Use it or lose it: At 60, the EU needs to work on its flexibility

(Illustration sources: Wikimedia Commons)

Greater elasticity at the cost of cohesion. Can such architectural change of the Union help to save the European project?

We do not have adequate political institutions to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 2008. We always act too little, too late.

Guy Verhofstadt

The EU has been shifting to a security paradigm. Benefiting from the growing mood of anxious uncertainty among the people, European-bred populists are redefining the very notion of security, taking it back to the traditional sense of strong national identities and isolationism. This is accompanied by strikingly different ambitions regarding the level of integration among the member states.

Multi-speed Europe

At a meeting in Versailles on March 6, the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Spain – the four largest remaining EU powers – de facto endorsed the concept of a multi-speed Europe, according to Scenario 3 of the Commission’s White Paper on the future of Europe.

This scenario – the differentiation of cohesion – has been in fact in place for some time. As Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament, points out, effectively we have 12 European Unions, composed of member states participating in certain policy initiatives and not in others: “those inside the eurozone and those that are not, those inside Schengen and those that are not, those participating in Justice and Home Affairs cooperation and those that are not.”

When EU member states find it difficult to move forward together, the Treaties offer forms of flexible and differentiated integration through the instruments of enhanced and structured cooperation, as a way to overcome stalled negotiations. The enhanced cooperation procedure has already been used in three instances:

  1. with regard to common rules on the applicable law for divorces of international couples,
  2. the European patent with unitary effect, and
  3. the introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT).

However, differentiated integration has more often been perceived in the EU as an undesired necessity that should be used only as a temporary solution or action of a last resort. It has never been a permanent element of the EU’s architecture and there is no well-structured plan for building a more flexible Europe. What is happening now is the questioning of the paradigm of cohesion, the recognition of the differentiation as a model on the level of the Heads of State and its adoption as a way forward.

If that goes ahead, those who will suffer the most from the unequal rights applied in different member states as a result of the differentiation will be the “cosmopolitan nomads”, since they benefit the most from the right to move freely between the member states. As Ross Douthat rightly points out, they travel the world between increasingly interchangeable cities, transforming difference into similarity and familiarity for their own comfort. On the other hand, the “communitarian settlers,” whose support for populist parties is growing across the Union and who feel increasingly estranged from cosmopolitans, will probably not even notice the difference.

It would be fair to say that the EU has been giving much more attention to nomads than to settlers, while the latter constitute the majority of its population.

How should a flexible Union function?

Jan Zielonka, Professor at the University of Oxford, advocates the neo-medieval model of integration based on autonomous functional networks without a strong European centre. In his book Is the EU doomed?, Zielonka notices that “states were not necessarily the best agents of integration. They tried to use the EU for their own parochial ends without committing any significant resources to common endeavours.” He adds that “diversity and heterogeneity are normal states of affairs in complex polities and there is no reason to insist on ever greater convergence across the vast European space.”

Similarly, Kalypso Nicolaidis, Professor at the Univeristy of Oxford, favours a demoicratic model that involves supranational management of governing together but not as one. According to this model, the EU must become “a polity which involves relations between ‘peoples’ rather than simply states or their official representatives, relations underpinned by the various ways in which the peoples accept and practice their interdependency, including the way they open their own house under the ultimate Kantian requirement of hospitality”, writes Nicolaidis in her contribution for a recent book, entitled Re:Thinking Europe.

The paradigm of cohesion

These and other scholars point out that even though it appears more complicated, a flexible Union will be more efficient, democratic, and last but not least enduring. Yet, for Brussels, cohesion has been a synonym to solidarity. Therefore, Piotr Buras reiterates that any differentiation of integration will be perceived as erosion of the solidarity principle.

For Guy Verhofstadt, in contrast, the solution to the European problems is a federal Europe, which however, should not be equated with centralization. On the contrary, he considers it to be an acknowledgement that in today’s world there are a number of policy areas which transcend the nation state and many levels of governance, from the local to the continental, which can best function jointly through the principle of subsidiarity.

There is surely a point to Brussels’ anxiety that dropping the cohesion and solidarity paradigms will threaten the entire European unification project, but for the Brussels’ Eurocrats, the difference between a multi-speed Europe, variable geometry, or differentiated flexibility is negligible. Their main concern is to avoid giving up on the common narrative and the weakening of the EU institutions.

A step back in integration?

Admitting mistakes, the EU should be able to adopt even such solutions for its structural problems which can be framed as steps back in the integration process. Also, a move towards a flexible Union might include a prospect to carry on with the common narrative of creating the future European demos.

A flexible EU should include the exit clause, but also create conditions in which the member states will not want to use it. As Nicolaidis writes, “it is truly a good thing that the peoples of Europe take part in this Union by choice and have the right to leave if they so wish. […] In the EU, like in any modern marriage, nothing is irreversible. […] One can be against both Grexit and Brexit and yet argue for a Europe where both are possible.”

The claims that the idea of Europe is in retreat and the European Union is at an advanced state of disintegration are exaggerations exploited by specific political groups. Instead, Brexit should be used as a window of opportunity to discuss possible reforms. In the current political situation, next to the existential dilemma of whether we should have more Europe or less, or the question in which direction Europe should develop, we should also think of who will belong to the future EU.

Katarzyna Sobieraj

Katarzyna Sobieraj is head of the parliamentary office of Bogdan Zdrojewski MEP, chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Belarus. She is a PhD researcher in political communication and media studies at the University of Wroclaw, Poland.

1 comment

  1. 31 March, 2017 @ 09:50 Georg Brodach

    Excellent description of this new window of opportunity, but dare to be more disruptive! If it is fair to say “that the EU has been giving much more attention to nomads than to settlers, while the latter constitute the majority of its population”. Then it is important to say that the “settlers” will be the “left-behinds of the future”, the protectionists and nationalists. Do not forget the ever growing class of temporary nomads.


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

Legal note

1.    Terms and Conditions

2.    Privacy Policy

3.    Cookies Policy


1.    Terms and Conditions

Contact data for the web owner

This website has been created by KATOIKOS to promote their products and services.

– Name: Katoikos, S.L

– Co. tax Code:  B87123162

– Address:  Calle Campomanes 10, 28013  Madrid (SPAIN)

Registration details: Registered in the Commercial Register of Madrid.

Intellectual and Industrial Property

The various elements of this page, and website as a whole, are protected by Spanish legislation on intellectual and industrial property. The trademarks, trade names or logos appearing on this website are the property of the company, or, where appropriate, of third parties, and are protected by Trademarks Law, and of which KATOIKOS holds the legitimate license.

The information provided may not be used for commercial or public purposes, or modified. If the user downloads materials for personal and non-commercial use, warnings shall be kept about copyright and trademarks. To download and use the company logo that appears on the website, prior authorization is required.

Any unauthorised use of the images may violate copyright laws, trademark laws, the laws of privacy and publicity, and communications regulations and statutes.

Liability for Damage

KATOIKOS assumes no liability for damages you may suffer when browsing the web or in the use of computer applications that are part of it. Neither are warranties given as to the correction of malfunctions or updating of content.

Content you share with us

We may include features on this website that allow you to share your content with us and other users of the site. Please note that by sharing content it may become publicly accessible. You grant to Katoikos a worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license, without compensation to you:

 (a) to use, reproduce, distribute, adapt (including without limitation edit, modify, translate, and reformat), derive, transmit, display and perform, publicly or otherwise, such content, in any media now known or hereafter developed, for Kaotikos’ business purposes, and

 (b) to sublicense the foregoing rights, through multiple tiers, to the maximum extent permitted by applicable law. The foregoing licenses shall survive any termination of your use of the site, as further described below.

For all of the content you share through the site, you represent and warrant that you have all rights necessary for you to grant these licenses, and that such content, and your provision or creation thereof through the site, complies with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations and does not infringe or otherwise violate the copyright, trademark, trade secret, privacy or other intellectual property or other rights of any third party, and is furthermore free from viruses and other malware.

Rules of Conduct

When using this website and/or sharing content with us, you are prohibited from posting or transmitting :

1. any unlawful, threatening, defamatory, racist, obscene, scandalous, deceptive, false, fraudulent, inflammatory or profane material or any material that could constitute or encourage conduct that would be considered a criminal offence, give rise to civil liability, or otherwise violate any law.
2. Any virus, worm, Trojan horse, Easter egg, time bomb, spyware or other computer code, file, or program that is harmful or invasive or may or is intended to damage or hijack the operation of, or to monitor the use of, any hardware, software or equipment;
3. Any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, “junk mail,” “spam,” “chain letter,” “pyramid scheme” or investment opportunity, or any other form of solicitation; and
4. Any material non-public information about a person or a company without the proper authorization to do so.

In addition, you will not:

1. Use this website for any fraudulent or unlawful purpose;
2. Interfere with or disrupt the operation of the website or the servers or networks used to make the website available; or violate any requirements, procedures, policies or regulations of such networks;
3. Access or use this website through any technology or means other than those expressly designated by us.
4. Restrict or inhibit any other person from using this website (including by hacking or defacing any portion of the website);
5. Except as expressly permitted by applicable law, modify, adapt, translate, reverse engineer, decompile or disassemble any portion of this website.
6. Remove any copyright, trademark or other proprietary rights notice from this website.
7. Frame or mirror any part of the webiste without our express prior written consent;
8. Create a database by systematically downloading and storing all or any content;
9. Use any robot, spider, site search/retrieval application or other manual or automatic device to retrieve, index, “scrape,” “data mine” or in any way reproduce or circumvent the navigational structure or presentation of this website, without our express prior written consent.


Kaotikos  reserves the right to remove any messages or statements or cancel any links.

This site may include hyperlinks to other web sites that are not owned or controlled by Katoikos. Katoikos has no control over, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, privacy policies, security or practices of any third party websites.

Content may be hosted on YouTube or other social media. Those operate their own set of terms and conditions and privacy policy which are separate to the ones presented on this website. Katoikos no control over and assumes no responsibility for, the content, privacy policies, security or practices on YouTube or other social media.

 The right to terminate your access

Katoikos reserves the right to terminate your access to this website at any time if you do not comply with these Terms and Conditions or you infringe Kaotikos’ rights in the content provided on this website.

Governing Law

These Terms and Conditions are governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of Spain, without regard to its choice of law provisions.  You agree to the exclusive jurisdiction by the courts of Spain.

Changes to the Terms

Katoikos reserves the right to make changes to the Terms and Conditions from time to time. You acknowledge and agree that your continued access to or use of this website will constitute your acceptance of such changes.

2.    Privacy Policy

Kaotikos takes the protection of your personal data very seriously and collects, processes and uses your data only in accordance with the standards of the legal data protection regulations.

Data is collected, processed and used with technologyes of the provider web trends for marketing and optimisation purposes and also for sending news and information you may be interested in by any electronic services, such as email or SMS.

Our website user’s database is registered at the Spanish Agency of Data Protection. You have the rights of access, rectification, deletion and opposition, regulated in articles 14 to 16 of the LOPD.

For this, please write to:

KATOIKOS (Data Protection) Calle Campomanes 10, 28013, Madrid (SPAIN)

Or send an email to Your ID will be requested for these issues.

3.    Cookies Policy

This site, like many others, uses small files called cookies to help us customise your experience. Find out more about cookies and how you can control them.

This page contains information on what ‘cookies’ are, the cookies used by the Kaotikos’ website and how to switch cookies off in your browser.

If it does not provide the information you were looking for, or you have any further questions about the use of cookies on the Katoikos’s website, please email

What are ‘cookies’?

‘Cookies’ are small text files that are stored by the browser (for example, Internet Explorer or Safari) on your computer or mobile phone. They allow websites to store things like user preferences. You can think of cookies as providing a ‘memory’ for the website, so that it can recognise you when you come back and respond appropriately.

How does the Katoikos’s website use cookies?

A visit to a page on the Kaotikos’s website may generate the following type of cookies: Anonymous analytics cookies.

This website uses Google Analytics, a web analytics service provided by Google, Inc., a Delaware company whose main office is at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View (California), CA 94043, USA (“Google”).

Google Analytics uses “cookies”, which are text files placed on your computer, to help the website analyze how users use the site. The information generated by the cookie about your use of the website (including your IP address) will be transmitted to and stored by Google on servers in the United States. Google will use this information on our behalf in order to track your use of the website, compiling reports on website activity and providing other services relating to website activity and internet usage. Google may also transfer this information to third parties where required to do so by law, or where such third parties process the information on Google’s behalf. Google will not associate your IP address with any other data held by Google.

Anonymous analytics cookies

Cookier Name Origin Aim End
__utma Google Analysis 2 years since set –up or update
__utmb Google Analysis 30 minutes since set –up or update
__utmc Google Analysis When browser sesión ends
_utmt Google Analysis 10 minutes since set –up or update
__utmz Google Analysis 6 months since set –up or update

How do I turn cookies off?

It is usually possible to stop your browser accepting cookies, or to stop it accepting cookies from a particular website. All modern browsers allow you to change your cookie settings. You can usually find these settings in the ‘options’ or ‘preferences’ menu of your browser. To understand these settings, the following links may be helpful, or you can use the ‘Help’ option in your browser for more details.

Cookie settings in Internet Explorer
Cookie settings in Firefox
Cookie settings in Chrome
Cookie settings in Safari web and iOS.


© 2020 Katoikos, all rights are reserved. Developed by eMutation | New Media

Become a
Being up to date with Europe only takes a few seconds.
Your information will never shared with a third party.
Get our periodical newsletter sent to your inbox!
I have read and agreed the Privacy Policy (required)
Become a
Being up to date with Europe only takes a few seconds.
Get our periodical newsletter sent to your inbox!
Your information will never shared with a third party.
I have read and agreed the Privacy Policy (required)