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Differentiated Integration in the European Union

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Differentiated Integration in the European Union, the process by which some states participate in further integration while others do not,[1] has been an organisation feature of European integration for decades, now accounting for more than half of European Union (EU) policies.[2] Indeed, The EU has high levels of differentiation, with variable membership of several key policy areas including Schengen, Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).[3] Despite this, scholars and policymakers have both it difficult to agree on the definition and normative value of Differentiated Integration.[4]


Integration in the EU is the “body of binding formal rules to which the states participating in integration agree to adhere.”[1]  If integration is uniform, all member states participate to the same extent.[2]  There can, however, be variations in the extent to which member states and non-member states participate in these legal rules.[3] This variation is what is meant by differentiation, which can be internal or external.[4]

  • Internal differentiation: is when rules are not uniform across EU member states.[5] An example of this is EMU which started with 11 out of 15 member states using the Euro currency, and ended up with 19 out of 27.[6] EMU is also a durable differentiation, as, although most member states not currently participating are supposed to join in the future, Denmark and the UK have permanently opted out.[7]
  • External differentiation, on the other hand, is when “EU rules are legally valid in at least one non-member state for some time.” An example of external differentiation is the Internal Market, as some countries in the European Economic Area that are not Member States of the EU (e.g Switzerland) subscribe to its rules.[8]

There is also a distinction between vertical and horizontal differentiation.[9] The former is related to differentiation in levels of centralisation i.e. the extent to which policies are shared at EU level, and the latter relates to territorial differences in levels of integration.[10]

Historical Foundations of Differentiated Integration[edit]

The concept of Differentiated Integration in Europe can be traced back to the early founders and thinkers of the EU. Indeed, Jean Monnet and Paul-Henri Spaak argued for a ‘core Europe’ of six highly integrated member states.[1] In the 1970s, French President Charles de Gaulle expressed a vision of Europe that amounted to a loose coalition of states, with a core made up of France, West Germany, Italy and the UK[2] and German Chancellor Willy Brandt articulated a concept of “graduated integration” to accommodate heterogeneity among member states.[3] The 1976 report of Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans which established the roots of differentiated integration as a political idea, reflected these logics.[4] Proposals for Differentiated Integration, particularly a multi-tier Europe, were made by Italian MEP Altiero Spinelli who advocated for a ‘core Europe’.[5] This was reflected in the ‘two speed Europe’ proposed by French President François Mitterrand to the European Parliament on May 24th 1984.[6] The concept of European integration occurring along differentiated lines was also present in the Delors Commission, with Commission president Jacques Delors outlined a Europe of concentric circles – consisting of a core of highly integrated member states – in front of the Parliament in January 1990.[7]

For much of its history, the considerations around D.I were theoretical. In the context of enlargement, however, differentiated integration became more salient as reflected by the Lisbon treaty, which has been described as a “milestone” for Differentiated Integration as it created new innovations and formalising differentiated integration practices.[8]

Differentiated Integration as a political idea is still developing. In 2016, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a strong endorsement of differentiated integration in a speech at the Sorbonne. [9] Macron stated "If we are to cultivate the desire to push ahead and ensure Europe’s progress benefits everyone, we need to constantly accommodate the driving ambition of some while allowing others to move ahead at their own speed."[10] That said, Macron explicitly ruled out differentiation on certain issues such as the rule of law. [11]

In 2017, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker resented a white paper on the future of Europe which presented options as to the future path of integration. The third option was a Europe of Differentiated integration, which contended that, “those who want more” should be able to “do more.”[12]

Three Models of Differentiated Integration[edit]

Although Differentiated Integration is not a new concept, there has been a lack of clarity among academics and practitioners regarding definitions and modes of Differentiated Integration.[1] Alexander Stubb – the former Prime Minister of Finland who was, before that, a scholar of the EU – argued that the discourse on DI has been characterised by “an excess of terminology” which can cause “semantic indigestion” for observers.[2]

Stubb’s typology classifies differentiated integration by time, space and matter.[3]

Differentiation by Time: Multi-Speed Europe[edit]

Multi-speed Europe is a mode of Differentiated Integration in which member states have a common goal, but the timeframe by which the goal is achieved differs from member state to member state.[1]

This mode of differentiation is “transitional” i.e. member states are excluded from rights or exempted from responsibilities on a temporary basis.[2] When applied to external differentiation, multi-speed integration sees non-member states align more closely before finally integrating into the EU.[3] Over time, differentiations in legal rules will decrease and eventually disappear.[4] As a result, this can be seen as the most integrationist mode of Differentiated Integration.

Example: Multi-speed integration can be found in the Eurozone, as all member states (other than those with opt-outs) are obliged to adopt the Euro in the future but some have yet to do so.

Differentiation by Space: Variable Geometry/Concentric Circles[edit]

Differentiation by space goes by several terms including ‘variable geometry’ ‘concentric circles’ or ‘multi-tier integration.’[1]

Under this model of differentiated integration, there is a core of highly integrated member states, and differentiation increases toward the periphery.[2] Example: the Schengen Agreement, which allows individuals to travel freely between participating countries without passport check, was initially signed by five member states and was established outside the treaties.[3]

Differentiation by Matter: Europe a la Carte[edit]

In this mode of Differentiated Integration, member states select specific policy areas in which to participate. This mode of Differentiated Integration indicates that member states choose on a policy by policy basis rather than as a whole.[1] The level of integration in each policy area is the same, but member states (and non-member states in external differentiation) differ from policy to policy.[2] There is no overall objective of policy uniformity in this model which takes the form of opt outs and opt ins.[3]

Example: The UK opt out from the Social protocol. [4]

Stubb describes Multi-Speed Europe and Europe a la Carte as the two poles of the Differentiated Integration spectrum. [1] Multi-speed Europe reflects the supranational logic of integration as there is a set of common objectives around which all member states will eventually converge.[2] Europe a la Carte, on the other hand, follows an intergovernmental logic as it reflects member state preferences rather than common objectives.[3]

Alternative Conceptualisations of Differentiated Integration[edit]

It has been argued that the dimensions of this classification are not distinct i.e. differentiation will always have a territorial aspect as it occurs in some member states and not in others and is always concerned with matter as it applies to policies or rules.[1] As a result, Holzinger and Schimmelfennig propose distinguishing DI along six dimensions[2]:

  1. permanent v. temporary differentiation;
  2. territorial v. purely functional differentiation;
  3. differentiation across nation states v. multi-level differentiation;
  4. differentiation takes place within the EU treaties v. outside the EU treaties;
  5. decision-making at EU level v. at regime level;
  6. only for member states v. also for non-member states/areas outside the EU territory

Explaining Patterns of Differentiated Integration[edit]

Differentiated Integration is brought about by the heterogenous preferences and capacities of member states.[1] At the beginning of the European project, integration was relatively uniform as the original six member states had similar preferences and capacities. Following several rounds of enlargements, however, the preferences and capacities of member states became more heterogenous. Different preferences on one hand and capacities on the other give rise two distinct logics of Differentiated Integration; instrumental and constitutional.[2]

Instrumental Differentiation[edit]

Instrumental differentiation is occurs in the context of enlargement as member states pursue a “functional logic.”[1] During enlargement processes, new member states have weaker capacity than older member states, which created concerns both.[2] Old member states - and interest groups within them – are concerned about the economic loss which could result from integration through labour market competition.[3] They also stand to lose out from the redistribution of EU funds towards new member states through regional policy as those new states have relatively weaker economic capacity.[4] Accession states, on the other hand, face concerns about a loss in competitiveness for domestic industries.[5]

Instrumental differentiation gives rise to a ‘multi-speed’ Europe, as new member states are given transitional arrangements vis-a-vis the Acquis communautaire as a result of capacity and occurs for the most part in areas of the Internal Market.

Constitutional Differentiation[edit]

Constitutional differentiation occurs in the context of intergovernmental negotiations and is driven by heterogenous preferences on the scope of supranational centralisation.[1] This logic for DI occurs when integration activates sovereignty concerns in member states.[2] Sovereignty concerns are most likely to arise in areas of core state powers which are linked to state building and sovereignty e.g justice.[3] Schimmelfennig contends member states opposed to deepening have more bargaining power as they are defending the status quo.[4] Constitutional Differentiated Integration takes the form of either opt outs from deepening in the treaty revision, or an intergovernmental treaty EU treaty framework. [5]An example of this is the British and Danish opt out from EMU in the Maastricht treaty.[6]

Brexit and Differentiated Disintegration[edit]

On 31 January 2020, the UK Brexit the European Union following a 2016 referendum on membership. Brexit is noteworthy from a Differentiated Integration perspective as it represents a unique instance of the transition from internally differentiated member state to externally differentiated third country i.e. a state outside that EU that participates in EU policies.[1]

The negotiations between the EU and the UK on Differentiated Integration in the context of Brexit have had two distinct stages: the first, between November 2015 and February 2016, centred on internally differentiated disintegration as British Prime Minister David Cameron renegotiated the UK’s place in the EU (securing an opt out from ‘ever closer union’). [1] After the Brexit referendum, however, the negotiations concerned differentiated disintegration, which can be defined as “the general mode of strategies and processes under which (a) member state(s) withdraw(s) from participation in the process of European integration (horizontal disintegration) or under which EU policies are transferred back to member states (vertical disintegration).”[2]

The process of differentiated disintegration can be illustrated by Michel Barnier’s staircase which details successive potential reductions in integration.[1]

Brexit has led to a call for reconceptualising the study of Differentiated Integration to include theories of differentiated disintegration.[2]

Explaining Disintegration[edit]

Explaining (differentiated) disintegration has posed difficulty for scholars, as existing theories and conception of D.I focus on why certain member states do not participate in “all integrative steps, and not whether the EU could become less integrated”.[1] Existing theories are therefore limited, as disintegration is not “integration in reverse” but a distinct phenomenon.[2] Thus, it is difficult to extrapolate from Brexit to a wider theory of disintegration as a result of the specificity of the UK’s relationship with the EU over time. That said, Brexit can be considered an instance where Differentiated Integration either ceased to manage heterogeneous preferences or compounded them.[3]

The Impact of Brexit on Future of Integration[edit]

Although Brexit represents a process of disintegration, there is a trend in the literature on Brexit which “perceives Brexit as an opportunity to deepen the process of European integration.”[1] This positive vision is based on the premise that UK has been an integration averse member state, and without its presence as a reluctant partner the EU can pursue further integration led by the Franco-German axis.[2]

Normative Considerations[edit]

Whether or not Differentiated Integration is good for Europe has been the subject of much scholarly debate, with scholars asking how much Differentiated Integration the EU can accommodate.[1] Early scholars of the EU described differentiation as ‘integration gone wrong’ as they expected integration to progress in a uniform way.[2] Since then, Differentiated Integration has been argued to be a normal feature of regional integration projects.[3] Differentiated Integration can be seen as an effective way of accommodating the differences in member state priorities while allowing integration to move forward.[4] That said, it can also be argued that Differentiated Integration is negative in terms of accountability and legitimacy as it separates those to take decisions with those affected by those decisions.[5] Further, scholars have noted that if Differentiated Integration is taken to its extreme it could cause disintegration.[6]

[1] Svein S. Andersen, and Nick Sitter. "Differentiated integration: what is it and how much can the EU accommodate?." European Integration 28, no. 4 (2006): 313-330., 313

[2]Alex Warleigh-Lack, "Differentiated integration in the European Union: towards a comparative regionalism perspective." Journal of European Public Policy 22, no. 6 (2015): 871-887, 872.

[3] ibid., 881.

[4] Frank Schimmelfennig,  and Thomas Winzen. "Differentiated EU integration: maps and modes." Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Research Paper No. RSCAS 24 (2020), 1.

[5] Nicoletta, Pirozzi,  and Matteo Bonomi. "Differentiation and EU Governance: Key Elements and Impact." The International Spectator 57, no. 1 (2022): 160-178.

[6] Daniel R. Kelemen, "Epilogue: A Note of Caution on Differentiated Integration." Swiss Political Science Review 27, no. 3 (2021): 672-681, 672.

[1]  Leruth, Gänzle, and Trondal, op.cit., 1021.

[2] ibid., 1021.

[1] Hans Vollaard. "Explaining EUropean Disintegration." JCMS: Journal of common market studies 52, no. 5 (2014): 1142-1159, 1144

[2] ibid.

[3] Christopher Lord, "Integration through differentiation and segmentation: The case of one Member State from 1950 to Brexit (and beyond)." In Towards a Segmented European Political Order, pp. 243-264. Routledge, 2019.

[1] Laffan, loc.cit.

[2] ibid

[1] Frank Schimmelfennig,  "Brexit: differentiated disintegration in the European Union." Journal of European public policy 25, no. 8 (2018): 1154-1173,  1157

[2] Benjamin Leruth, Stefan Gänzle, and Jarle Trondal. "Exploring differentiated disintegration in a post‐Brexit European Union." JCMS: journal of common market studies 57, no. 5 (2019): 1013-1030, 1015.

[1] Brigid Laffan, BREXIT: From Internal to Externla Differentiation, (Lecture, Florence: Robert Schuman Centre, EUI, August 31 2021), accessed February 26 2022.

[1] Frank Schimmelfennig,  and Thomas Winzen. "Patterns of differentiated integration in the European Union." JCMS Journal of Common Market Studies 52 (2014): 1-32, 3.

[2] Frank Schimmelfennig, and Thomas Winzen. "Instrumental and Constitutional Differentiation in the E uropean Union." JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 52, no. 2 (2014): 354-370, 355.

[3] Thomas Winzen and Frank Schimmelfennig. "Explaining differentiation in European Union treaties." European Union Politics 17, no. 4 (2016): 616-637, 620

[4] ibid.,

[5] ibid., 621.

[6] ibid.

[1] Schimmelfennig, Differentiation and self-determination in European integration, op.cit, 27

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[1] Frank Schimmelfennig, "Differentiation and self-determination in European integration." In Changing Borders in Europe, pp. 23-38. Routledge, 2018. 25

[2] Schimmelfennig and Winzen, Ever Looser Union? op.cit., 198

[1] Holzinger and Schimmelfennig, Differentiated integration in the European Union: Many concepts, sparse theory, few data, op.cit., 296

[2] ibid., 297

[1] ibid.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[1] Stubb, op.cit, 288

[2] Schimmelfennig and Winzen, Ever looser Union, 19

[3] ibid.

[4] Stubb, op.cit., 288

[1] Stubb, op.cit., 287.

[2] ibid

[3] Stubb, op.cit., 292

[1] ibid

[2] Schimmelfennig and Winzen, Ever Looser Union? op.cit., 18

[3] ibid.

[4] Schimmelfennig  and Winzen, Ever looser union? op.cit., 18

[1] Katharina Holzinger, and Frank Schimmelfennig. "Differentiated integration in the European Union: Many concepts, sparse theory, few data." Journal of European Public Policy 19, no. 2 (2012): 292-305. 292

[2] Alexander C‐G Stubb,. "A categorization of differentiated integration." JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 34, no. 2 (1996): 283-295. P 283

[3] ibid., 287.

[1] Wolfgang Wessels. "Flexibility, differentiation and closer cooperation." The EU Beyond Amsterdam: Concepts of European Integration (2002): 68-93, 68

[2] Marco Brunazzo "The Politics of EU Differentiated Integration: Between Crises and Dilemmas." The International Spectator 57, no. 1 (2022): 18-34., 22

[3] ibid.

[4] Leruth and Lord, op cit., 2

[5] Brunazzo, op.cit., 23

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid., 28.

[9] Emmanuel Macron, “President Macron gives speech on new initiative for Europe”, Élysée, September 26 2017 accessed 26 March 2022

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] European Commission, “White Paper on the Future of Europe” Official Journal of the European Union COM(2017)2025”, 1 March 2017 accessed 2 March 2022.

[1] Frank Schimmelfennig, and Thomas Winzen. Ever looser union?: Differentiated European integration. Oxford University Press, 2020., 15

[2] ibid.

[3] Christopher Lord, "Integration through differentiation and segmentation: The case of one Member State from 1950 to Brexit (and beyond)." In Towards a Segmented European Political Order, pp. 243-264. Routledge, 2019., 1.

[4] Schimmelfennig and Winzen, Ever looser Union, op.cit., 15.

[5] ibid.

[6] Frank Schimmelfennig,. "Differentiated integration before and after the crisis." İçinde Democratic Politics In A European Union Under Stress, edited by Olaf Cramme ve Sara B. Hobolt (2015): 120-134., 122.


[8] ibid.,

[9] Frank Schimmelfennig,  Dirk Leuffen, and Berthold Rittberger. "The European Union as a system of differentiated integration: interdependence, politicization and differentiation." Journal of European Public Policy 22, no. 6 (2015): 764-782, 765

[10] ibid.,

[1]Richard Bellamy, and Sandra Kröger. "Differentiated integration as a fair scheme of cooperation." Review of Social Economy (2021): 1-23, 1.

[2] Benjamin Leruth, and Christopher Lord. "Differentiated integration in the European Union: a concept, a process, a system or a theory?." Journal of European Public Policy 22, no. 6 (2015): 754-763., 761

[3] Vivien Schmidt, “the Future of Differentiated Integration” Integration and Differentiation for Effectiveness and Accountability, December 20, 2020,, accessed 28 March 2022.

[4] Leruth, and Lord, Differentiated integration in the European Union, op.cit., 754

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