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Sometimes, symbolism matters. This time, however, it’s also opening Pandora’s box.
French President Emmanuel Macron will get what he wants on Thursday when leaders of 44 countries gather in Prague for the first meeting of the European Political Community — a new forum created in response to the Russian invasion to offer a broader, more inclusive European network.
Given Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s constant attempts to exploit a divided West, the simple act of gathering European bigwigs for a shoulder-to-shoulder family photo is, in itself, a victory.
But Macron’s plan also risks alienating people before it has even started. A broader network means a more diverse cast of characters. And the danger is that, with so many interests at play, Macron is promising all things to all people, without keeping anyone happy.
Ukraine won’t be satisfied with simply joining a talking forum. Brexit Britain will try to dominate it. Turkey, and its creeping autocracy, will suck up attention. And the Western Balkans are already tired of stale EU membership promises.
“We support this initiative of the French president — but this should not be a substitute for the membership process,” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna told POLITICO ahead of Thursday’s gathering, which Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address. “It should accelerate the integration throughout the accession process.”
The European Political Community was originally pitched as a forum where European leaders — but not specifically the EU — can discuss areas of common interest.
It’s the latest iteration of a concept that has been floating around the EU for decades. Former French President François Mitterrand touted the concept of a “European confederation” more than 30 years ago, but it never got off the ground.
Then, like now, the myriad European agendas made the effort a political minefield. And Thursday’s meeting will have plenty of them.
Bringing in Turkey, for instance, means giving Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a seat at the table, just as the Turkish leader lobs increasingly barbed threats toward EU-member Greece.
Britain’s attendance is especially fraught.
Britain blew up 60 years of EU history in 2016 when it became the first member to ditch the bloc. Though the EU has weathered the storm, welcoming Britain into the EPC could be perceived as a message to other EU-skeptic members that they could also enter the fold as ex-members — particularly given London’s recent intransigence over the unresolved Northern Ireland protocol.
It also offers Britain a chance to push its own post-Brexit message on the European stage.
Sure enough, the U.K. is grabbing that chance with gusto. A press release Wednesday night put it bluntly: “UK will play a leading role in the summit to drive international action on national priorities.”
The British government said it will use the event to press EU countries on one of their biggest sore spots — military support for Ukraine.
“The threat was left to fester for far too long,” Prime Minister Liz Truss plans to tell the group.
The French are pushing back against the notion that the EPC will normalize the U.K.’s EU-flouting ways.
“The 27 stayed united during the unfolding of Brexit,” said Sabine Thillaye, a lawmaker in Macron’s party. “But the United Kingdom remains a European country and has its place [in the ECP], particularly on topics of security and defense. It is a different, wider space.”
Officials involved with preparations for the summit have stressed that it is an “inter-governmental” process — not an EU-plus-plus club.
But this move to present Thursday’s meeting as a community of international equals is not solely about reassuring Euroskeptic participants like Britain. It is also about ensuring the sanctity of the EU itself and avoiding anything that impinges on EU law and structures.
For several months now, diplomats in France have been struggling to find a landing zone for the EPC, aiming for a halfway house between the rigidity of EU institutions and the looseness of a simple forum.
“We’ll be attentive to the hierarchy of standards. We cannot get involved in a project that would weaken EU standards,” said an adviser from France’s foreign affairs ministry.
“It looks more likely that we’ll move towards a series of cooperations between governments on a voluntary basis,” he added, while admitting the project was still “vague.”
For several observers, steering the EPC towards topics such as security and defense, energy or research — where the EU is not fully integrated — is one way to avoid clashes.
Already, the new community is coming up against the limitations of its own structures.
In a press briefing on Wednesday, an Elysée advisor said the EPC would operate more like the G7 than like organizations such as the Council of Europe, which focuses on human rights, or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which concentrates on security. But officials have said there won’t even be a written communique, as is the case with G7 and G20 meetings.
“There’s an idea that it could be like the G7, a group of countries with authority that gives orientations to the IMF, the World Economic Forum, etc., and that rests on international networks,” said French economist and early Macron supporter Jean Pisani-Ferry. “But statements from the EPC won’t carry much weight.”
Without the political clout of the world’s largest economies, he argued, a European political forum “won’t have the impact of the G7, where a statement sets a political orientation for others to follow.”
These challenges are looming large as leaders prepare to gather in Prague. A significant proportion of Thursday’s debate will be given over to discussion on the timing and location of the next European Political Community, with the second meeting due to be held in a non-EU country.
Yet so far, the fresh forum appears to be more of a talking shop than anything else.
Of course, with war on the Continent, another diplomatic outlet is not inherently a bad thing. It’s yet another avenue to find areas of cooperation on a number of conflicts, from Brexit to the Armenia-Azerbaijan clash.
But talking can only get Macron’s aspirational concept so far.
Impatient would-be members — including Ukraine, which was granted EU candidate status earlier this year — may quickly tire of a process that smacks of a two-tier Europe.
Meanwhile, France and other EU members may not be comfortable ceding the limelight once the EPC moves to a non-EU location like Moldova.
The European Political Community is an idea born of this specific historical moment. But as a long-term political project, it may be already dead in the water.