May 12, 2022 - 7:00am

This week, Emmanuel Macron proposed a new geography for Europe. Instead of the binary choice of EU membership or non-membership, there’d be a third option for countries to join what François Mitterrand once called a “European Confederation.”

This would be a kind of EU Lite. Candidates for membership wouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops to get in — but also wouldn’t get the financial support that full EU membership provides to poorer countries. 

Macron has realised that the renewed political drive towards EU expansion is at odds with basic economic feasibility. There is no way that a country as big and poor as Ukraine could be included without putting the EU budget under intolerable strain.

And it’s not just about money. Other events this week show that Europe must either adopt a more flexible structure or seize-up altogether. For instance, EU member states like Hungary and Bulgaria have threatened to veto the EU proposed oil sanctions on Russia. The German foreign minister has responded by calling for the right of veto to be abolished. European foreign policy “can no longer be held hostage” he said. 

It would be a lot easier for the core EU states to pursue “ever closer union” if the other members — especially the ex-communist states — weren’t obliged to come along for the ride. But, of course, that would require a Europe in which countries could move at different speeds towards integration. 

As the UK-Swedish and UK-Finnish security agreements signed yesterday demonstrates Europe could become more, not less, co-operative if every country wasn’t required to make exactly the same set of commitments. Each country could bring to the table what it felt it could best offer. 

I’d love to think that these are sentiments that lie behind Macron’s big idea. However, I have my doubts. In place of a genuine commitment to flexibility, the goal may be the creation of an outer ring of vassal states — to be dictated to by an EU that still uses trade as an instrument of control. Furthermore, as well as a way of keeping the likes of Ukraine at arms length, I suspect that this intermediate Europe would become a dumping ground for countries like Poland — thrown out of the EU proper for defying Brussels. 

I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that — and that Macron really does see that cooperation not coercion is the way forward for Europe. However, it’s best not to take any chances. If there is to be a European third way between one-size-fits-all EU membership and the outer darkness, then it should be UK policy to begin building it.

The security agreements with Poland, Hungary and now Sweden are an excellent starting point, but should not be the end of our ambitions. After all, it’s our continent too.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.