The argument about “ever closer union” is one of the most irrational ones in the British EU discourse. The phrase conjures up the image that European integration is unstoppable and it somehow happens without anyone noticing, a creeping development of a European super state. Most commentators blissfully ignore the missing legal foundation of the phrase (or the ratification processes of new treaties that actually change the nature of the EU) ‘Ever closer union’ doesn’t really matter in every day EU politics. The phrase was first included in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 (well before the UK joined!) and it reads like this:
Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,…
Yes, it does matter for some member states as a political symbol for European integration, but it is also a lofty political goal, the sort of stuff you would put into a preamble of a boring treaty. One should be relaxed about it, it is also a phrase of its time. Funnily enough, the phrase has mostly been discussed in the UK where it developed into some sort of rhetorical weapon against the EU. As part of his ‘renegotiation‘ David Cameron is now keen to remove this sentence from the treaties to ‘stop’ the alleged automatic integration of the EU. It is another fight he will not be able to win. There is absolutely no willingness among the other 27 EU member states to open the treaties to change symbolic language – and, more importantly, the problem has been solved.
During last week’s European Council, David Cameron ‘raised concerns’ and the following sentence was included in the Council conclusions:
The European Council noted that the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.
But this is not a bold move by the British Prime Minister it simply confirms existing EU rules. And any commentator who praises this as a breakthrough or a change in direction is seriously misguided. This has been the de-facto policy of the EU for quite a while, it is included in the Lisbon Treaty, it is called “enhanced cooperation” – and you can read about it here.
From a British perspective, the concept of”enhanced cooperation” is effectively giving the UK a permanent opt-out from ‘ever closer union’.