French President Emmanuel Macron has set out his vision of a restructured Europe that involves the core European Union states entering into a political union with non members, implying that the UK could join this wider “European political community”.
Mr Macron was speaking yesterday (May 9) at the European Parliament in Strasbourg to mark both the celebration of Europe Day and the closing ceremony for the Conference on the Future of Europe.
His comments came in the context of offering Ukraine greater protection following Russia’s invasion of the country on February 24.
“Even if tomorrow we granted them [Ukraine] the status of candidate for membership of our European Union… We all know perfectly well that the process allowing them to join would take several years – in truth, probably several decades,” Mr Macron said.
“And it is the truth to say this, unless we decide to lower the standards of this membership and therefore to completely rethink the unity of our Europe.”
He then put forward his solution, calling for a new organisation that would “allow democratic European nations adhering to our set of values to find a new space for political cooperation, security, cooperation in energy, transport, investment, infrastructure and the movement of people, especially our youth”.
“Joining it [the new political community] would not necessarily lead to future EU membership, just as [the community] would not be closed to those that have left the EU,” he added.
This last comment can only be seen as a nod to the UK, which left the EU at the end of 2020 (although Greenland also technically left in 1985). Mr Macron did not mention the UK by name.
It could be seen as a surprising proposition, given that the UK and EU went through a series of difficult negotiations during the Brexit process as the EU did not want the UK to enjoy the benefits of EU membership without adhering to its rules, regulations and values.
Cette Communauté politique européenne permettrait aux Nations, européennes et démocratiques, de trouver un nouvel espace de coopération, en matière de politique, de sécurité, d'énergie, de transport, de libre circulation des personnes.pic.twitter.com/xXRzg02rHi— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 9, 2022
Mr Macron continued: “Let us be clear. The European Union, taking into account its level of integration and ambition, cannot be in the short term the only way to structure the European continent.
“We must very clearly, in light of this new geopolitical context, find a way to rethink our Europe, its unity, its stability, without weakening the intimacy built at the heart of our European Union.
“We have the historic need to not to do as we have always done and say that the only solution is membership [to the EU]."
France and therefore Mr Macron currently holds the position of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.
His speech in Strasbourg yesterday came at the conclusion of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a year-long assessment of what reforms the EU should make to its policies and institutions.
More details to come
Mr Macron did not go into great detail about what this proposed community would look like, how it would work or what obligations member countries would have.
He also did not specify what level of influence members of this community would have on EU affairs.
He did, though, cite the plans of former President François Mitterrand, who in 1989, with the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, called for a “European confederation”. These plans were short lived and disappeared within a couple of years.
Mr Macron said that while Mr Mitterand’s vision was likely too ahead of its time, it did “pose a good question: How should we structure Europe politically?
“It is our historic obligation to respond to that question today and to create what I will qualify to you as a European political community,” Mr Macron said.
He said that he intended to work out the proposals of the planned community with the heads of the EU’s 26 other countries in the coming months.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz later called Mr Macron’s vision “a very interesting proposal to deal with the big challenge that we are facing”.
But he also warned that candidate countries to the EU - Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey - should not be forgotten.
Countries that wish to join the EU face a lengthy process that involves them having to prove that they meet certain standards. It can take years for countries to reach these.
There is currently no fast-track entry process and Mr Macron’s comments of a wider European community could be seen as a blow to Ukraine’s aspirations for quick EU accession.
Ukraine is already a member of the EU’s Eastern Partnership scheme, alongside Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova. The aim of this is to foster closer relations between these countries and the EU, as well as promoting dialogue and exchange.
It is assumed that Mr Macron’s plans for a European political community would be a step up from this level of cooperation.
Thirteen EU countries yesterday signed a non-paper saying that they are against moving towards changing EU treaties, although this is not necessarily directly linked to Mr Macron’s European community proposal but is a more general hesitancy to change certain EU rules.
Non-paper by Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Sweden on the outcome of and follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe pic.twitter.com/YMRd6SKcJI— Sweden in EU (@SwedeninEU) May 9, 2022
Macron circles back to 2018
This is not the first time Mr Macron has spoken of restructuring the EU's organisation within Europe.
In 2018, he proposed a system of three concentric circles that would offer countries different levels of EU integration or cooperation.
The widest circle would be something between the current EU and the Council of Europe, which is a union of 46 countries and is separate from the EU.
He said that this circle would contain countries that were “less integrated than the EU” but would still have to adhere to certain EU values. He said then that it would have to include “either within it or via close agreements” Turkey and Russia. “If we want peace we must stabilise these two powers”, he said.
The second circle would be somewhere between the current EU and the Eurozone. Today, 19 countries have adopted the euro as their currency, with eight countries still maintaining their own, individual currencies.
Countries in this circle would represent "a strong single market, with a policy of sovereignty, trade, research and innovation and real freedom of movement within it", Mr Macron said.
The final, innermost circle, would be the “heart of the reactor”, with "a common currency, a much more integrated labour market and real social convergence,” he said.
It is not clear if Mr Macron’s plans for a European political community are the same, similar or different to his concentric circles proposal.