The European Political Community: A Successful Test?
On October 6, 44 European leaders gathered in Prague, inaugurating a new format called the European Political Community (EPC). The idea was introduced by French president Emmanuel Macron in a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on May 9. The initiative was initially met with skepticism before rapidly gaining traction as its intentions were clarified. The concept was officially endorsed by the 27 leaders of the European Union at the European Council on June 23 and 24, whose conclusions present the EPC as a “platform for political coordination.” This first summit was organized and chaired by the presidency of the EU Council, currently held by the Czech Republic.
Q1: How did the EPC come about and what is its aim?
A1: The idea for an EPC was not entirely new. In 1989, late French president Francois Mitterrand first envisioned a post-Cold War forum that could convene European Economic Community members (a precursor to the European Union), Russia, and central and Eastern European countries, but the idea failed to garner enough support. President Macron since Brexit has been exploring ways to bring the United Kingdom back to the table to discuss common security issues for the continent. He first mulled the possibility of forming a “European Security Council,” but the idea never gained traction. The war in Ukraine and the fact that the most affected countries are not EU or NATO members provided new reasons to find a creative framework to bring all Europeans together to discuss questions that affect the continent.
Initial reception of the idea was rather chilly. The initiative was touted as a “waiting room” or a “consolation prize” for Ukraine and Moldova as well as for others in the Balkans or in South Caucasus whose odds of joining the European Union or NATO were seen as distant. Berlin was vexed that it was not consulted prior to the announcement, London and Ankara tend to be wary of ideas coming from Paris, and Eastern Europeans criticized the idea, perceiving it as a subterfuge to distract from membership processes.
But taking advantage of its EU Council presidency, France, with the support of EU institutions, undertook an important campaign to explain the rationale behind the initiative and reassure that it was not connected to the accession process. The idea quickly gained momentum, with EU leaders formally endorsing the concept in June and the new Czech EU Council presidency agreeing to hold the first meeting in Prague prior to the European Council summit.
The main added value of the EPC may reside in its format and the strategic signals that it sends. It is particularly notable for who is absent. First, the exclusion of Russia and Belarus demonstrates their isolation and shows European unity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Second, the United States is not a participant, which is by no means a slight. Instead, it highlights an effort by Europeans to take on increased responsibility for managing their own affairs. Secondly, the EPC provides a venue for EU institutions and members to discuss security and economic issues with European neighbors, including major military powers such as the United Kingdom and Turkey and major energy suppliers such as Norway or Azerbaijan. Critics argue that the EPC duplicates other formats, but this is contestable since the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) counts Russia among its members. The EPC is not intended to challenge NATO or even the European Union’s roles regarding security and defense, having no plan to include mutual defense clauses nor any collective security guarantees.
Q2: What debates shaped the EPC’s format?
A2: The EPC brought together the 27 members of the European Union, six countries of the Western Balkans (Albania, Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro), the countries of the Associated Trio (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine), Armenia and Azerbaijan, the four European Free Trade Association countries (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein), the United Kingdom, and Turkey, for a total of 44 countries.
The format spurred important debates, chief among them the presence of Turkey. Turkey is a member of NATO and an EU candidate but has longstanding disputes with Greece, with tensions on the rise in the Aegean Sea, and moreover with Cyprus. More broadly, Turkey has been a difficult partner for the European Union in recent years on a wide range of issues and has caused concern within NATO by stalling Sweden and Finland’s efforts to join the alliance. The Czech hosts eventually chose to invite them.
The presence of South Caucasus countries also raised some questions about their belonging to the “European nuclear family.” The question was easier to answer regarding Georgia, a close NATO partner and a Black Sea country directly threatened by Russia. It was harder regarding Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially at a time of renewed military conflict between the two states. It was determined that the EPC could only be taken seriously as a venue to tackle European security issues if these countries were invited to the forum.
Q3: What did the EPC summit achieve?
A3: The jury is out on whether heads of state and governments knew what they were walking into when they arrived at Prague Castle on October 6. With no formal budget, flag, secretariat, or any real structure, many were wary of what to expect. The EPC was envisioned as a forum for dialogue between European nations through a relaxed framework requiring fewer procedural rules and less structure than the European Union or other multilateral organizations such as the OSCE, Council of Europe, or NATO. The goal was not for formal conclusions or decisions to follow its meetings but to create a space for dialogue. Czech prime minister Petr Fiala described the EPC as an “informal platform” for leaders to meet twice a year to discuss the most pressing issues concerning the European continent. While expectations for deliverables were low, it was also clear that the goal of the EPC is to be more than another “diplomatic talk shop.” To this end, the first meeting of the EPC did have a number of notable diplomatic achievements and displayed a tremendous amount of symbolic value.
First, it facilitated a breakthrough between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The photo of French president Emmanuel Macron, EU Council president Charles Michel, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, and Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan was an important diplomatic step in the effort to forge a lasting peace in the aftermath of last month's fighting that left more than 200 people dead between the two countries. Following the EPC, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to an EU peace mission and to de-escalate tensions, with the aim to “build confidence,” and “contribute to the border commissions.” This may have happened without the EPC, but without the summit, which created a strong incentive for both countries to attend, it most likely would not have happened this soon.
Second, the summit could spur a détente between the United Kingdom and France. Another important outcome of the EPC was the change of heart from the United Kingdom’s newly elected prime minister Liz Truss on her view of France and President Macron. Truss made headlines on the campaign trail this year when she hinted that “the jury is out” on whether she saw Macron as a “friend or foe.” The air was cleared between the two on the day of the EPC after Truss told journalists that she considered him a “friend.”It is worth noting that Truss was also a staunch skeptic of the EPC prior to the summit, but her op-ed to The Times on the day of the EPC squashed those doubts with comments saying, “it is right that we find common cause with our European friends and allies.” The two countries also agreed to revive the UK-France Summit in 2023, five years after the last one, to forge a “renewed bilateral agenda.” Only time will tell if this results in a new chapter of relations between the two countries.
Thus, the EPC demonstrated that dialogue can be facilitated and achieved in spite of differences between countries. While it did so without relying solely on the European Union as the framework for conversation, the summit also demonstrated the centrality of the European Union to European affairs and to non-EU members.
The EPC is very much in its experimental phase but has already proven a success in the eyes of the diplomatic community through the clear presence of unity. Leaders left the summit feeling stronger in their collective resolve in standing up to Putin’s aggression. With the backdrop of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the entire European continent—barring Belarus and Russia—was able to reunite in one location. The exclusion of the two countries demonstrates the isolation they are facing as a result of the war. The “family photo” of the leaders speaks for itself—the European continent stands united in the wake of Putin’s invasion.
Q4: What’s next?
A4: EPC meetings are expected to be held every six months. With the first one now in the books, the next meeting is to be held in Moldova next spring. Following Moldova, Spain will become host in the latter half of 2023, as it holds the presidency of the EU Council, and then it will rotate to the United Kingdom for the spring of 2024. Although no specific format has been discussed regarding hosting responsibilities, the next few slots show the rotation between the 27 EU member states and 17 non-EU member states, as well as geographical balance regarding where the meetings will take place.
Sissy Martinez is a program coordinator and research assistant for the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.
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