Today, foreign ministers from the European Union’s six founding member states issued an extraordinary statement, declaring that they will “recognize different levels of ambition amongst Member States when it comes to the project of European integration.” This was a landmark capitulation by the major European powers, accepting the idea that uniformity across the bloc is impossible and nations can choose the terms of membership.
The ministers – representing Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – publicly recognized that there is discontent across the bloc. The statement said that they will “focus our common efforts on those challenges which can only be addressed by common European answers, while leaving other tasks to national or regional levels.”
This response to the decision of British voters to leave the bloc marks a profound change in the EU’s formal goals and could signal a transformation in the EU’s role. Until today, the EU — and many of its member states’ governments — were formally committed to boosting integration. From banking regulations to refugee policies to everyday matters like cellphone fees, Brussels was moving toward greater interconnectivity and uniformity across the Continent.
On paper, the EU has sought to limit states’ ability to bail out banks, cap fiscal deficits and set up a quota system for distributing newly arrived refugees, among other goals. And yet, the failure to respond effectively first to the financial crisis and then to the refugee crisis gave momentum to nationalist forces. The gap between the EU’s formal aims and the preferences of some national-level governments has been widening as a result.
But successive crises and the diverging interests of member states led to fatigue with Brussels and, in some cases, active opposition to the bloc’s policies. Some countries, like Hungary and Poland, began to ignore EU rules, with few consequences. The EU warned countries like Spain and Portugal time and again over their excessive budget deficits but failed to impose any meaningful repercussions. European officials, however, ignored growing signals that the bloc’s formal aims and the realities in member states were growing further apart.
The decision of a major European economy to leave the bloc has led European leaders to recognize that anti-establishment and anti-EU forces are gaining ground, and that as a result the bloc could be moving toward irrelevance.
The type of EU today’s statement describes would ultimately reduce the bloc to a free trade zone. Given Germany’s hyper-dependence on exports, this was an urgent and desperate retreat to the one thing the Germans had to have: access to the European market. Germany, more than any other European country, is dependent on the EU, and its signature on this statement is an attempt to safeguard the country’s economic interests in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave. With anti-establishment parties gaining ground in Germany, France, Italy and beyond, incumbent governments are also seeking to appease their voters, who are becoming more and more skeptical of Brussels.
Today’s statement is thus a capitulation and a recognition that much of the European public does not share Brussels’ enthusiasm for further integration. The EU has accepted that, if the bloc is to survive, each member will pursue its own policies and different levels of integration in the future.