Strong backing for two-speed EU


New proposals from Germany and Italy to the EU's treaty-changing Inter-Governmental Conference explicitly urge the development of a two-speed EU. A paper presented to foreign ministers on the reform of "flexibility" provisions in the treaty suggests that it should be possible for a group as small as one third of member states to "form an open functional avant garde" for the EU to drive forward the integration process.

"Flexibility" is the name give to provisions which allow groups of member states to proceed with projects when some others do not want to take part. The joint paper makes clear that the idea is not, as others have suggested, to facilitate "random parallel initiatives of divergent groups of member states. The goal is not so much `enhanced co-operation' as `enhanced integration'."

Ministers were in "conclave" preparing the ground for next weekend's EU summit in Biarritz which will be dominated by discussions on treaty changes in the Inter-Governmental Conference, due to conclude in December.

Although Ireland, among others, is wary of the idea of the emergence of a two-tier EU, not least because of the signal sent to applicant countries, diplomatic sources were last night stressing the inclusiveness of the German Italian proposals, specifically their insistence on the freedom of others to join the avant garde later, and the full involvement of the Commission in the process.

The French Minister for European Affairs, Mr Pierre Moscovici, for the presidency later also reiterated the latter guarantees as common ground of all at the meeting.

But the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, will strongly oppose proposals in the paper to extend flexibility provisions to the area of common foreign and security policy. The French Presidency last night acknowledged that agreement on flexibility in the defence area would be difficult.

Mr Cowen will also be concerned to ensure that the treaty provides for a sufficient "critical mass" of member states before new sub-groups are established.

The Danish Foreign Minister, Mr Neils Helveg Petersen, acknowledged to journalists that there would certainly now be agreement on some form of reform of the treaty's flexibility provisions.

The Danes have warned of the dangers to the cohesion of the EU from such mechanisms but Mr Helveg Petersen admitted that they were hardly in a position to resist the process in the wake of the Danish No vote on the euro.