The leaders of the 27 EU member states and 17 others met in Prague on October 6 to inaugurate the European Political Community (EPC). In a series of statements, the wider Europe took a firm stance against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and brutal violation of the Helsinki Principles. While the heads of state and government did not issue a formal joint communiqué or founding statement, the meeting itself was the message. Countries large and small, from Iceland to the Southern Caucasus, held free and equal discussions about security, stability and Europe’s prosperity. It now falls to the EU to follow up the successful launch in Prague and make the EPC a relevant fixture for Europe as a whole.
Even those who thought that the proposal laid out by French President Emmanuel Macron on 9 May 2022 might not be a good idea had to admit that the initiative generated significant interest among the 17 non-EU states. Any suggestion that this should be yet another EU-centric bureaucracy is off the table. Fears that the EPC would be conceived as a substitute for or alternative to EU membership have been dispelled for the moment. Likewise any worry that it would simply duplicate existing pan-European organisations (principally the OSCE and the Council of Europe).
To start with, the EPC has been set up as a series of summit meetings, as a platform for political dialogue between European heads of state and government in a period of great geopolitical turmoil. It seeks inter-governmental exchange, coordination and cooperation. Accordingly no decisions were taken in Prague. That would have required the delegations to devote a great deal of time and energy, both before and during the summit, to drafting a (potentially meagre) joint declaration. It is, moreover, plain that not all of the 44 participating states are democracies where human rights and rule of law are guaranteed. Nevertheless Czech Prime Minister Fiala, as host, supplied the normative framing in his welcoming remarks, citing the Czech national motto: Pravda vítězí (truth prevails). This set the tone for a united front against Moscow and for support for Ukraine. As well as Russia, Belarus was also excluded.
The five leaders who spoke at the opening session represented current and former EU member states (Czech Republic and United Kingdom), membership candidates (Albania and Ukraine) and a member of the EEA and EFTA (Norway). The topics of the thematic round tables – peace and security, climate change and energy, migration and the economy – will likely circumscribe the agenda of the next EPC meetings. The programme also included time for the leaders to hold individual bi- and minilateral discussions. For example President Macron and EU Council President Charles Michel brought together the leaders of warring neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such informal meetings can provide diplomatic impetus for conflict resolutions – at the risk of offering a stage for strife. The tables at dinner may have borne the names of musical instruments, but the summit was definitely no concert of powers capable of resolving the burning questions of war and peace.
Despite the success of the inaugural meeting, the question remains: Is the EPG a meaningful instrument for tackling the challenges facing Europe? The EPC can only realise its added value in close connection with the EU. For all its deficits, the EU is the political and economic centre of gravity of the wider Europe. And the EU is also the first port of call for third states when it comes to implementing initiatives in fields like migration, critical infrastructure protection, and reconstruction in Ukraine, as Macron underlined at his concluding press conference. Only the EU possesses the administrative infrastructure and resources required to advance sectoral cooperation and coordination with consistency. Many leaders of non-EU states naturally sought discussions with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was the only representative of a supranational institution at the summit. The EU can employ its established bilateral and multilateral association and cooperation frameworks to prepare and follow up initiatives and projects initiated at EPC meetings. Ten of the countries concerned have an explicit accession perspective. The day after the EPC summit, the European Council met in informal session with a similar agenda. The European heads of state and government can follow up with binding decisions at the next formal session in Brussels on 20/21 October. Its agency is what makes the EU the backbone of the EPC – which it will need if it is to achieve practical results.
The EU’s institutions and member states have yet to find a consensus on where the EPC should be heading – between discussion club and “community of action” – and how much political capital the member states should be investing in it. The EPC might turn out to be a step towards a Europe of concentric circles, grouped around the EU as graduated spaces of cooperation and integration. That would relieve Brussels of the pressure of enlargement, as Macron and perhaps others in the EU would like to see. EPC summits are to alternate between EU and non-EU states. The next is scheduled for 2023 in the Moldovan capital Chişinău. What will Europe look like by then?