We already have the reality of a “two speed Europe” with the existence of sub-groups such as the Eurozone for currency and Schengen for travel, plus the European Customs Union which also includes non-EU countries such as Turkey except for agriculture exports.
So we can imagine consolidating this idea with a core group of around 20 or so EU countries called “EU Plus” and the other 10 or so called “EU Minus“. The Plus group are all those who sign up for everything on offer; the Minus group are the sceptics like Denmark or the fractured like Belgium.
Membership would be mobile, like football leagues. For example, Belgium would probably now go down into the Minus group because of Walloon’s fallout. Minus countries can apply for Plus membership based on their track record of good behaviour.
So, would UK Brexit criteria “fit” with the Minus group?
Well, maybe. Consider also if regions (eg Scotland, Northern Ireland) could apply directly for “Minus” membership even if the member state (eg UK) is not a member, provided the member state was in the Customs Union.
This would mean that single market rules would apply regionally, including free movement of people, but not in England and Wales. There could well be no internal hard borders because of the customs union. Residency rights would need to be regional rather than national, administered by local authorities as they do with the electoral roll. It also separates residency rights from nationality. The increasing millions of people with multiple nationalities also makes it less important than residency rights as time goes by.
London might want to become a region too, and it certainly has the population size to qualify. The UK Home Office would probably have a fit of the heebie jeebies, but it would do them good to lighten up a bit. We could also imagine other regions wanting to opt into the EU via the Minus group route, for example the South West of England for rural benefits. Gibraltar too.
As we have seen recently, the EU already struggles to get unanimous decisions from 28 different member states. So perhaps the future is to make two speeds official policy, and allow it down to the regional level.
For different reasons, the countries most against this arrangement would probably be France and Spain, each fearing a loss of central government control over their discontented regions such as Brittany and Catalonia. Until recently the UK would have been in this group too, but Brexit means the UK’s influence here is gone.
So, Brexit could well mean regional rights are back on the EU agenda.