German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said on May 12 that the European Union should adopt a two-track approach to integration, with a core group of states moving more quickly toward close cooperation and a surrounding group being able to move at a slower pace.
In a speech at Berlin's Humboldt University, Fischer suggested that those states willing to move more quickly toward European integration and even to have a directly elected European president and powerful European parliament should be allowed to do so - even if other members of the EU were unwilling to go along.
Because each country would decide whether to be on the fast or slow track toward unity, Fischer insisted, no country would feel left out by the actions of those who wanted to integrate more quickly.
The German foreign minister's comments parallel those in recent weeks by Russian leaders calling for a far closer union with Belarus than Moscow has with any of the other CIS states. And like Fischer, these leaders suggest that those who have chosen to pursue a slower track up to now may change their minds and join those more committed to integration.
Such proposals for multi-tiered cooperation within economic or political groupings are nothing new. In 1994, then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl proposed a similar "Kerneuropa" model for Europe; and since 1991, Russian officials repeatedly have pushed for tighter integration among those CIS states that are prepared to go along.
Both Berlin and Moscow have achieved some progress toward their proclaimed goals. Germany now does have special relationships with some but not all of the EU countries, and the Russian Federation has much closer ties with some of the CIS countries than it does with other member states.
But the creation of these special relationships has had another and very different effect than either of these two governments intended. It has angered some of the governments and peoples who are less interested in pursuing rapid integration and even caused them to re-examine their commitment to the levels of integration they now have.
In the case of the European Union, those countries which are likely to be left out of what Fischer called the "avant-garde" states are likely to re-examine their relationship with the EU as a whole, just as many CIS states have been put off by the Russian-Belarus Union idea.
On the one hand, they are likely to be offended because of the dominance of one country within the central grouping, Germany in the EU case and Russia in that of the CIS. A large EU or CIS in which the biggest countries are balanced by a large number of smaller ones is one thing; an inner EU or CIS dominated by only one power is something else again.
And on the other hand, they are also ever more likely be offended precisely because the rigors of tighter integration favored by some will inevitably put off others. The populations of many member countries already have dissented from some of the more pointed demands of membership in the broader groupings; more demands will only exacerbate this trend.
Thus, a number of European countries are already unhappy with the French diktat in agricultural policy. A tighter EU in which France might have a still larger voice would certainly offend. And many CIS states - including the five members of the GUUAM group (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova) - have publicly refused to follow Russia's line on integration not only in political and military spheres but in the economic one as well.
Indeed, in both the EU and the CIS, proposals to create inner circles will only highlight the continuing power imbalances between the larger and the smaller countries which are currently members and hence the much greater importance of national rather than collective interests.
To the extent ever more people in these countries focus on these power imbalances, these latest proposals for integration could trigger precisely the kinds of disintegration that both the EU and the CIS were established to prevent.