The Future of the EU: The EU as a Differentiated Polity Journal of European Public Policy

Journal of European Public Policy
Berthold Rittberger, April 2017
In the midst of the political turbulences that are currently embattling the EU, the Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe is an attempt to set the debate for the EU’s political development in the years to come. The White Paper is centred on different scenarios, each of which sketches a particular trajectory for the future of European integration. “Those who want more do more” is one of these scenarios. This scenario, while still considered a threat to the coherence of the acquis, also reflects the acknowledgment by the Commission that flexible or differentiated integration has become a reality of EU integration. Even more so, the intensification of flexible, multi-speed integration constitutes a probable pathway to secure the future of the EU, as political actors at both EU and national level are increasingly willing to nod a polite goodbye to the notion that the only path for the future the EU is that of ever closer union. While differentiated integration is not a novel phenomenon, it has gradually intensified over the past decades. Differentiated integration implies that EU member states can be selectively exempted from partaking in individual policies. It can be granted under primary law, for instance as an opt-out, or in secondary law, e.g. as a temporary derogation.
The publication of the Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe is the appropriate occasion to take a closer look at JEPP’s contribution to the debate on flexible, differentiated integration. In the past years, this theme has become one of the most researched topics in JEPP. In 2015, a full special issue (Vol. 22, No. 6) was devoted to the topic (edited by Benjamin Leruth and Christopher Lord). However, the first treatise of the topic in the journal dates back to 1997. Alexander Stubb, who can arguably be considered one of the pioneers of the study of differentiated integration, explored the debate on flexible integration in the context of the Amsterdam IGC (Stubb 1997).
For most of the following decade, differentiated integration was a side issue as far as JEPP publications were concerned. Enlargement was one of the factors that brought differentiated integration back on the scholarly agenda. Juliet Johnson (2008) compared the sources of the split between Euro adopters and non-adopters in the context of Eastern enlargement. David Howarth and Tal Sadeh (2010) argue that enlargement and the push for further market integration have incited differentiation in the EU’s single market, leading to increased fragmentation and discrimination. Analysing the prominent treaty-based opt-outs obtained by Denmark and the UK, Rebecca Adler-Nissen (2009) shows that formal opt-outs in politically sensitive areas are pragmatically circumvented rather than sidelining voluntary laggards.
In a prominent review piece published in 2012, Katharina Holzinger and Frank Schimmelfennig (2012) take stock of the state of the art on differentiated integration and contend that scholarship on differentiated integration, while being conceptually (too) rich, is rather sparse on theory and data. This call for more theory (and data) was subsequently echoed and answered by various contributions in JEPP. Christian Jensen and Jonathan Slapin (2012) have developed a spatial model to explore how institutions and member state preferences that lead integration-minded states as well as laggards to accept or resist proposals for differentiated integration. Partially echoing the arguments and findings by Jensen and Slapin, Dorte Sindbjerg Martinsen and Ayca Uygur Wessel’s (2014) analysis of the working time directive also highlights that initial differentiation can lead to an opt-out spiral with detrimental policy consequences. Kroll and Leuffen (2015) examine the treaty provisions for enhanced cooperation and develop a rationalist institutionalist argument about the likelihood that member states apply enhanced cooperation, which they then test by combining cross-case comparisons and within-case analyses. As part of the special issue on differentiated integration edited by Benjamin Leruth and Christopher Lord (Vol. 22, No. 6), Frank Schimmelfennig et al. (2016) develop and test a theory on differentiated integration, which posits that demand for differentiation is chiefly driven by patterns of inter-state interdependence, while the supply for differentiated integration is mainly affected by policy-specific politicization.
At present, one can hardly claim that there is still a theory deficit in the study of differentiated integration, as Holzinger and Schimmelfennig claimed in 2012. Moreover, large-scale data generation efforts have allowed scholars to test different theoretical arguments more systematically (Schimmelfennig and Winzen 2017; Duttle et al. 2017) than in the past. As the study of differentiated integration matures theoretically and empirically, some recent contributions in JEPP have directed our attention to some of the normatively pressing questions raised by differentiation, pertaining to the legitimacy and effectiveness of the EU as a flexible, differentiated polity (Fossum 2015; Lord 2015). In the context of Brexit and calls for more flexibility, which are echoed in the Commission’s White Paper, the debate about differentiation is likely to remain vibrant.