On Thursday, the first meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) will take place in Prague. President Macron’s brainchild, the EPCs inaugural meeting will see the heads of government of up to 44 countries come together for both plenary and roundtable discussions, writes Kirsty Hughes.
This is an EU initiative but it has been keen to emphasise that it is not a new organisation, structure or process – or not for now – but rather that it aims to provide a platform for political leaders to meet and coordinate. In his invitation letter to EU leaders, which also invited them to an informal EU summit the following day, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, wrote: “The ambition is to bring leaders together on an equal footing and to foster political dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest so that, together, we work on strengthening the security, stability and prosperity of Europe as a whole.”
UK on board?
To the surprise of some, the UK’s embattled prime minister, Liz Truss, has agreed to attend the first meeting – perhaps a welcome respite from the financial and economic chaos her so-called mini-budget has caused. It seems that the UK government would rather it was called a forum than a community and also suggested that the UK could host the next meeting (meetings may take place twice a year). However, Moldova also showed interest in hosting the next meeting too and, according to the Financial Times, that is where the next meeting will be held. Certainly, it would be symbolic if a non-EU country hosted it.
Since Brexit, and notably under Boris Johnson, the UK government has been keen to downplay the importance of the EU, emphasising the UK as a global player. And Johnson, in particular, refused any structured EU-UK foreign and security policy cooperation. But time has moved on, especially with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and, quite likely, Truss did not want to be left on the sidelines as a new European grouping discussed big political issues, including security. She has also indicated she expects or hopes that the new grouping will discuss migration too – as quite likely it will. At Prague Castle, there will be an inaugural plenary and then the leaders will take part in parallel roundtables on security, energy, climate and the economy (Truss, perhaps, might want to give that one a miss). There is also plenty of time for bilateral meetings during the afternoon.
EU still at the centre
The EPC’s inaugural meeting throws into sharp relief how much of European relations is organised through the European Union. Of the 44 states that have been invited, 27 are EU member states, 10 are candidate and potential candidate countries (now including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, with the latter as potential not actual candidate), four are from EFTA (the EEA-EFTA three and Switzerland). The UK lies in a more distant, post-Brexit relationship with the EU, through its Trade and Cooperation Agreement – and, currently, with relations soured as the UK government tries not to implement what it agreed over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
That leaves just the conflictual countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan as also, like the UK, rather distant from the EU core, while Russia and Belarus are not on the invitation list, unsurprisingly.
A useful political forum
The Prague summit is not, of course, mainly about the UK and its fractious relations with the EU – though it may be counted as a plus if the UK starts to come in from the post-Brexit cold. Some EU member states have been, and remain, suspicious of Macron’s intentions for the EPC. France has long been cautious through to sceptical on enlargement and the EPC is seen potentially as an alternative to EU accession, not a parallel and helpful body as Macron would have it.
Yet, providing a political forum where European countries can meet as equals to discuss major strategic issues looks like a constructive idea, if it doesn’t just become a periodic talking shop or a means of slowing down EU enlargement. The EU-candidate country relationship is, inevitably, a rather unequal one and so having another forum where leaders gather as equals may be helpful. Such a body could have worked well in the 1990s after the Berlin Wall fell. It took nine years before EU accession talks started with some of the central and east European countries back then, and a regular Europe-wide political summit could have been positive in the meantime.
And if the UK does choose to participate in future EPC gatherings, while this won’t undo the damage of Brexit, it will provide a more positive forum for some part of UK-EU relations. That may be a plus for Scotland – keen to have closer relations with the EU.
An independent Scotland could join too
And if Scotland does choose, in the coming years, to become an independent state, it too will be able to join EPC meetings. That may be of relatively low political importance, compared to applying to join the EU – and NATO. But, as for other candidate countries, it will provide a framework or forum where European countries meet as equals. And that will include both an independent Scotland and rUK meeting there as equal states.
Some of the key debates around Scottish independence focus on whether and how fast Scotland could become an EU member state, and what would happen before that. Alongside agreeing a trade and association agreement with the EU, immediate participation in this new European Political Community would bring the big symbolic plus of showing that a newly independent Scotland is not just outside in the cold, waiting to join the EU, NATO and other bodies. Scotland’s leader would be at the table with the other 44 countries in these biannual meetings.
For now, the European Political Community is one more forum or gathering. Whether it will become a significant, regular event, we will see. But given the crises and challenges that Europe faces, broadening out from just the EU to a new political summit certainly looks worth a go.