France and Germany are pushing plans to offer Britain and other European countries “associate membership” of the EU in a move that could rebuild the UK’s ties with the bloc.
The two countries have tabled a blueprint that would create four new tiers, with the most closely aligned states forming an “inner circle”.
In what will be seen as an olive branch, a new outer tier of “associate membership” would be open to the UK.
Senior Tories welcomed the proposal with former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine telling The Independent that Britain must urgently explore the idea as the “overarching majority of people in Britain see Brexit as a mistake”.
“The dam is breaking and there is increasingly a move towards integrating with Europe,” he said.
But the move prompted a furious reaction from Brexiteers who accused EU countries of “desperation” in their bid to enlarge the bloc.
News of the plans came after Sir Keir Starmer held talks in Paris with French president Emmanuel Macron, the final leg of an international tour designed to show the Labour leader as a prime-minister-in-waiting.
As both main parties walk a tightrope over Brexit in the run up to next year’s general election, Labour and No 10 ruled out any form of associate membership of the EU.
At the weekend Sir Keir pledged to secure a “much better” Brexit deal if he wins the next election, but ruled out re-joining the customs union or the single market, as he sought to appeal to both pro-remain businesses and Leave voters.
In March the chairman of the government watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) warned the economic impact of Brexit was the same “magnitude” as the Covid pandemic and the energy price crisis.
Richard Hughes said Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP), a key measure of a country’s wealth, would be 4 per cent higher if the UK had stayed in the EU.
Associate membership would form the bloc’s first “outer tier” and could include members of Europe’s single market who are not in the EU, such as Switzerland or “even the UK”, a paper put forward by France and Germany stated.
Associate members would not be bound to “ever closer union” and further integration, it said. They would also not participate in deeper integration in policy areas such as justice, home affairs and citizenship.
But they would have to commit to the “common principles and values” of the EU, the plans state.
Associate members would also pay into the EU’s budget, but with lower costs.
“The core area of participation would be the single market,” the paper said.
A second tier for outer members would not include any integration with EU law but would see an upgrade of the European Political Community (EPC), of which Britain is a part. It would include free trade agreements in certain areas such as energy or defence, and would focus on cooperation on important issues such as climate and security.
Asked about the potential to join a new outer tier of the EU, Tory former business secretary and arch-Brexiteer Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “I like the outer tier that we are currently in.”
Former Brexit minister Lord Frost told The Independent Britain should “certainly not” consider associate membership.
Sir Keir said his meeting with Macron began with an “exchange of gifts” and covered topics including “the relationship between our two countries” and future “prosperity and security”.
Sir Keir stressed plans to “build” on the relationship between France and Britain if Labour wins power.
A European diplomatic source told The Times the plan was designed with Labour in mind, despite Sir Keir having ruled out rejoining the EU’s single market.
“It is carefully balanced politically to be a potential place for Britain without the need to ever rejoin the EU or to hold a referendum,” the source said.
A party spokesperson said: “Labour will seek a better deal for Britain. This does not involve any form of membership.”
And the prime minister’s official spokesman, asked whether Rishi Sunak would countenance Britain becoming an associate member of the EU, said: “No.”
Associate membership would not include a customs union, allowing Britain to keep an independent trade policy.
Lord Heseltine told The Independent Britain “must urgently explore” France and Germany’s plan.
The Tory former deputy prime minister said: “The remorseless pressure of public opinion is changing the dynamic of politics.
“The dam is breaking and there is increasingly a move towards integrating with Europe. This is an opportunity offered by France and Germany which should be seized upon.
“The overarching majority of people in Britain see Brexit as a mistake, even those who still believe in it agree it has never been possible to implement it.
“The Tories have at least recognised change is needed, firstly with Northern Ireland and the Windsor Agreement and then with Horizon, allowing cooperation on sciences and technology.”He also suggested that political stances could shift after the next election.
“While the red wall may be insurmountable on this side of the general election, the pressure of events will push people of both main parties to dare to change and to make permanent links with Europe,” he said.
“This new plan between France and Germany must be explored urgently.”
But Sir John Redwood said Britain should “certainly not” consider becoming an associate member of the EU.
The Tory former trade minister told The Independent that leaving the single market was “a crucial part of the Brexit case” and rejoining would do “huge damage” to British industry.
“And we certainly do not want to get back into the financial entanglements,” Sir John warned.
He said a “great win” of Brexit was no longer having to contribute to the bloc’s budget and not being responsible for its huge debt pile.
Reacting to Sir Keir’s announced plans to renegotiate Britain’s deal with the EU, Sir John warned the Labour leader to “beware” thinking that improvements will be easy to secure.
“Why doesn’t he set out what improvements he thinks he wants, then he might found out what the actual price for that will be?,” Sir John said.
He added: “Sir Keir is very naive in thinking that the EU is going to be nice to him.
“I am sure the EU would be very keen to see labour win, because they think he will be more of a pushover than the current government.
“But I think, beware, there will not be actual gifts were he to go on to win the election.”
While Tory MP Craig Mackinlay said the idea “smacks of desperation” at a time when many member states are wondering “what this democracy devouring beast is for”.
“Doubtless Sir Keir Starmer will be fully in favour of fulfilling his dream, as he made clear across the years of Parliamentary trench warfare against Brexit between 2016 and 2019, to start the UK back into full membership” Mr Mackinlay said.
He told The Independent: “Single Market membership and rule taking, which would doubtless be the cost of new associate status, looks increasingly irrelevant as the UK signs new international trade deals.
“The country rejected this once and would do so again.”
Gina Miller, the anti-Brexit campaigner, told The Independent the UK should “see this move as an opportunity to start” the process to rejoin the EU.
“This ‘onion’ option, forming part of an outer layer of the EU, is an olive branch from our European neighbours, but we must negotiate cautiously to make sure that we regain at least some of the influence we lost under Brexiteer extremism,” she said.
And Best for Britain, which campaigns for closer ties with the EU, said the proposals were “encouraging”, but associate membership remains “some way off”.
Chief executive Naomi Smith said: “The first steps to reaching it must be improving the current deal by agreeing beneficial regulatory alignment and a reciprocal youth mobility scheme with the EU as recommended by the UK Trade and Business Commission in their landmark report in May.”
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