For the British, `closer co-operation' or `flexibility'-the confusions of language do not aid clear discussion-has, in the past, been seen as a `poisoned chalice'. On the one hand, it might provide the elasticity of engagement which British politicians have often demanded and continue to practise as regards the EMU. On the other hand, it appears to give other governments the opportunity and the legitimacy to disregard objections from reluctant governments, even when the objections may be based on political or economic substance. Indeed, the now much criticised provisions in the Treaty of Amsterdam to permit closer co-operation were, in essence, designed to address the then British problem of strident exceptionalism. Moreover, in the British case, any mention of flexibility seems to give grounds to opposition politicians to advocate the self-exclusion of Britain from inconvenient or unpopular EU commitments.
The more that British policy approaches something like the mainstream of EU policy development, the less likely it will be that the British will welcome proposals to loosen the conditions under which closer co-operation could be made to operate. Indeed, one might observe that it is precisely because Britain has become so much more willing to participate in EU policy development that the Amsterdam provisions have not needed to be brought into play. If, after all, the British are spearheading a move towards establishing a form of European defence autonomy, why fall back on arguments about closer co-operation being a necessary tool? A similar point can be made as regards the development of JHA, given that the British have signed up to so much of the Schengen Agreement. One might also comment that those who bemoan the failure to operate the Amsterdam provisions are short of hard examples of missed opportunities to deploy them. Maybe the provisions should be understood as an insurance policy, which events did not make it necessary to activate.
But if not Britain, then maybe other awkward partners, and especially among the candidate countries? Maybe yes, maybe no-we are here in the realm of assertion rather than evidence. Clearly, new members may not be quickly able to be full participants in all EU policy regimes. The record suggests that political exceptionalism is a harder problem to resolve than economic lack of readiness, where precedents seem to show that a combination of hard work by the adjusting new members and sensible elasticity on the part of the EU can overcome a great many of the difficulties. Political exceptionalism of the kind that beset France in the mid-1960s or Britain during the 1980s is harder to legislate against.
If not an insurance policy, then perhaps a management tool? It is commonly argued that it is the sheer weight of the increasing numbers of Member States that makes the case for having an inner group of governments as a kind of executive board for the collectivity of the EU. Again, at first sight, this is a persuasive argument, in that a proliferation of heterogeneous members may well militate against effective management of the EU. But then the question is whether that which is needed is an inner group of countries or-for certain purposes-some tasks to be carried out by fewer than the full membership on behalf of the total membership. Here, the European Central Bank sets an interesting precedent with its board of six rotating members. There is certainly room for brainstorming and experimentation along these lines.
A different version of this argument is that-depending on the policy area-some Member States have more to bring to regime-development than others. This would lead to an approach based on the relevance and degree of the engagement of particular Member States. There is already a core single currency group, which, so the approach goes, ought to be given the opportunity to take the regime further. Indeed, the EMU provides the most convincing case for this kind of approach.
Foreign, security and defence policy appears to be a similar case, and, indeed, the experiences of the Contact Groups for Bosnia and Kosovo seem to bear this out. Some of the current discussion seems to be driven by the fact that the Contact Groups were established informally outside the EU structures, and, of course, included non-EU governments. We should also note that, in this field, smaller groups of relevant EU Member States may also emerge more organically or as a function of geography and degree of stake-holding in any given context. What seems harder to argue convincingly is that there could be a permanent inner circle of EU governments in this field, or that it would be effective to legislate against the adhocery of circumstance, which is more likely to generate self-constituted coalitions of the willing (as in the Albanian case). In this field, the British are likely to be practitioners of forms of closer co-operation, but reluctant to predefine the relevant memberships.
There is also an undeveloped discussion of a variety of other policy subjects on which closer co-operation might be extended. The examples of policies quoted are quite puzzling-environment, education, culture and so forth-subjects where there is already scope for smaller circles of countries to co-operate more closely. Many of these cross the boundaries of the EU-the Nordic Council, the Rhine Commission and so forth. On the face of it, it is not evident why all of these local bi-lateralisms and multi-lateralisms need to be drawn within the EU architecture.
It is quite a different argument to propose the creation of a permanent inner group, with both its own institutional underpinnings and a hierarchically superior role in relation to the rest of the extended EU family. Versions of this proposal generally define the inner group as naturally comprising the original founder six members of the European Community. They also most frequently emanate from French or German advocates, usually with the added component of a privileged Franco-German relationship nested within the vanguard group. Hardly surprisingly, proposals with these contours find little support from the British, partly because they seem to be an effort to turn the political clock backwards not forwards, and partly because they neglect the contributions that other governments, such as the British, bring to important policy areas such as foreign, security and defence policy. Nor are such proposals welcome to those other governments of countries that have, although later recruits to the EU, become keen integrationists. The notion of a viable permanent inner directorate stems from an odd mixture of nostalgia for apparent past intimacy and nervousness about the dilution of the integration model through serial enlargement.
Hence, on these issues, we should expect British policy to resist formal procedures to facilitate closer co-operation, especially any which would elevate the founder members to a privileged status vis-à-vis other Member States. On the other hand, following the `horses for courses' argument, the British may well be at ease with the emergence of special circles of the more involved or the especially relevant or the really serious in particular policy areas. Here, as on the question about the finalité of the EU process, the British contributions are likely to be driven by their underlying preference for organic evolution. Whether or not this can be articulated as a convincing strategy to reassure the doubters and the nervous, especially in the face of enlargement, remains to be seen. The organic view is much harder to express in ringing phrases than the constitutional blueprint view.