When French President Emmanuel Macron first spoke of a “European Political Community” (EPC) in May 2022, the proposal was initially met with scepticism in many places. In particular, the six Western Balkan states (WB6) – some of which have been working, albeit at different speeds, towards EU membership for nearly 20 years – were concerned that the EPC would serve as a substitute for full EU membership. Other voices criticised the discussion format, which has no founding document, as merely an ineffectual photo-op.
However, after two summits – in Prague in October 2022 and in Chişinău in June 2023 – initial scepticism is waning. Many diplomats agree that a pan-European dialogue format at the highest level of government has been lacking, especially in light of the contentious security environment that has evolved since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Summits without hierarchical structures can foster a sense of belonging. The focus on issues such as energy, security, and connectivity underscores the approach of working on overarching issues that affect EU members and non-EU countries alike. The WB6 should therefore use this new forum as proactively as possible, for example by hosting the summit after Spain and the United Kingdom or by chairing a thematic working stream.
Currently, the EPC comprises 47 participants and is characterised by the following features: an agile structure that allows for ad hoc participation in summits and does not involve an institutional structure; no concrete outputs such as joint statements or declarations; a rotating chairmanship that has so far alternated between EU and non-EU countries; and summits that are to be held twice a year in the chairing country.
Meanwhile, despite the fluid set-up, certain organisational structures have emerged. For one thing, the summits leave enough time for bilateral or minilateral meetings. For example, during the summit in Chişinău, President Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and EU Council President Charles Michel met with representatives from Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Kosovo and Serbia. The added value of diplomatic efforts and exchanges among hostile neighbours in a European context can hardly be overemphasised.
In addition, there are working streams that deal with topics of particular importance to the EPC and each is chaired by two countries. In Chişinău, for example, Poland and the United Kingdom took over the “Security” working stream; Norway and Belgium the “Energy” working stream; and Moldova and Spain the “Connectivity” working stream. The topics are prepared in advance by the respective heads of cabinet (“sherpas”). The chairing country can add new topics to the agenda before the summit. Looking at the working streams, it is noticeable on the one hand that an EU member state always cooperates with a non-EU member state on an equal footing and that synergies far beyond the EU agenda can be tapped through this cooperation. On the other hand, no WB6 country has taken over a working stream so far.
Cooperation of one of the WB6 with a major EU partner such as Germany or France would be an important step symbolically and practically. Not only would Germany be showing increased political interest in the Western Balkans in times of geopolitical competition with Russia and China, among others, as with the revival of the Berlin Process in the autumn of 2022. It would also open the possibility for the respective Western Balkan country to work constructively and with increased visibility in the European context. A high-profile cooperation through co-chairing a working stream by a WB and an EU country would also eliminate the hierarchical differences inherent to the enlargement process and enable collaboration on a level playing field.
For example, at the next summit in Granada, Spain, in October, Montenegro and France could co-chair the working stream on security. After the recent change of power to a pro-European and avowedly reformist leadership, Montenegro should seize the opportunity to advance security issues in the EPC. As a NATO member, it could use the platform to work on specific cybersecurity issues. At the same time, it would shed light on the work of the “Center for Cybersecurity Capacity Building” in Podgorica, established in November 2022 by France, Montenegro, and Slovenia.
Similarly, it would be relevant for North Macedonia to co-chair a new working stream on migration with Germany, especially as the United Kingdom is likely to put this topic on the agenda in spring 2024. As an important junction for migration of all kinds, North Macedonia has been working with Frontex on a joint operation to secure European borders since April 2023. The country should therefore emphasise its role as a security partner of the EU in the EPC as well.
A potential added value for a Western Balkan country would also be the hosting of a summit. This can bring concrete benefits beyond symbolism. For example, Moldova’s ambassador to Brussels, Daniela Morari, concluded that organising the summit in Chişinău involved a steep learning curve, but that it also supplied a lot of international support. It gave the country the opportunity to present itself in a positive light internationally and to set in motion some critical processes for the country.
With all the opportunities for cooperation under the EPC, the EU must continue to communicate clearly that the EPC is not a substitute for enlargement. Especially in view of the stagnating enlargement process, which is related not only to a lack of reforms in the WB6 but also to enlargement fatigue on the part of individual EU members, the EU should not create the impression that the WB6 should forever remain in the EU’s waiting room.
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