An alternative EU membership

20 November 2012

Joost Lagendijk

There is a growing feeling inside the European Union that it is becoming increasingly difficult to have each member state agree on a future shape of the EU that fits all. There are two main reasons for this mood in Brussels and several capitals.
One is the almost inevitable conclusion that it will be impossible to keep the UK on board when the rest of the member states continue on their road toward a more federal EU. To get out of the current euro crisis and in order to prevent a recurrence, a large majority of EU member states is willing to establish a banking union, followed by a fiscal union and some sort of economic governance at the EU level that will seriously limit the economic sovereignty of eurozone countries.

In London, both main parties have already made it clear they will do everything they can to keep the UK out of this more integrated EU. The Czech Republic has voiced its doubts about the new direction as well, and it is not so obvious what countries like Sweden and Denmark that have not joined the eurozone will do. It seems that as a result of the creation of a more federal eurozone, a two-speed Europe is taking shape. At the core, a group that shares the same currency and is therefore obliged to move in the direction of a full economic and political union. Outside of this dominant nucleus, we find several EU member states that want to keep their own banknotes and are not willing to give up other major parts of their national competencies.

The second reason for the present European discomfort is the possibility that as a consequence of these moves toward a federal political union, the minimum threshold for countries that want to join the EU will become mroe difficult. The Turkish government has already announced that it still wants to join the EU but not the eurozone.

In other words, Turkey wants to stay out of the core group. Candidate countries from the Balkans will most probably, even if they wanted to, not be able to meet the necessary criteria for eurozone membership.

Until recently, the debate about how to deal with this situation was mainly held at a theoretical level among academics and political analysts. Not any longer.

This week the European Parliament will adopt a report on the future of EU enlargement that comes up with an answer to this question. The report offers an overall positive assessment of the previous new members’ entry and is in favor of taking in more countries that fulfill the criteria in the future. Still, in a key paragraph, the Parliament recognizes that: “not all European states will choose to seek full membership, and that some which do seek it will not fulfill the accession criteria; and recommends, therefore, that at the next general revision of the Treaties, without prejudice to any ongoing enlargement negotiations, Parliament should initiate a discussion on the introduction of a new category of associate membership to the Union.”

The wording was amended in the report by Andrew Duff, a British liberal MEP and a specialist on constitutional affairs. In a recent booklet on the future structure of the EU, Duff introduced the concept of “associate membership” to cope with an unavoidable British veto against further financial and political integration of the EU. According to Duff, the UK needs the option of a parking place short of the federal destination because otherwise the Brits will leave the EU. The new associate status could also suit other countries, EU member states and non-members, that, for different reasons, do not to join the federal core.

Why is this search for a more sophisticated multi-tier arrangement inside the EU important for Turkey? Duff suggests that the associate membership could prove to be an attractive springboard to full membership for countries like Serbia and a satisfactory permanent accommodation for others such as Turkey. In a recent debate in Brussels, Duff emphasized that the new status should not be compared with the infamous “privileged partnership” offered to Turkey by France and Germany. As Duff sees it, Turkey would not be singled out but join a bigger group of like-minded countries.

I am sure we will see much more of this debate in the near future. The EU is rapidly turning into an organization with multiple layers and dimensions. Turkey is well advised to follow that transformation closely. If Duff gets his way, and that is a big if, I am convinced that the associate membership will be a game changer for Turkey in its relations with the EU.



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