Once again the prospect of the UK having EU “associate membership” has been raised. The concept has a long history extending back to at least 1963 and brought up more recently in 2013 by the staunchly federalist Spinelli Group.

This time however, ‘associate membership’ has been raised by Belgian arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt in an article last month.

It is clear he is coming from a position of being “fed up with institutional deadlock” (i.e. full integration isn’t happening fast enough for him) and he can see who the blocker is – Britain.

In amongst various flavours of bilge, we can discern from the article that he proposes two levels of EU membership:

  1. Full membership involving “ever closer union with one currency, one economic policy, one army [please note, Nick Clegg] and one foreign policy.” In other words, a country called Europe.
  2. Associate membership. To quote him in full: “This gives access to the internal market with its free movement of goods, services, capital and people. You will only have to apply those rules and regulations that are necessary to create a level playing field in internal trade. Obviously, that also means you would no longer have full representation and the corresponding voting rights at EU level.”

So associate membership appears to be akin to EEA membership.

Verhofstadt’s words don’t however go as far as EEA membership, despite that being the clear implication. A charitable reading of the article would suggest that in such a short contribution, he couldn’t set out the full terms of associate membership; its effect on participation in various common policies; or its effect on budget contributions and such like.

We would also point out that associate membership still means “EU membership”, thereby giving us good reason to be sceptical about the terms of such membership. Should it ever happen, in the public mind it would give the illusion that something dramatic has changed while remaining members of the EU. In other words we’d be permanently stuck in the EU with a second tier status making it wholly unsatisfactory.

An alternative reading, however, is that Verhofstadt’s view at least provides a basis for discussion about a real grand bargain: one that does indeed see the UK stepping back from EU membership to EEA membership, including the UK retaking an independent seat on global bodies, being able to sign independent trade treaties with other non-EU countries, and seeing our contribution to the EU drop so that it simply covers access to the single market.

That means we could be looking at a very different landscape if the allegedly-eurosceptic UK government was actually eurosceptic and was seeking such a grand bargain. But therein lies the rub – they are seeking no such thing.

But a UK No vote in a referendum would force the UK government to this point – EU exit but continued participation in the single market.

Hence that No vote is looking more necessary than ever.

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