New membership forms solve EU challenges

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Associate membership and other innovations could be used to break the log-jam and the EU's enlargement fatigue, writes Manfred Kohler. EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI

Associate membership and other innovations could be used to break the log-jam and the EU’s enlargement fatigue, giving the EU a chance to turn a “historic mistake” into a historic opportunity, writes Manfred Kohler.

Manfred Kohler is an official in the European Commission. He is writing in a personal capacity and this article does not (necessarily) represent the view of the European Commission. 

Out of his concern for the efficient governance of the EU, Emmanuel Macron opposes the addition of new EU member states, such as North Macedonia and Albania.

He intends to use this as a lever for a more thorough reform of the EU. Former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and other leaders, consider this stance to be a historic mistake, fearing for peace in the Balkans. A compromise is thus necessary, and might be found in an associate membership without veto rights in the European Council.

On the opposite end of the continent, the UK haltingly deintegrates from the EU institutions, while the desire for more autonomy in several member states impedes future progress in European integration.

A more variable geometry, centred on voluntary membership in distinct policy sectors, would accommodate states on a trajectory out of the EU as well as those on their way in.

What could associate membership and membership with variable geometry look like?

Associate membership: States could become associates without voting rights if they decide to apply certain EU policies bundled in one or several policy sectors, as if they were regular EU members. Associates could select the policy sectors, but not individual policies, and could have the same rights and obligations as regular members with regard to the implementation of the policies. They would be consulted and their associate membership would be suspended if they do not fulfil important obligations.

Membership with variable geometry: Regular EU members would have the possibility to opt-out of certain policy sectors, but not of individual measures or policies. Voting rights at the level of the Council and the European Parliament would be suspended for the discarded policy sectors. The overall number of opt-outs should be limited. For a core zone no opt-outs should be possible. The core zone should include democracy, human rights, rule of law, separation of powers, recognition of competence of the European Courts, etc. It might also include the four fundamental freedoms and legislation on an internal market for products and non-financial services. Opting-out or back-in would require a reasonable lead-time of 1-3 years. As incentive,  meanwhile, only members participating to all policies could nominate a Commissioner and judges.

Associates and opting-out regular members might unfairly cherry-pick policy sectors, but this can be countered by rules. For example, it might lead to an unfair distortion of the market to opt for free circulation of products whilst not applying EU legislation on environment and social standards. Hence these sectors must form a block.

Associates’ contributions should be proportionate to the budget share of the selected policy sectors. For example, if a state would need to contribute €5 billion per year as a regular member and the policy sectors it participates in represent 20% of the EU budget, the contribution as an associate should be €1 billion. Regular members would pay in full even when opting-out of policy sectors.

The two new membership forms could solve many issues and promote the EU in the world:

  1. People and courts in the member states who question the full democratic legitimacy of the EU will recognise that further democratic control is exerted by decisions to opt out or not.
  2. The possibility to opt-out of policy sectors would bring EU policies better into the national debates. The EU would be perceived as closer to citizens than today.
  3. EEA states and Switzerland could become regular members with opt-outs, consolidating the legal order on the continent
  4. European non-EU states with membership aspirations receive a stake in the EU institutions in preparation for full membership
  5. States located between the EU and Russia like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia can become bridges as associates whereas they become conflict zones when aspiring for regular membership.
  6. Likewise, non-EU states that want to some degree of integration with the EU without putting their ties to non-EU states at risk can do so. This provides room for compromise in the domestic politics of these countries
  7. Some non-European states like Canada, Tunisia or Uruguay could, as EU associates, function as a bridge between the EU and their respective region as, for instance, they could become certification hubs.
  8. The EU could gradually develop into a global policy and regulatory platform by cooperating fairly with non-European associates.
  9. The discussion on exiting the EU in some current EU member states could “depolarize” because there would be a third way: opting-out of certain policy sectors.
  10. Some EU Member States could loosen their membership rather than blocking progress for all. The way for deeper integration would be open.

Given these possibilities, might we turn a “historic mistake” into a historic opportunity? In particular, associate membership is low hanging fruit: it could be achieved by international agreements, without necessitating any change to the Treaties. Let us act. Geopolitical destabilisation on several corners of the continent compel us to.

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