How the EU can bend without breaking

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Series Details March 2017
Publication Date March 2017
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A critical mass of EU countries agree on the need for more flexible cooperation, but what could it look like?

The European Council on Foreign Relations launched a new research project The Future Shape of Europe in 2016 which set out to understand attitudes towards different forms of flexible cooperation within the EU. The project was a part of the Rethink: Europe initiative of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Stiftung Mercator.

This included, in particular, foreign and security policy and the potential use of 'Permanent structured cooperation' (PESCO) in this area. This is a current focus of discussion inside the EU and across member states. ECFR’s team of researchers, based in all EU capitals, conducted more than 100 interviews with government officials and experts at universities and think-tanks across the 28 member states. They questioned respondents about member states’ attitudes towards different types of flexible cooperation, and explored whether there have been recent changes in attitude regarding the tension between 'effective functioning' and 'disintegration'. They then asked what specific projects in foreign and security policies member states believe are worth exploring. The research on which this publication is based reflects the discussions in European capitals by February 2017.

+ Faced with internal and external pressures, the EU is increasingly focused on 'cooperation' and 'deliverables', rather than 'integration'. ECFR’s research shows that a critical mass of countries agree on the need for more flexible cooperation within the EU.

+ Many member states believe that more flexible cooperation will help to demonstrate the benefits of collective European action, and to overcome policy deadlocks. There is also a clear preference for flexible cooperation under existing EU treaty instruments.

+ However, there is a group of swing countries that may not be ready to engage in flexible cooperation just yet. This group is concerned about the risk of the EU framework and institutions being hollowed out, and about the dominance of big countries with larger resources.

+ Hungary, Poland, and the United Kingdom, see flexibility as an opportunity to increase national sovereignty in some areas.

+ While inclusive approaches are clearly favoured in EU capitals, continued pressure to deliver might push core countries towards even looser types of flexible cooperation in a style reminiscent of Schengen.

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Related Links
ESO: Background information: #RomaUE2017. The 60th Anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, 25 March 2017
ECFR: Rethink: Europe

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