The Grand Coalition just cannot get rid of the hot potato called Europe. The governing parties are arguing with great persistence about the solutions and answers to the European crises of our time. The most recent example: the dispute between SPD party leader Sigmar Gabriel and Wolfgang Schäuble, the Europe doyen of the CDU. The point of contention this time is the future direction of European policy in the post-Brexit era.

In an interview with the weekly Welt am Sonntag, the CDU-politician made it clear that, if necessary, individual governments must decide European politics themselves: “And if the Commission does not contribute, we will take matters into our own hands, and solve the problems among the governments.” Criticism quickly followed. Gabriel accused his cabinet colleague of promoting the splitting of Europe. The Social Democrat himself proposed downsizing the EU Commission, as well as new growth stimuli for the still ailing debtor states in southern Europe. This was preceded by a position paper by the SPD-Chairman and his party colleague, the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. The paper argues for a complete rebooting of European policy, especially in the areas of growth, investment, social and foreign policy.

Integrationists vs. Inter-Governmentalists?

At first glance, the distribution of roles within the grand coalition in this debate seems clear: on the one hand, Schäuble, who contrary to his personal beliefs, opposes a deepening of European integration and prefers governing responsibilities to be in the hands of national governments. On the other hand, leading SPD politicians would answer the European identity crisis caused by the Brexit with enhanced European policy cooperation.

Upon closer inspection however, this conflict seems construed and the positions of the two sides are not dissimilar. For instance, it had to be clear to Gabriel and Schulz that their paper that is entitled “Rebuild Europe” would surely not meet the approval of all EU member countries. At best, individual, willing EU states would have to come together to put the demands of the social-democratic position paper into practice. Not an unlikely scenario since Gabriel, jointly with the social-democratic and socialist leaders in France, Italy, and Greece, for a few weeks has been working on a new intra-European alliance that would give the EU a whole a new socio-political touch. Content-wise Schäuble is diametrically opposed to such a proposal, but by no means structurally, because both political factions recognize that the European consensus-finding machine is no longer working. To accomplish anything politically in Europe only a group of member states can do this by increasing the pace of integration.

Such a mindset is by no means revolutionary. On the contrary. Whether core-Europe, two-speed Europe, Europe of concentric circles or Europe a la carte: the discussion about staggered and flexible forms of integration is almost as old as the EU itself. But not just that. With the so-called Enhanced Cooperation, there is also a clearly defined European legal basis. In articles 20, as well as in 326 to 329 of the Treaty on European Union the following is set: enhanced cooperation happens in policy areas that fall under EU competence but not under the jurisdiction of the EU. Enhanced Cooperation must not contradict the goals and interests, the internal market and the Acquis Communautaire of the EU, must be available to all EU member states, and must be requested and executed by a group of at least nine member states. Who wants to move forward can certainly do so. Changing the EU treaties for this is by no means necessary.

Europe’s Enhanced Cooperation – But How?

The far more important question is therefore not whether but how this form of staggered integration should be done. It will be crucial here to negotiate two aspects in particular:

Firstly: What topics should Enhanced Cooperation, whatever form it will take, deal with? The Enhanced Cooperation clause thus far has been applied to the specific fields of patent and divorce law. This will not be enough to reconstruct European policies from scratch. There is no shortage of possible measures of action, such as the introduction of a European-wide minimum wage corridor, measures against rampant youth unemployment, the fight against tax evasion or joint steps in foreign and defense policy. But it has to be noted that if Enhanced Cooperation were to focus on one or more of these topics, it would mean a fundamental content decision that would apply for decades to come. Which begs the question: Which Europe do we want to live in? In other words: Enhanced Cooperation must be preceded by a period of reflection, in particular one that, once and for all, resolves the putative conflict between supporters of investment policy and advocates of austerity policies.

This then leads directly to the second major question: which countries participate in Enhanced Cooperation? Merkel and Schäuble have lost a close ally with the United Kingdom, who in the past years has loyally supported their austerity policies. Will they now strengthen the informal alliance with the remaining advocates of austerity, in particular the Netherlands, Sweden, and the Baltic States? Or will the SPD-chairman assert himself with his plan to unify the southern European states behind a consistent investment policy? For the purpose of alliance building, the decisive factor will be which of the two political camps has at its disposal majority-oriented concepts and sustainable networks with European governments and parties. At the moment, the Brexit referendum has galvanized supporters of European investment and social policy. The question is whether this common denominator is sufficient to align the cornerstones of the European Union also in the context of Enhanced Cooperation.

It should therefore be noted: the Europe-political roads lead once again to Berlin. Germany will play a leading role in reforming certain policy areas of the EU – even if driven only by the small circles of a group of member states. This makes the question a not insignificant part of German domestic politics. The Bundestag election in 2017 will decide with which economic and socio-political ideas the Federal Republic will implement an institutional restructuring of the European Union.

A German version of this article originally appeared under the title “Europa neu gründen: Ja. Aber wie?! Ein Ausweg aus der integrationspolitischen Sackgasse?” on the website of Das Progressive Zentrum on July 11, 2016.