Is the single market possible in a 2-speed EU?


This week unites two crises: Greece and the UK’s proposals for EU treaty change.  The EU will get through both with a lot of fudging. Greece will stay in the Eurozone for now and Prime Minister Cameron will keep talking. The former is eventually bound to lead to tougher rules for the Eurozone whether Greece remains in or leaves it.  That in turn will lead to stronger UK demands for non-Eurozone members to opt in or out, thus creating a 2-speed EU with progressive integration for the former and demands for the EU to be merely a single economic market by the latter.  The fact that the latter is also the overwhelming preference of EU voters carries little weight in Brussels or, indeed, in the other countries where Treaty changes require referenda.

The difficulty of isolating economic from social and political issues is where the EEC came in and why the continentals never envisaged a purely economic single market.  This issue was downplayed when the UK joined.

The UK’s position remains that social and political issues should be a matter for the British parliament. David Cameron would doubtless accept John Major’s Maastricht opt out if that were possible.  Indeed the UK should reverse all Tony Blair’s EU give-aways and be grateful to Gordon Brown for keeping us out of the Euro.

But all that is history and the question now is whether the single market we desire is at all possible with a 2-speed EU.  At the beginning of the year, FT columnist Janan Ganesh proposed that the UK be allowed a veto over proposed EU financial regulations it disliked in much the same way that France has a veto on changes to the Common Agricultural Policy. The argument would be that financial services are as crucial for the UK as agriculture is for France.  With the possibility of all the other 27 member states demanding vetoes for their chosen “crucial” areas, German support would be unlikely.

One way to sweeten the pill would be to renounce all UK regulations additional to the EU ones.  In combination they must annoy foreign financial companies operating in the City just as much as they aggravate British ones.  That would help establish the principle that we need clarity on “competences”, i.e. for each area the EU, or the member state, should legislate but not both.  Both doing so drags the whole EU down competitively.

But Eurozone integration threatens that.  Distinguishing competences between EU and member states is hard enough but a three way split between Eurozone, other EU and then member states may escape Brussels’ rather limited imagination.