Two-speed Europe is a mistake

PRAGUE — The European Union is at a crossroads. Some have called for the creation of a “two-speed Europe,” in which a small group of EU countries pursue tighter integration, leaving those unwilling to follow on the periphery.

This would be a mistake, and a dangerous one.

Critics of the EU sometimes reproach the bloc for inefficiency and mock our sometimes drawn out-efforts to seek compromises. They call for a strong hand, for clear, fast and simple solutions.

But it’s exactly this approach — seeking compromises without excluding any country from the decision — that is the essence of the integration process and the key behind the bloc’s success in overcoming crises and thorny issues.

Compromises sometimes leave all parties equally dissatisfied. But they do something important: They make sure no country is sidelined or defeated. And they preserve the most important aspect of the bloc: our unity.

“Our shared European history shows that when we fail to work together, we see conflict, division and war” — Bohuslav Sobotka

The EU’s strength lies in collaboration and unity. If we don’t face our challenges together, we will not solve them at all.

The fall of the Iron Curtain was a leap forward for the entire Continent, as was the enlargement of the EU to establish a peaceful post-war order.

European integration is a long-term process, and there’s more than one way to pursue it. But one thing is certain: If the EU does not maintain the trust of all its citizens and the enthusiasm of the member states, the integration process of the union will not advance.

I do not doubt that it can sometimes feel expedient to move forward with a limited group of countries. The abolishment of border controls and creation of the passport-free Schengen area, for instance, began as an agreement between just a few states. But we cannot allow this method to become the go-to solution for every issue on which we have trouble agreeing.

We have to ensure no country faces a closed door. The possibility to cooperate should be provided to everybody. Breaking our union into sharply defined categories would go against the spirit of the European treaties and only come back to haunt us.

I was reminded of this last month when I gathered with my fellow EU leaders at the Social Summit in Gothenburg on November 17. That day is a symbolic date for Czechs, and Slovaks. It commemorates a student uprising in Prague in 1939 that was brutally repressed by the country’s Nazi occupiers. More than 1,000 students were sent to concentration camps; nine were executed.

Fifty years later, in 1989, young Czechoslovaks commemorated the event by staging a march that would come to symbolize the fall of the Iron Curtain in our country. It is a testament to how far the Czech Republic has come that this year, as prime minister, I could spend November 17 discussing labor policies and growth with democratically-elected European leaders.

Today, our country’s success depends on its membership to the EU. It would be a fatal error to believe we could succeed alone in an increasingly interconnected world. Nor should we underestimate the value of being a reliable partner to other EU members.

The Czech Republic wants to be at the core of the EU’s transformation. As prime minister, I have fully supported the deeper integration of European structures during my term, and I am confident the next government will continue in this effort when I leave office in mid-December.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka gives a joint press conference in Budapest | Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

Successful integration is also in our interest even in areas in which we are not currently taking part, most notably the eurozone. The government I led has made considerable progress in improving the budgetary, social and economic conditions necessary for a successful adoption of the euro.

Europe, if it wants to remain unified, can’t forget about those waiting behind the door. The Western Balkans have proven again and again that they are ready to work on the necessary reforms. The EU should welcome these countries as soon as they have fulfilled their criteria.

They all deserve the same chance of a European future that was granted to the Czech Republic. They do not need to join the club tomorrow, but they do need us to keep the door open.

The EU’s strength lies in collaboration and unity. If we don’t face our challenges together, we will not solve them at all.

Bohuslav Sobotka is prime minister of the Czech Republic.

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