Opinion & Analysis

Why differentiation is now at the heart of Europe’s political system

The UK’s exit from the European Union and the stalled EU enlargement process have raised the prospect of different models of cooperation being developed for different European countries. Uwe Wunderlich, Stefan Gänzle and Tobias Hofelich argue that differentiation – encompassing both processes of disintegration and integration – should be recognised as an integral part of Europe’s emerging political order.

In a recent proposal, France and Germany jointly advocated for a comprehensive reform plan for the European Union. For more than twenty years, following the EU summit of Thessaloniki in 2003, several countries of the Western Balkans have been waiting for a move closer to EU membership. Ukraine and Moldova have become EU candidates as a response to the Russian war against Ukraine. The motivation behind this proposal is not only to address these aspirations but also to respond to pressing geostrategic concerns.

Yet, in addition to these centripetal forces, another trend has become discernible as the institutionalised terms of relations with important non-EU countries such as Norway, Switzerland and, in particular, the United Kingdom are currently up for renegotiation. The Swiss-EU bilateralism has become stalled in light of Bern’s reluctance to accept a new and comprehensive framework agreement; Norway is reflecting on its membership in the European Economic Area and the UK is scheduled to review its Trade and Cooperation Agreement in 2025.

Given these complex challenges in the EU’s neighbourhood, there is a growing consensus that a fundamental reform of the very core of European “integration” is imperative. Much more than in the past, this review needs to account for the fact that differentiation, already an established cornerstone of the EU political architecture, has become bi-directional in the recent past.


One pivotal element of this proposal is the concept of a “Europe of differentiated (dis)integration”, which formalises a structured system of concentric circles (beyond the EU) – also accounting for countries, such as the UK, which have distanced themselves from the idea of ever-closer union. At its core lies an innermost circle comprised of EU member states deeply committed to integration. Surrounding it is the broader EU itself, followed by candidates for full membership, and a tier of “associate members” of the single market. Finally, the outer tier encompasses the European Political Community, a loose association of European states coordinating overarching policy objectives.

The concept of “associate membership” within this framework holds particular interest. It offers an alternative pathway for countries that may not be ready or willing to pursue full EU membership. Importantly, it allows existing EU member states to advance specific policies without the requirement of unanimity. Expanding on the existing mechanism of “enhanced cooperation”, this flexibility enables “coalitions of the willing” to pursue deeper integration in select areas, facilitating a more adaptable and responsive EU.

Differentiated integration has long been a fundamental aspect of European integration, but this proposal takes it a step further by formalising and extending its practice within and beyond the EU. Significantly, this proposal presents unique opportunities for the United Kingdom, especially considering its post-Brexit positioning within Europe. It underscores that just as differentiated integration is possible, so is the reverse process – “differentiated disintegration”.

The UK-EU relationship

Several factors prompted the UK to seek a looser relationship. In the context of the proposed tier-structure, the UK transitioned from the EU tier to an outer circle. However, it is essential to recognise that the UK’s departure from the EU did not entail complete disintegration from European regionalism. The UK has kept close links to several EU sectoral polices, for instance in relation to defence and research.

Most recently, in September 2023, the UK partially re-entered the EU’s Horizon programme fostering research across Europe. The UK also seems to be investing into strengthening bilateral partnerships with core EU member states to mitigate some of the effects of Brexit. Shared geostrategic and geoeconomic challenges, such as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, climate change, migration issues, the cost-of-living crisis, threats to the liberal international order and uncertainties regarding China’s ascendancy, necessitate collective responses. These challenges underscore the importance of maintaining cooperation and connections between the UK and the rest of Europe.

Differentiated (dis)integration acknowledges that not all aspects of cooperation need to be severed entirely. Instead, it recognises that some level of connection and cooperation can persist due to mutual interests and shared goals. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as exemplified by Brexit, serves as a prominent example of this phenomenon. While certain institutional connections were severed, others remained intact or evolved to manage relationships with neighbouring countries.

European “integration” now is much closer to the idea of “interdependence management” – a concept framed in the 1970s by scholars such as Joseph S. Nye and Robert Keohane. It is less normative compared to the doctrinal idea of “integration” leading to some form of pan-European federal state. Thus, the feature of differentiation remains constitutive and decisive for the successful management of the UK-EU relationship in the immediate future.

The complexity of regional relationships and the diversity of interests involved calls for a nuanced approach, where states can navigate withdrawal from specific institutional arrangements while maintaining various levels of cooperation. The specifics of the UK’s future relationship with Europe are still evolving. However, promising signs are emerging. Recent visits by both Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to Paris indicate a shared desire to elevate and mature UK-EU relations, following the tumultuous leadership of Boris Johnson and his short-lived successor, Liz Truss.

The exact tier that Britain will occupy within this proposed framework remains to be seen. Notwithstanding the period of political chaos and Brexit-related blows to economic growth, the Vote-Leave camp’s promises of ongoing engagement and flexible relations appear to be within reach.

As Europe faces a complex array of challenges, adaptable models of cooperation like the one proposed can offer a path forward, allowing nations to address shared concerns while respecting their unique circumstances and aspirations. It acknowledges that integration is not a one-directional process. Opposite movement is both possible and admissible. It should be considered normal and legitimate. In that way, differentiation – encompassing both processes of disintegration and integration – is part of a dynamic and flexible spectrum of Europe’s emerging political order.

About the author

Uwe Wunderlich

Uwe Wunderlich is a Lecturer in International Relations at the Aston Centre for Europe (ACE) at Aston University in Birmingham.

Stefan Gänzle

Stefan Gänzle is Jean Monnet Chair and Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and Management, University of Agder.

Tobias Hofelich

Tobias Hofelich is a PhD Research Fellow at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway.

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