Keir Starmer’s visit to Paris in September, for talks with President Emmanuel Macron, has ignited a new dispute over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Macron has for years been an advocate of a multi-speed Europe. A Europe of concentric circles, where countries can pick and choose the level of integration that suits them best. There would be an inner circle of the most aligned states, and three other circles, culminating in an outer tier of associate members. ‘Associate membership’ would provide closer economic ties for countries that are not members of the EU such as the UK, Switzerland, and Norway. However, under the plan drawn up by France and Germany, those outer tier countries would be expected to make small contributions to the EU’s annual budget and be governed by the European Court of Justice in exchange for “participation” in the single market. An alternative outer tier, that might suit Britain better, would involve free trade agreements in areas such as energy and defence, and further cooperation on climate change and security issues, but would not include full participation in the single market or any integration with EU law. Countries joining the outer tier would have to commit to the “common principles and values” of the EU.

In the run up to a likely general election next year, both Starmer and Rishi Sunak have already ruled out any kind of ‘associate membership’ of the EU, afraid that such a move would inflame pro and anti-Brexit passions. Indeed, Brexiteers have been quick to condemn the idea of closer ties with the 27-member bloc, accusing the EU of “desperation” in its bid for reconciliation with Britain. Meanwhile, anti-Brexiteer stalwarts claim recent opinion polls indicate that a majority of Britons now think Brexit was a mistake and therefore the UK government should urgently explore the Franco-German initiative. Keir Starmer has pledged to secure a “much better” Brexit deal for Britain if he becomes Prime Minister and his talks with President Macron seem to have laid the groundwork. Indeed the ‘associate membership’ plan appears to have been specifically designed to lure Britain into a new kind of partnership agreement.

Macron pursued his vision for a multi-speed Europe during the protracted Brexit negotiations. To those who argued that such a structure would be “too complex”, he pointed out that a complex structure already exists, with Eurozone and non-Eurozone states, Schengen and non-Schengen, the European Economic Area (EEA), which includes the 27 EU member states and Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) which also includes Switzerland. Macron reasoned that an a la Carte Europe, would merely institutionalise this structure, and make differences in integration common practice, providing much-needed flexibility at the European level.

The paper Macron discussed with Keir Starmer at his Élysée Palace meeting, was drawn up by an official ‘Franco-German working group on EU institutional reform’, made up of 12 experts, academics and lawyers, commissioned by the French and German governments earlier this year. The initiative was warmly welcomed at a meeting of European Council ministers in Brussels earlier in September. The concept of a ‘layers of the onion’ Europe as envisaged by the French President would seek to reconcile the warring factions of the federalists, who feel that there has been insufficient integration and the minimalists, who think that the EU has gone too far. Those who want a simple free trade area could have it, but no more. Those who would like a common defence scheme in addition could also have it, but no more. Even those who want a United States of Europe could have it as well, in the inner core. But no-one would be forced to participate in areas they are not keen on. 

Every state could sign up to the zone it prefers. There would be a “Core Europe,” which favoured full integration in the euro, finance, the economy, migration, and so forth, and then there would be other circles – those on the outside tier of Macron’s “concentric circles,” where states only participate in some areas. Outlining his idea of voluntary cooperation in 2022, Macron stated: “We have to think up a Europe with several formats, go further with those who want to go forward, without being hindered by states that want – and it is their right – to go not as fast or not as far.” The new Franco German proposal builds on that concept with the addition of an outer ‘associate membership’ tier aimed at countries like the UK.

As the shortcomings of Brexit begin to dawn on Britons, the notion of cementing closer ties with the EU has its attractions. In March, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – a government watchdog – warned that the impact of Brexit on the British economy was of the same “magnitude” as the covid pandemic and the energy price crisis combined. The OBR chief – Richard Hughes, said that the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) would have been 4% higher if we had stayed in the EU. The race to find an equitable solution to the Northern Ireland border control issue and the recent bespoke deal enabling UK scientists to join the Horizon Europe and Copernicus programmes, are a clear indication that the British government is moving back towards forging closer links with the EU. 

At a time when the rise of right-wing populism is beginning to expose cracks and fractures in the EU, with member states like Hungary, Italy and even France displaying increasing signs of euro scepticism, a reformed Europe incorporating concentric circles of membership might be the solution. Replacing the unpopular EU ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach with a system encompassing flexibility and pluralism, might pave the way for Britain to renew its friendship with our European neighbours. President Macron may have handed us the key.