Will Brexit Britain ever sign up to Emmanuel Macron’s “shadow EU”?
The French president claimed Boris Johnson showed “interest” in his plans for a “European Political Community” of EU and non-EU states at the G7 summit in Germany.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson described his relationship with Mr Macron as “le bromance” after the talks in Bavaria.
Could the Prime Minister really have “beaucoup d’enthousiasme ” about signing up to the new European club, as spinlysée spin doctors have suggested?
What is the EPC?
A group of democratic countries, both in and outside of the EU, which would try to bring political stability to the Continent by cooperating on shared interests.
This could include security, transport, energy and investment and moves to make it easier for young people, tourists and workers to travel between member countries.
The idea has echoes of Mr Macron’s calls for a multi-speed Europe of “concentric circles”, which involved some members pressing ahead with closer political integration and others on the outer rings of the organization.
Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate status to join the EU at a summit last weekbut joining the EU is a long and difficult process that can take decades.
Six Western Balkans have been waiting years to gain EU membership, which has led to frustration and accusations of broken promises from Brussels.
The European Political Community is a way of building political ties with those countries while the lengthy process of joining the bloc drags on.
But Mr Macron insists it does not oblige a member to join the EU, nor is it an alternative to joining for those countries hoping to become EU member states.
Could other non-EU countries join?
North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as Norway, Iceland – which are members of the Single Market but not the EU – and Switzerland.
There is also talk of bringing in former Soviet republics Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Mr Johnson is understood to have told Mr Macron he did not think the group would work without the involvement of Maghreb countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Mr Macron has even suggested Russia could one day join the club once the war in Ukraine is over.
What about Britain?
Mr Macron suggested that the UK could also join the new club when he floated the idea in May. He brought the subject up at a meeting with Mr Johnson at the G7 summit in Germany on Sunday.
Before the summit, London warned Paris not to put any pressure on Ukraine to cede territory to Russia to get a quick peace deal.
On Sunday, after their meeting, the two men were, according to Mr Johnson, “100 per cent aligned” on Ukraine.
Both pledged to help Kyiv with a surge of weapons, which encouraged a beaming Mr Johnson to talk of “Le Bromance”.
Later, the Élysée briefed that Mr Johnson was “very enthusiastic” about Mr Macron’s pet project of the European Political Community.
Bromance? What Bromance?
UK-French relations are going through one of their rockiest periods in modern history.
There have been bitter rows over the Brexit talks, the Northern Ireland Protocol and fishing licenses, which culminated in French and British navy boats eyeing each other off the coast of Jersey.
Paris accused London of going behind its back to sign a new defense deal to provide US-built nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which cost France a lucrative contract.
Mr Macron reportedly called Mr Johnson a “clown”, while the Prime Minister told the President to “donnez-moi un break” over the Aukus submarine row.
The two men agreed to hold an Anglo-French summit to try to restore strained relations after G7 talks that skirted issues of previous disagreement.
This sounds like a shadow EU…
The European Political Community would be dominated by the bloc of 27 EU member states, but in an organization with far looser political ties.
The new club will not demand the same sacrifices in national sovereignty that EU membership does or hand down binding regulations as the European Commission does.
It also will not automatically grant benefits of EU membership, such as Single Market access, which will continue to be in Brussels’ sole gift.
Countries hoping to join the EU fear they will instead be palmed off with a second class of membership through the European Political Community.
Will it tie UK back to Brussels?
Britain’s proximity to the EU and its large market means Brussels will always exert some influence but there are fears the European Political Community could limit the UK’s hard-won Brexit freedoms.
“We do not want to be locked into a shadow EU organization,” one UK source said.
The UK repeatedly rejected EU overtures to sign up to a security and foreign policy treaty during the Brexit negotiations. It was anxious not to tie itself into EU structures for sovereignty reasons.
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, has suggested Nato and the G7 are better formats for European political cooperation after Brexit.
Is the EPC likely to happen?
EU leaders had their first discussion of the idea at the European Council summit last week.
Any final agreement is certainly a long way off and, after elections in France delivered a hung parliamentMr Macron is weaker than he was when he first put forward the plans.
Other EU leaders in the past have listened politely to Mr Macron’s grand visions for the future of Europe, before doing nothing to help them come into contact with reality.
Will the UK join?
For now, the idea would bring Boris Johnson too much political pain for too little gain to countenance seriously.
Number 10 said the UK would listen to any ideas from “like-minded countries”.
But a source told The Telegraph that Mr Johnson’s reaction to Mr Macron’s plan was “not a meaningful endorsement” and “more like a deflection”.
Mr Johnson is on a collision course with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol. There is anger among Tories about the non-EU European Court of Human Rights after it blocked a flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Will his Brexiteer MPs still support Mr Johnson, the man “who got Brexit done”, if he signs up to a new European organization?
Will Mr Johnson, weakened by by-election defeats and Partygate, even be Prime Minister by the time the European Political Community gets off the ground?
The war in Ukraine has already wrought huge and unprecedented changes to the European political landscape.
Who would have ever predicted that Kyiv would take a step towards EU membership or that neutral Finland and Sweden would apply to join Nato before the invasion of Ukraine?
Future governments could see the geopolitical benefit in the European Political Community and a slightly closer relationship with the EU once the scars of Brexit heal over.