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The conundrum of the European Political Community

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Written by John Keiger

What is behind President Macron’s latest idea of an EPC? A bridge-building exercise? A sop to states queuing to join the EU? A means to lasso the UK into the Brussels orbit pending a return to the EU fold? The vision of a ‘two-speed Europe’ has been around in Paris for generations. The UK must not give away its key asset, its defence and security strength, and must ensure its relationship with its neighbours is on its own terms.

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Some supporters of the EU might struggle with the concept but Europe is about much more than what unfolds in Brussels.  According to the UN there are 50 sovereign states with territory located within the common definition of Europe or in international European organisations. The EU’s 27 may be a large part of the European continent, but the two are not coterminous. Nor more importantly do they all have the same interests. When one includes those states on the fringes of Europe, as does the newly created European Political Community, which recently had its first meeting in Prague, the number in attendance was 44 (with Belarus and Russia excluded). Beyond the EU 27 there are Turkey, the UK, Ukraine, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, six Western Balkans nations, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The European Political Community or, to avoid confusion with the EU, the ‘European nations club’, is the brainchild of Emmanuel Macron, although his motives remain unclear. With all French political parties opposed to continued expansion of EU membership, some have seen in the initiative a French diplomatic manoeuvre to halt the EU’s expansion eastwards into the western Balkans and across to Ukraine and Moldova, championed in particular by Germany. France’s idea would be for the new club to act as a holding pattern for candidate states for EU membership without disappointing them and thereby forcing them into the orbit of other larger neighbouring powers, such as Russia or Turkey.

Despite the overlap with myriad European dominated international organisations such as the G7, NATO and the Council of Europe, Macron described the initiative back in May as creating ‘a new space’ for cooperation on issues such as security, energy and transport. There is no doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has underlined that need. And there was much attempted fence-mending between particular states in Prague in meetings between Erdogan and his Greek counterpart or the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo.

But the French idea of a Europe-wide forum has a long history that sea serpent-like resurfaces now and then. Francois Mitterrand vainly attempted to harness it just after the fall of the Berlin Wall via a ‘European confederation’ to absorb eastern and central European states and tie down a future united Germany. In the 1950s French foreign minister Robert Schuman, one of the architects of the early European institutions such as Coal and Steel, attempted to create a ‘European Political Community’ to confederate the various European bodies.  Even before that General de Gaulle dreamed of a Europe ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’ master of its own destiny without the dominance of outside powers (for which read the United States).

In his Strasbourg speech in May 2020 setting out his long term vision for the EU, Macron conceived of a two-speed Europe.  At its core would be a hard EU of member-states committed to deeper integration and qualified majority voting, with an outer ring of the less committed. And here he referenced Britain’s participation.[i] Some French (and European) officials see in the new forum an instrument to lasso London and keep her tied to the EU in the hope of a return to the fold under a future administration. In the wake of renewed war in Europe and Britain’s stalwart material and political support for Ukraine, more subtle diplomats and policymakers would settle for Britain playing a stronger foreign policy, defence and security role in Europe alongside individual European nations, notably France.

The problem the UK has with the European Political Community is threefold. First the Truss government and any other should ensure that it is not sucked into the EU’s orbit willy nilly via this new organisation. Second, one would hope that London understands that Britain’s strongest card in negotiations with Brussels on outstanding difficulties, such as the Northern Ireland Protocol, is precisely the trump card of defence and security cooperation, which has increased in value since the Ukraine war. London rightly kept this out of the Brexit negotiations and the final settlement, for use as future leverage post Brexit. Consequently, and this is the third potential problem, the UK should not be seduced too easily into committing to the European Political Community’s security dimension – thereby playing its trump card – without first securing substantial guaranteed returns in kind.

The UK remains a European state with shared interests with its continental neighbours alongside whom it should and will continue to work. But it should beware squandering key assets it holds without tangible returns.

Professor John Keiger is a leading expert on French politics and foreign policy.  An earlier version of the article appeared on Spectator Coffee House. 

[i] https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2022/05/09/europe-a-plusieurs-vitesses-communaute-politique-europeenne-le-serment-de-strasbourg-d-emmanuel-macron_6125397_3210.html#xtor=AL-32280270-%5Bmail%5D-%5Bios%5D

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John Keiger