BRUSSELS: Much has been written over the past year about the risks of a two-speed Europe in which the 17-eurozone countries move ahead more rapidly than the rest of the European Union.
Such a divergence, the conventional wisdom goes, could mark the beginning of an unravelling of nearly 60 years of post-war European integration and tear the EU apart.
Yet rather than having one speed, two speeds, no speed at all or being on the brink of shifting into reverse, the European Union more accurately resembles a three-lane highway. And when EU leaders next meet at a summit in Brussels on Dec. 13-14, it is the road ahead that will be the focus of discussions.
In the slow lane, closest to the exit ramp should it choose to swerve off, is Britain, the reluctant partner of Europe for the past 40 years.
As London mayor Boris Johnson, a potential future prime minister and former Brussels journalist, reiterated this week, Britain is in the process of reshaping its ties to Europe, with the goal being less engagement not more.
Many Britons resent what they see as interference by the European Union in issues ranging from London’s standing as a financial centre to the voting rights of prisoners.
For now, Britain is headed in the same direction as everyone else but in the months or years ahead it could well decide it has less to gain from being in than being out.
Beyond Britain, it’s harder to pin down precisely which countries are sticking to the far-right lane (or left on British motorways), but EU diplomats asked for their views suggest at least two: the Czech Republic and Sweden.
Neither has taken the same public hard line as Britain in the debate, but in subtler ways both have shown an increasing discomfort with where the EU is headed as the push for deeper and more rapid integration gains momentum.