France and Germany have proposed a new “inner circle” of European Union membership for countries willing to overhaul the bloc, in a plan that includes a new outer tier of membership for “even the UK”.
On Tuesday, Laurence Boone and Anna Lührmann, the Europe ministers of France and Germany, proposed a four-tiered European Union to integrate countries that aren’t “willing and/or able to join the EU in the foreseeable future”.
The plans will likely be central to the bloc’s pledge to welcome Ukraine as a full member in less than seven years as part of its biggest shake-up in decades.
Under the scheme, decision-making will be streamlined and Brussels will be handed more powers to manage the expansion, which includes the western Balkans, by 2030.
If the UK became a so-called “associate member” of the EU, it would be expected to contribute to the bloc’s annual budget and be governed by the European Court of Justice in exchange for “participation” in the single market.
Ms Luhrmann told reporters in Brussels: “It’s clear that EU enlargement and EU reform go hand in hand. And we need to begin with this now.
“The report delivers a valuable contribution to the debate on the future of the EU. It presents ambitious as well as pragmatic recommendations.”
The EU’s most powerful capitals called for the “inner circle” of member states committed to the most radical reforms on defence, foreign policy and security.
A second tier would allow for “uncooperative, unwilling states offered opt-outs in the new treaty but with no exemptions” from the existing Lisbon Treaty commitments.
Britain was named as a potential candidate for the third tier, described as “associate membership”, that is aimed at countries who want close trade ties with Brussels while remaining outside the bloc.
“Associate members would not be bound to ‘ever closer union’ and further integration, nor would they participate in deeper political integration in other policy areas such as justice and home affairs or EU citizenship,” the report commissioned by Paris and Berlin says.
“The basic requirement would be the commitment to comply with the EU’s common principles and values, including democracy and rule of law,” the report adds.
“The core areas of participation would be the single market.”
It would not include a customs union with the EU, allowing for countries like the UK to maintain an independent trade policy.
Associate members would be represented by speakers inside the European Commission and Parliament without any voting rights on decisions over new single market rules and regulations.
Details of the plan were contained in a 60-page report drawn up by experts commissioned by France and Germany, and presented to EU ministers in Brussels.
Here’s what associate membership could mean for Britain.
The single market
As an associate member of the EU, the UK would enjoy unlimited, frictionless access to the bloc’s single market of more than 500 million consumers.
This would require the country to follow its rules, such as freedom of movement, product safety and animal health standards.
While Britain remains closely aligned with many of these standards after Brexit, the country officially left the single market after the transition period expired on Dec 31, 2020, which ended the free movement of people from the EU.
The European Court of Justice
Because associate members would be completely aligned with the single market, they would be governed by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
It would give the European Commission powers to make legal challenges for alleged breaches of rules.
Ultimately, any EU infringement proceedings could result in multi-million pound fines handed down by Brussels.
The EU budget
If Britain were one day to become an associate member, it would be expected to resume payments towards the bloc’s finances.
Under the Franco-German plan, the contributions would be at a “lower level” to cover institutional costs, such as pay for civil servants.
The new membership bracket would be excluded from the EU’s costly Common Agricultural Policy and levelling up funds.
The UK once paid £12.6 billion annually into the EU’s budget. As an associate member it would likely reflect that of Norway – around £430 million a year – for a similar membership package.
Associate members would be free from the burdens of participating in the EU’s justice and home affairs agenda.
This means Britain would not be expected to abide by the bloc’s plans to distribute asylum seekers between its member states, with minimum quotas set at 30,000 people.
The post-Brexit deal with Brussels has already opened doors to other areas of cooperation, such as police intelligence sharing and international arrest warrants.
Associate members of the EU would not have a right to vote on planned legislation like a full member of the bloc.
Instead, they would be offered a seat at the meetings of the EU’s council of ministers discussing new single market rules.
The Government would not be allowed to nominate a European Commission candidate to sit at the table of the bloc’s executive body and voters would not be allowed to elect MEPs to the European Parliament.