As we can see, EU leaders are preparing to push ahead with significant new moves toward political and economic union, including a single central bank, a unified fiscal regime, debt mutualisation and permanent, continuous fiscal transfers from the North to the South. These moves may be opposed in certain quarters — in particular by the Bundesbank and by German public opinion; but in the end they will be necessary steps towards a United States of Europe if the core eurozone is to survive.
In parallel will come formal recognition of ‘Associate Membership’, as foreshadowed in the Spinelli Group ‘Fundamental Law’ report. Associate Membership will be offered to the United Kingdom and Denmark, who have opt-outs from compulsory euro membership; and could also be offered to the members of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland), in a move to ‘rationalise’ European political structures. These changes will require basic treaty change, the groundwork for which is already being prepared.
There are basically two ways of interpreting and implementing Associate Membership. In the first, the UK and others would be condemned to permanent second class status, subject to all the present disadvantages of EU membership but with increasingly little influence on EU decision-making in the future. In the second model, that of a ‘two-speed’ EU, Associate Members would be expected or required eventually to join the central core, including adoption of the euro. However, the precise implications of Associate Membership will not be clear until the treaty process is concluded.
This will take five years or more, taking us beyond the next UK General Election and beyond the point, probably in mid-2019, when Cameron has indicated he will stand down. So when Cameron offers the UK electorate Associate Membership as the outcome of his ‘renegotiation’ in 2017 (a) we will have no way of understanding its precise implications (b) there will be no basis for trusting that Cameron can deliver it, whatever it is.
Second class status or slow lane membership: both are unacceptable in principle.