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Let’s get one thing straight once and for all. A two-speed, or multi-speed Europe is only a “tragedy” (as some EU leaders have said in recent days) for those countries that decide not to keep up.

The EU has always had two speeds — those that want to do something together, and those that don’t.

In the broadest sense, EU membership itself is a multi-speed process, having started with just six countries, and gradually growing into a kind of convoy as more and more countries saw the benefit of economic integration and collective integration.

The Schengen passport-free zone is an example of 2-speed Europe. It began in 1985 not as an EU initiative at all, but as a collective initiative of just five countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It now counts 13 EU member states as well as Norway and Iceland, which are not even EU member states. For anyone who remembers being woken up by surly immigration officers on the night trains between German and France or Germany and Italy (once at the Swiss-German border, again at the Italian-Swiss border), the Schengen zone represents one of Europe’s greatest accomplishments, and striking testimony to the superfluousness of national borders within a coherent economic and political union.

The euro is another perfect example of 2-speed Europe. Some countries use it, and some don’t. Slovakia will join in January 2009, becoming the 16th country to join the so-called euro-zone. The United Kingdom and a few other countries have chosen not to join the euro-zone (yet). Should the rest of Europe have continued to use national currencies just to appease the countries that chose to keep their pounds and crowns?

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the United Kingdom didn’t complain about a two-speed Europe in 1998 when Britain and France, meeting in St. Malo, agreed to increase cooperation between their two armed forces, the strongest in Europe. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac at the time said “the [European] Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises.” So much for waiting for the rest of Europe to join up first!

The only losers in a 2-speed Europe are the citizens whose countries can’t or won’t keep up.

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