UK-EU relationship: Making the case for 'associate membership'

6 December 2012
Andrew Duff (President of the Spinelli Group; Former Member of the European Parliament 1999-2014)

"European Union leaders are struggling to find a way out of their immediate difficulties without committing themselves to electorally unpopular long-term strategies. Years of panicky crisis management have taken their toll. Nobody at the top table has the nerve to deal seriously with blueprints, from whichever source, or roadmaps, to whichever destination. The current endeavour, indeed, is a scramble for the lowest common denominator of ambition and commitment.

Given the present state of the Union it is remarkable that any other country should wish to join. Yet several appear to do so. What do they imagine they will be joining? It is important that all candidate states are made aware that the Treaty of Lisbon is no longer the benchmark.

If the EU survives the present crisis it will emerge as a fiscal union run by a federal economic government. Banking union is a key building block of the more federal Europe – which explains why its negotiation is proving in the event to be so difficult. Other changes, notably the appointment of an EU treasury secretary and the progressive mutualisation of sovereign debt, will have to wait until a Convention to change the treaties is called in spring 2015.

While a more federal EU will be better equipped to cope with the entry of new members, the threshold for those joining goes up. So expectant countries on the borders faced with an ever more daunting accession process will need more sophisticated multi-tier arrangements than the EU has had so far.

The Treaty of Lisbon inserted a new clause, Article 50 TEU, which allows for the secession of a member state. This was a natural refinement of the constitutional order of the Union at a moment when it decided to take a significant, if incomplete, step in the federal direction. Member states have the sovereign right to choose not to continue their membership as and when the Union as a whole takes on demanding new forms.

The 2015 Convention should add another clause whose purpose is to establish a formal category of associate membership of the Union (Article 49a). Such associate membership will require fidelity to the values and principles of the Union (Article 2) but not adherence to all its political objectives as laid down in Article 3 (which include the euro), nor, of course, the duty to engage in all its activities. Participation by associate member states in the EU institutions would necessarily be limited.

Associate status would well suit four categories of European country:

  • States (such as Serbia) which aspire to full membership but which need time and stability to meet the Copenhagen criteria and to assimilate the acquis communautaire;
  • States (possibly Turkey) which choose not to become full members but which require a secure and durable partnership with the EU;
  • Norway and Switzerland, needing to upgrade their current unsatisfactory arrangements, and;
  • Existing member states of the EU which prefer relegation.

For some, associate membership would be a springboard to full accession; for others, a long-stay parking place; and for yet others, a decent alternative to leaving the Union altogether. The form and conditions of associate membership would need to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and would naturally be determined by the dynamics of whether a state was coming or going.

Sometime after 2015, the United Kingdom will face a referendum on the federal treaty. Nobody in their right mind can imagine for a moment that such a treaty will command a British 'Yes' vote without the parallel offer of the option of associate membership. The British Tories would prefer to pick and choose à la carte from the European menu, but this is hardly an offer which the rest of the EU will be prepared to make. The prospect of interminable red lines, opt-outs, emergency brakes, derogations and rebates – all under the threat of the British veto – is deeply unattractive.

A cleaner and more clear-cut form of association with democratic endorsement may prove to be the better option for all concerned. The federal experiment needs a chance to work well on the European mainland, if necessary unimpeded by British hostility.

The European Union has proved itself over the years capable of great constitutional ingenuity, and it is reasonable to assume that, given the political will to work together for the good of all Europe, satisfactory arrangements could be made to suit all circumstances, even those of the British.”

Andrew Duff is the spokesman on constitutional affairs for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and President of the Union of European Federalists. @Andrew_Duff_MEP