Could the EPC hold Europe together in the face of Russian threat?
The European Political Community could help draw European states under threat from Russia closer to Brussels. But it may not do more than that.
The European Political Community (EPC) is now a fact. A summit in Prague on October 6, attended by leaders from some 44 countries, inaugurated the pan-European club. Originally proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron in a speech before the European Parliament, the EPC includes the European Union’s 27 members as well as its neighbours: from Ukraine to Azerbaijan and from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Georgia.
Significantly, the forum also includes the United Kingdom and Turkey, two principal actors in “wider Europe”, which are both outside the EU. Prime Minister Liz Truss and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan both made an appearance in Prague.
With such a lineup, Macron had good reasons to feel content. A new organisation was born to take care of security and stability in Europe and France is in the driving seat. The Elysee thinks it has a vision and a plan. From the French perspective, the EPC kills two birds with one stone.
On the one hand, it draws neighbours into the EU’s orbit – even hard cases, such as post-Brexit Britain and Turkey, which is at loggerheads with a number of the Union’s member states, including France. More than that, the EPC embraces war-torn Ukraine and other EU membership hopefuls in the post-Soviet space, such as Moldova and Georgia.
On the other hand, it is a broad and loose arrangement, as the EPC leaves enough room for integration to accelerate within the EU, and especially its core formed by the eurozone.
COVID-19 led to more fiscal solidarity in the form of joint borrowing. Paris is championing further deepening of common institutions and policy, especially if it happens under its leadership. It all adds to the coveted goal of “strategic autonomy”, the idea that “Europe” (that is, the EU) should invest in internal cohesion and also strive to act independently in international affairs at a time when US-China bipolarity is taking shape.
The big question is whether the EPC works for the countries on the EU’s outside. Do they see added value in it or, to the contrary, accept to play a part in order to indulge the EU and/or France? The answer varies according to where you sit on the map.
For Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the EPC is a welcome development. It anchors them even more robustly in the EU-centred regional order and reinforces the pre-existent web of treaties and institutional templates that link them with the 27-strong club. In June, the European Council granted Kyiv and Chisinau candidate status.
Now the EPC draws a symbolic yet clear-cut boundary between them and Russia which is using any means possible, including war, to rebuild its empire. So Macron’s brainchild really counts for something in the East.
Things are much more ambiguous in the Western Balkans which have been stuck for nearly two decades in the EU’s waiting room. The French president has tried to reassure Balkan countries that membership in the EPC will not harm their accession path. The fact that the Czech Republic, which is holding the presidency of the EU Council at the moment, hosted the inaugural meeting was meant to send a strong signal in that respect.
Western Balkan leaders politely agree. Privately, however, they are anything but excited about what could turn out to be a talking shop, like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), at best, and a diversion away from the EU, at worst.
The stakes are high for Turkey and the UK as well. For those two, the EPC is a political opportunity to re-establish themselves in Europe and influence regional affairs. We were given a taste of what could be in store, when in Prague, Erdogan found himself sitting in a lobby together with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev.
Flanked by Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, the Turkish president appeared to be mediating between the two Southern Caucasus states, a role habitually reserved for Russia.
Truss, for her part, used the Prague gathering to reset relations with Macron, committing to hold a UK-France summit next year and discussing matters of the day, including the ongoing energy crisis affecting both countries. In the long term, the EPC could provide the basis for a step-by-step convergence on policy between London and the EU.
Yet, the EPC may struggle to fulfil the role of a catalyst for closer and more cooperative relations with Turkey and the UK. The EU’s relations with both Ankara and London remain strained.
Turkey’s squabbles with EU members Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean are not getting resolved anytime soon and, in fact, may become worse as Greek and Turkish elections scheduled for the summer of 2023 approach.
The UK and the EU are giving no indication they are going to overcome the impasse over the contents of the Northern Ireland Protocol which London wants to revise in order to eliminate the customs border in the Irish Sea which now separates Ulster from the rest of the country. It would probably take a Labour government to put relations on a sounder basis, which would no doubt give a boost to the EPC, too.
The recent history of French diplomacy in Europe offers many examples when lofty visions have crashed into the rocks of harsh political realities. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean lost momentum soon after its launch in 2008. President Francois Mitterrand’s “European Confederation”, an EPC predecessor of sorts, remained on the drawing board in the early 1990s.
This new initiative might fare better, riding on the tailwinds of the war in Ukraine. Yet it is too soon to tell if it would make a big difference in European politics.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.