Integrating diversity or fostering cleavages? Differentiated integration in the EU: a view from Romania

Integrating diversity or fostering cleavages? Differentiated integration in the EU: a view from Romania

1.    Introduction

In March 2017, the European Commission issued a White Paper on the Future of Europe, outlining five scenarios for Europe by 2025. This triggered intense debates across the European Union (EU) regarding the direction and speed of integration that citizens and governments were prepared to pursue in order to foster ever closer ‘unity in diversity’. The concept of differentiated integration (DI) emerged as a solution for accommodating diversity within the EU, as it implies that individual countries – be they EU or non-EU countries – can have different levels of involvement in particular European policy fields, as well as different degrees of institutional engagement and participation (Laffan 2020). However, DI can also be seen as an approach that can foster cleavages between the more economically advanced, typically older EU member states, and the newer EU member states. Seeking to grasp a better understanding of how new member states perceive DI, we have undertaken a quantitative and qualitative analysis of Romanian decision-makers’ official communications between 2006-2020[1], regarding the future of EU integration. Through this paper, we argue that leaders in Romania are among the staunchest supporters of deeper and wider European integration, and are strongly against any development scenarios that are based on a two-speed, or two-tier EU, that would divide member states into different camps.

2.    Differentiated integration in the EU

The EU is a compound polity composed of parts, i.e. the member states and the collective, i.e. the actors at the supranational level which make up the EU’s institutional apparatus (Laffan 2019). The EU is a relatively thin governance system that has limited collective resources and capacities, and must leverage its member states’ capacities and engagement in order to function effectively as a polity and as a system of public policy. Contemporary studies of European integration share the assumption that DI helps the EU to adjust to the growing heterogeneity of its member states and to better respond to the contestation of its policies (Schimmelfennig & Schraff 2020).

However, DI can influence the EU’s input and output legitimacy at the domestic and European level in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, by fostering projects that allow for the integration of the member states based on their respective needs, preferences and capacities through the Treaty mechanism of ‘enhanced cooperation’, the EU can overcome decision-making deadlocks and can increase its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. On the other hand, by allowing states to opt-in or out of certain policies, DI may foster distrust among the member states by precipitating negative economic and political externalities for countries that do not join an initiative for enhanced cooperation, by creating cleavages in the EU’s legal frameworks or by threatening the institutional integration of the common market (Witte 2018; Eriksen 2018).

Among the consequences of DI for the future of Europe, there may be a Europe of ‘different speeds’ (e.g. two-speed EU; multi-speed EU) and a Europe of ‘different end-points’ (e.g. two-tier EU; core Europe; Europe of concentric circles or of variable geometry; or Europe à la carte) (Stubb 1996). Depending on the level of economic development, but also on their historical, cultural and political features, EU member states may have a favourable position towards DI, or may radically oppose it. Through our study, we have discovered that one of the EU countries that strongly opposes a ‘different-speeds EU’, as well as a ‘different end-points EU’, is Romania. The next section explains why that is the case.

3.    Romania’s position regarding differentiated integration in the EU

Thirty years after the collapse of the communist regime and more than a decade since joining the EU in 2007, Romania is still struggling to consolidate its democracy and to become a fully-fledged EU member state by joining the Schengen area and the Eurozone. Through its EU accession agreements, Romania is legally obliged to join both areas as soon as the country fulfils the necessary technical requirements, and is hence not able to opt-out from these areas of European integration like other older EU member states have, such as Denmark in the case of the euro, and Ireland in the case of Schengen. While Eurozone accession has been delayed because of the country’s technical unpreparedness, Romania’s accession to the Schengen area has been repeatedly denied by the European Council on political grounds[2]. This has come to be seen by many Romanians as a symbol of the country’s status as a second-class member state in the EU and of the EU’s lack of trust in Romania’ capacities to protect the EU’s external borders.

Despite this breach of trust, Romania remains keen to become a member of the Schengen area, as this is seen as a way of confirming Romania’s right to equal and fair treatment as a full member of the family of European democracies.  Our study confirms that “Romania clearly maintains its positive view towards deepening [integration within] the [European] Union, with all its successful policies and projects, especially the Internal Market, the Schengen Area and the Eurozone”,as former Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu stated in March 2017, when he also reaffirmed “Romania’s support for a consolidated, unitary and inclusive Europe”[3]. Moreover, Romanian leaders seem to perceive the Treaty mechanism of ‘enhanced cooperation’ as an integration mechanism that provides room for all the European states to act together eventually, as the door remains open for Member States to join enhanced cooperation programmes and activities when they are prepared. Successive Romanian governments’ support for enhanced cooperation can thus be seen as a preference for ‘more cooperation’ or for ‘doing much more together’ – as framed by the Commission in its White Paper on the Future of Europe, rather than meaning ‘moving ahead in small groups’, as foreseen in the Treaty on European Union.

This position is perhaps best explained by Romania’s pro-European electorate and decision-makers, as well as by the Romanian governments’ desire to be on an equal footing with older EU member states in the decision-making processes. However, given the country’s communist past and continuous struggle to catch-up with the Western European countries, any sort of European integration through different speeds or different end-points is strongly opposed, as it is perceived as a sign of European discrimination that would leave Romania in a ‘second-tier’ Europe.

On the one hand, the reluctance to accept a multi-speed Europe can be explained by a fear among Romanians of being left behind in the EU’s periphery, which among other things may be reminiscent of the Iron Curtain and how it once divided Europe. On the other hand, the preference for enhanced cooperation reflects not only the governments’ positive perception regarding EU integration, but also the high domestic demand for more integration, particularly with regard to the Schengen area and the Eurozone – two of the most tangible areas of European integration. The higher the degree of integration in the EU, the higher the perceived Romanian political influence in the EU would be, and the greater would be Romania’s access to the benefits of a fully-fledged EU membership.

In this regard, Romania’s President, Klaus Iohannis, has asserted on several occasions, including during European Council’s meetings, that a multi-speed Europe “could even lead to the splitting up of the European Union”, as it would be “more likely to amplify dissent between Member States, rather than to lead to closer cooperation[4]. Among the greatest risks perceived by Iohannis was that of separating Europe in two, with industrialised countries fearing the loss of their jobs to Eastern European workers on one side, and Eastern European countries fearing the loss of their citizens to Western European countries on the other.

This analysis also points to the fact that, if DI was unavoidable, Romania would seek to undertake the necessary measures to join the ‘core’ Europe, as it is arguably doing presently with respect to its accession to the Schengen area and to the Eurozone. Joining the Eurozone and the Schengen areas seem to be a common goal for both the current government and the opposition, and deeper integration in these two areas has consistently been considered a priority by Romanian decision-makers since 2007, when Romania became an EU Member State.

4.    Conclusions

Notwithstanding the series of crises that has hit the EU over recent years, the challenges to European integration did not result in any notable preference for opt-outs from the processes of European integration among Romania’s political leaders. Conversely, the Romanian governments and opposition alike continuously stress the need for deeper integration with the country’s European partners, but crucially, this ought to be on an equal footing, undifferentiated by concentric circles or different speeds, so as to prevent the Union from falling apart. It is important to note that this pro-European position seems to be independent of context and political ideology, as Romanian decision-makers from across the political spectrum share the same general aim of strengthening the European project and of supporting its evolution towards ever-closer union.

5.    References

Eriksen, Erik O. 2018. “Political Differentiation and the Problem of Dominance: Segmentation and Hegemony.” European Journal of Political Research 57(989–1008).

European Commission. 2017. White paper on the future of Europe: Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025. European Comission. Brussels, March 2017.

Laffan, B. (2019). How the EU27 came to be. Journal of common market studies, 57, 13-27.

Laffan, B. 2020. The Challenge of Integrating Diversity in the European Union. Published on 18 February 2020, accessible at:

Schimmelfennig, F. & Schraff, D. 2020. Does differentiated integration improve citizens’ assessment of the European Union? Published on 18 February 2020, accessible at:

Stubb, Alexander C-G. 1996. “A Categorization of Differentiated Integration.” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 34(2): 283–95.

Witte, Bruno de. 2018. “An Undivided Union? Differentiated Integration in Post-Brexit Times.” Common Market Law Review 55: 227–50.

[1] This analysis was undertaken in the framework of the EU-funded InDivEU (Integrating Diversity in the European Union) project, whereby we analysed key speeches made by Romanian Heads of State and Prime Ministers, government programs as well as political debates held in the Romanian Parliament, between 2006-2020. The InDivEU Project has project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 822304. For more information see:

[2] The Council’s decision to deny Romania’s right to join the Schengen area came in stark contrast to the European Commission’s comprehensive technical evaluation and recognition of the country’s full compliance with the Schengen accession criteria, issued in 2011. See, in particular, the report by the European deputy Carlos Coelho in which the following is indicated: “At this moment, both Romania and Bulgaria have proved that they are sufficiently prepared to apply all the provisions of the Schengen acquis in a satisfactory manner” in ‘Report on the draft Council decision on the full application of the provisions of the Schengen acquis in the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania’, A7-0185/2011, 04/05/2011

[3] Original quote in Romanian: “România își menține clar poziția privind aprofundarea Uniunii, cu toate politicile și proiectele sale de succes, mai ales Piața Internă, Spațiul Schengen și zona Euro. Reconfirm susținerea României față de o Europă consolidată, unitară și inclusive.” Sorin Grindeanu, former Romanian Prime Minister, Social-Democratic Party, Meeting of the Party of European Socialists – Brussels, 09.03.2017.

[4] Original quote in Romanian: “ar putea chiar să ducă la scindarea Uniunii Europene”; “şi una, şi alta, sunt mai degrabă de natură să amplifice o disensiune între statele membre, în loc să ducă la o colaborare aprofundată.” Klaus Iohannis, Romanian Head of State, Press Conference, European Council informal meeting in Rome, 25.03.2017

Claudia Badulescu is a PhD Researcher in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy.