Britain’s next prime minister will be asked within weeks to join a pan-European community being championed by France as a way to bind countries more closely into the EU fold, The National has been told.
The eagerness to include the UK, despite British reservations and only two years after it severed ties with the EU, risks putting Britain’s next leader on a collision course with Paris and Brussels once they take office next month.
Liz Truss, the front-runner to win the Conservative leadership race, has made clear her lack of enthusiasm for the so-called European Political Community, a new forum for dialogue pursued by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Her rival Rishi Sunak, an early supporter of Brexit, has promised to further loosen regulatory ties with the EU if he succeeds Boris Johnson as prime minister on September 3.
Nonetheless, EU officials have not given up on persuading Britain to attend an inaugural meeting of the looser Political Community, pencilled in for Prague in early October.
The summit will “definitely have a broader scope beyond the EU member states”, said Lenka Do, a diplomatic official in the Czech government, which holds the EU’s rotating six-month presidency.
“The UK belongs among the closest friends and partners of the EU and as Czechia we count on its participation.”
Details of the Political Community — nicknamed “EU lite” — are still being thrashed out by diplomats, but the expectation in Brussels is that it would involve regular meetings between presidents and prime ministers of the group.
Mr Macron proposed the idea in May as a way to bring countries in the EU waiting room, such as Ukraine, into the European fold even if they do not yet meet the strict criteria to become a full member of the bloc.
It came as the war in Ukraine focused minds on speeding up the accession process for countries such as Moldova, Georgia, North Macedonia and Albania, amid concerns that the long wait could send them drifting into Russia’s camp.
One EU official said the club could include “all European countries with whom we have close relations”, and Mr Macron made clear that Britain was invited, despite its often fractious relations with the EU since it voted for Brexit.
He pitched the idea in person to Mr Johnson on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Germany, where the two men sought to bury the hatchet after years of Anglo-French tension over Brexit, migration and defence.
But his claim to have piqued Mr Johnson’s interest was swiftly downplayed by the British side. Ms Truss, the foreign secretary, said Britain saw the G7 and Nato as its key alliances and did not buy into Mr Macron’s wider community.
She told a parliamentary committee in June that Britain already had “plentiful and positive relationships” with its European partners, especially through the deeper bilateral ties it has pursued since leaving the EU.
Mr Sunak, who has emphasised his pro-Brexit credentials during his leadership bid, has promised to tear up surviving EU regulations and take Mr Macron to task over human trafficking in the English Channel.
The Sunak campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the Political Community.
Mr Macron’s proposal is being taken forward by the Czech presidency, which took over from France at the helm of the EU last month, and by European Council President Charles Michel.
Czech officials envisage a Political Community summit taking place while the EU’s 27 members are already at Prague Castle for a meeting in October.
Some of the potential members besides Britain reacted cautiously to the idea, saying it should not be used as a cover to kick their full EU membership into the long grass.
“We reject any attempt to find an alternative that no one needs, or to find something else for Ukraine. We need to be like you,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told members of the European Council in May.
Acknowledging those concerns, EU leaders agreed at their most recent summit in June that any new community “will not replace existing EU policies and instruments, notably enlargement”.
Even so, membership in any such group would be hard to stomach for some “Eurosceptic” MPs in Britain after their long battle to leave the EU.
A common complaint of Brexiteers was that the UK signed up to a looser trading bloc in the 1970s and watched it morph over the decades into something resembling a European government that they no longer supported.
The opposition Labour Party is reluctant to reignite the bitter Brexit wars, and Mr Macron's idea has attracted only a modest level of interest on the left.
One enthusiast, Roger Liddle, a special adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair, said it was an opportunity for the UK to work with Europe without having to rejoin the EU and would involve “no loss of sovereignty” on Britain's part.
Although Mr Macron's suggestion gained momentum against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, he was not the first to float such an idea.
Former Italian premier Enrico Letta spoke in 2015 of a “two-speed Europe” with an inner and outer circle, and even Mr Johnson has made typically attention-grabbing references to re-establishing a “Mare Nostrum”, a Roman sphere of influence in ancient times.