Macron's European Political Community (EPC) has been derided as a deceptive ploy to sideline the enlargement process, or simply a characteristically grandiose but vague proposal coming from the French (Photo: European Parliament)
The most important event of the Czech EU presidency takes place in Prague this week, hand-in-hand with the informal EU27 summit.
The European Political Community (EPC) has been derided as a deceptive ploy to sideline the enlargement process, or simply a characteristically grandiose but vague proposal coming from the French.
Nonetheless, the leaders of 43 countries — from Iceland to Turkey and Azerbaijan — will descend on Václav Havel International Airport and convene together with their host, the Czechs, at the Prague Castle.
In doing so, they will signal their interest in having conversations in the new format. The party will include Liz Truss, who previously expressed serious reservations about the project, and is said to insist on renaming the format since community sounds too much like ‘Brussels’.
What comes of this meeting is unclear at present — even to those, it seems, who convened it.
This is not a reason to a priori dismiss the project. What is needed, however, is clarity about what it can and cannot be, and do.
The EPC cannot be a substitute for an enlarged EU. Many non-members do not aspire at membership — after all, one participant exited a short while ago after nearly 50 years of membership; others forcefully oppose the idea that this is what they should get instead of it as a consolation prize.
The French, including Emanuel Macron who coined the idea back in May, and his foreign minister Catherine Colonna, insist that the EPC is not an alternative to enlargement.
Neither can it substitute for Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the institutional embodiment of the continental security order that now lies in ruins, its founding principles of non-intervention, sovereignty and territorial integrity of participating states reduced to a distant dream as a result of the Kremlin’s imperialist misadventure in Ukraine.
With Russia and Belarus absent from the congregation, the EPC also cannot be — for good reasons — a mechanism for the resolution of the regional conflict that now plagues the continent.
Concert by chamber orchestra
What it can be is a new concert. This is how it can meaningfully contribute to the peaceful, secure and prosperous future of the European continent.
Many have called for a revival of the great power concert arrangement — some, in Moscow, disingenuously, dreaming of the bygone world where equal sovereignty of states was only a legal fiction and the great powers decided the fate of the world.
The EPC should be a concert of a different kind. An inclusive one — not a quartet as it started after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814, nor the quintet (or the quintuple alliance) when the French were allowed in four years later.
This concert would be played by a chamber orchestra.
It means a body cut not for making binding decisions, but for dialogue and seeking a degree of convergence — in short, for community-building practice.
In the fragmented and contested reality, defined more-and-more by a plurality of mutually hardly-intelligible thought-worlds, existence of such a space for debate, to brush out differences over key issues of the day (like how to face Russian state’s revanchism, the broader instability of the continent’s peripheries, the great twin global systemic challenges of emerging disruptive technologies and climate change, resilience of the supply chains, or clean and safe energy) has an intrinsic value that must not be cavalierly dismissed.
What is needed for this chamber orchestra to perform well?
First, the EPC should remain informal.
The pressures to formalise and institutionalise it by establishing a secretariat and formal rule-making procedures or insisting on codified commitments to collective action should be resisted.
The community should start from the realistic assessment that members will maintain competitive postures on many issues, and seek limited convergence resulting in more cooperative practices together reducing strategic dependencies or engaging in practical connectivity projects, and limiting discord rather than forging consensus.
It is unlikely that such a forum could operate on the principle of discreteness, but the leaders should at least exercise restraint and openness that make dialogue — by nature polyphonic — possible including on difficult issues like Russia sanctions.
Second, any ties, real or imagined, to the EU’s enlargement should be severed.
The EPC is not an alternative for membership, a new Eastern Partnership of sorts. Neither can it be, due to its composition, a path to membership, assisting candidate countries in coming closer to the EU while dealing with the related issue of institutional reform.
This is important business, but it is the EU’s. The EPC should be divorced from it — and so be seen as a forum of sovereign equals rather than an offer to someone.
Third, to operate the EPC must be based on the premise that participants can do things together without being, or becoming alike.
The many transnational pressures that liberalism faces today should not be allowed to kill the European idea.
Making clear that those brazenly breaking the basic norms of international law and society cannot be allowed to participate, but otherwise avoiding kitschy virtue-signalling, the EPC should be a community not of values, but of fate — a group of states having to deal with similar challenges in the shared space and time and finding that better coordination and cooperation can make that task a tad easier and bring something even to their growing inward-looking, internationalism-wary constituencies.
In the end, whether the EPC will become a future of European summitry, a space in which European politics takes place, will depend on the will of the leaders.
The principles proposed above would contribute to generating that will. To prosper in the world of great power competition where traditional ordering mechanisms are weakened and political and even cognitive divisions abound, Europe needs its occasional congress.