well, in the first place, I hope that the European citizens within all their national constituencies will be aware of the importance of being European citizens at the same time that they will recognise in the functioning of the European Union the shared values. We think that we need to accept variations as to the means, but the goals and the principles must be shared. Many problems that we have to deal with at present, including climate, but also migration are problems and tasks across the boundaries of the European Union.

Federico Fabbrini 
I very much share Ernst's perspective, and I welcome it as well. I think it's probably fair to say that in European comparative perspective, Netherland is very often seen as a pragmatic country. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte once famously said when speaking at the European Parliament: if you have a vision, it means you have a problem. You need to contact the eye doctor. Now, I think instead, visions are important. We as academics, at least need to contribute to shaping the future by enriching the debate. And so I very much agree with what Ernst said and my own hope would be that in ten years from now, Europe might have been reorganized in a more constitutional way. And I think that a combination of deeper integration, on the one hand with proper federal features together with greater variation on the other hand, might be a solution to keep Union and Europe together. What I'm thinking about is how greater ordening of core and periphery along a model of a Europe of concentric circles, whereby a group of countries that clearly share more in terms of value, in terms of vision can move towards a federal direction, while allowing those who do not want to share that project, to still remain engaged, to still remain connected as a member of an outer circle.

Federico Fabbrini 
And I think, among others, also the United Kingdom in some years from now might perhaps be included in that outer circle. Of course, the future is in our hands, and it is our responsibility as citizens as well to shape it. So I hope also this conversation might contribute to some extent towards raising awareness about those issues.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin 
So my conclusion is, I hope that in 2030 we will see the future of the European Union in which the citizens recognize the importance of shared goals and still at the same time they may cherish their own variations in the means.

Voice over 
Thank you for listening to this podcast on European variations. Anything related to the report that was discussed and of course the report itsel, you can find at www.english.wrr.nl, on the Springer Series page.