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05 Oct 2023

Europe

UK in the world

On 5 October, over 40 European leaders will meet in Granada in Spain for the third summit of the European Political Community (EPC).

This explainer outlines what the EPC is, what purpose it aims to serve, and how it will affect the UK.

What is the EPC?

The European Political Community (EPC) is a forum which brings together 47 European countries in order to co-ordinate responses to common issues and concerns.

Meetings are held twice a year, with the host for summits alternating between EU and non-EU members.

The EPC has no central secretariat or permanent staff, and it possesses no financial resources. Its official purpose is to act as a forum for political and strategic discussions, similar to the G7 or the G20.

However, unlike the G7 and the G20, the EPC does not release a written communiqué, a document which marks the pledges that states have agreed to pursue together.

While agreements may be made between members at the summits, these are not binding resolutions.

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not attending – due to a cold – and neither is the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. The Danish Prime Minister will also miss the gathering as she is delivering a speech in the Danish Parliament.

Which countries are participating?

47 heads of state and government are invited to take part in the third meeting of the EPC in Granada, Spain. This is the same number as were invited to the second summit . There were only 44 states in attendance for the first meeting but San Marino, Andorra, and Monaco were added before the second summit.

This includes all countries in Europe stretching from Iceland to Azerbaijan with the exception of Russia and Belarus – which have been excluded on account of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Belarus has supported.

Therefore, the members include: all 27 EU member states; those which are not member states but closely aligned to the EU (e.g. Switzerland); countries which are hoping to accede (e.g. Ukraine); and countries which have little interest in joining the EU (e.g. Armenia, or indeed the UK).

The presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament also participate in discussions.

 

Who came up with the idea? 

The EPC is seen as the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron.

He first proposed the idea on Europe Day in 2022, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, suggesting that Europe needed another way to structure itself outside of the EU.

He argues that the EU’s high level of integration and wider commitments for members does not make it best suited to the more immediate issues Europe is facing, such as the Russia-Ukraine war and energy security, which require a quicker and more coordinated measures across the whole continent.

With its wider membership and more flexible and informal structure, Macron has suggested that the EPC can provide a new space for political co-operation to deal with these contemporary challenges.

Some see the EPC as building on the idea of former French President Francois Mitterrand for a ‘European Confederation’.

Mitterrand’s proposal came soon after the disintegration of the USSR, and was an attempt to strengthen links between Western Europe and the former communist states of Eastern Europe without fully integrating them into other bodies such as the European Economic Community (EEC).

However, plans for the European Confederation failed as it dissolved after just 18 months. The Jacques Delors Institute argues that its failure rested on central European states  seeing it as a ‘less attractive alternative to what these countries actually wanted, namely joining the Community process.’

“The EPC has already provided a setting for the UK to reach agreements with some EU member states to increase co-operation and rebuild ties.”

Macron seemed to draw a distinction with his idea for an EPC, which he says will not “prejudge” membership of the EU but rather offers closer integration for countries which are realistically “years” or “decades” away from EU membership.

Some countries which have ambitions to accede to the EU but are still waiting for membership (e.g. Western Balkan states and Ukraine), have expressed concern that the EU may use the EPC as a ‘holding space’ which serves as substitute for membership, and have made clear that they would reject this.

However, Macron has sought to assuage these concerns and it was emphasised in the inaugural EPC meeting that it would not serve as an alternative to enlargement.

What purpose will the EPC serve? 

The membership of countries like the UK, Switzerland and Azerbaijan shows that the EPC is not only for countries with an active interest in joining the EU. Indeed, it is primarily designed as a forum for European leaders to create a coordinated response to issues faced by the whole continent such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and energy security.

It is thought that this body may be more effective at dealing with Europe’s shared issues due to the exclusion of Russia, whose membership burdens organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

“Its more flexible structure and emphasis on bilateral discussions can provide greater freedom for leaders to focus on their immediate concerns”

Similarly, its more flexible structure and emphasis on bilateral discussions can provide greater freedom for leaders to focus on their immediate concerns in comparison to other bodies with more official procedures like the Council of Europe.

There has also been some concern that the EPC could cut across other international institutions such as NATO, the EU, the G7/G20 or the OECD.

Indeed, in a report published soon after the first EPC summit, the Council of Europe, which is not an EU body, expressed concern about the EPC’s “undefined” remit. According to the report, this could cause the EPC to overlap with the Council of Europe’s mandate of safeguarding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Additionally, a group of 12 Franco-German think tankers published a  report in September on how to reform the EU to get it ready for enlargement and how to restructure its relations with those  countries that are unable or unwilling to join. The report argued that the EPC could represent a prospective ‘second outer tier’ of states focused on geopolitical convergence and not bound into the EU integration project, its legal order, or the single market.

However, leaders have  tried to make clear that the EPC will not undermine existing bodies and processes.

The first EPC summit has suggested that this forum will not be an institution focusing on human rights but, rather, will concentrate on more immediate issues facing Europe such as energy and migration; therefore, avoiding overlap with the Council of Europe.

Furthermore, in the conclusion of the meeting on the EPC in the European Council (EU heads of state), it was emphasised that the EPC will not replace existing EU policies and instruments and will fully respect the EU’s decision-making autonomy.

While it has also made clear that it will not overlap with NATO, as the EPC will not attempt to create any mutual defence clauses or collective security guarantees.

What is the UK’s position on the EPC?

Despite initial scepticism, Liz Truss, while still Prime Minister, agreed for the UK to join the EPC after receiving assurances that the focus of the forum would be on European co-operation rather than forming new structures.

The fact that Truss (unsuccessfully) asked for the name of the EPC to be changed as it was too reminiscent of the European Economic Community (EEC); for the first meeting to focus on immigration; and for London to host the second meeting, shows the close attention which the UK has paid to the symbolism of the group.

EPC

Nevertheless, the UK’s participation in the EPC has been embraced by Rishi Sunak, who has referred to the UK’s membership as a part of ‘a new phase of UK-EU co-operation’.

Ultimately, the EPC offers the UK an avenue to engage with EU partners, and others, without being bound by new institutional obligations. There is also a relatively large degree of flexibility for the UK to pick and choose which issues it engages on, and with whom.

The fact the UK is set to host the EPC’s fourth meeting, in the first half of 2024, also seems to reflect a desire to be seen as an important player within the new body.

Moreover, had the UK opted to join Russia and Belarus as the only European states not to attend, it would have risked looking extremely politically marginalised.

How will the EPC affect the UK?

The EPC has already provided a setting for the UK to reach agreements with some EU member states to increase co-operation and rebuild ties.

For example, in December, the UK agreed to restart co-operation with the North Seas Energy Cooperation (NSEC), a group which includes eight EU member states and Norway and aims to support the development of offshore renewable energy.

Truss also committed to joining the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – an EU structure for co-operation on defence capability.

And the UK has also re-joined the Calais group, where discussions on migrant crossings across the Channel are held between the home secretaries/interior ministers of France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The first EPC summit also provided an opportunity for the UK and France to rebuild their relationship, which had been fractured by Brexit, disputes over migrants crossing the Channel, fishing rights, and personal animosities. Whereas Truss had previously said that the ‘jury was out’ with regard to whether Macron was a ‘friend or foe’, she called him a ‘friend’ ahead of the Prague Summit.

The first EPC meeting was also swiftly followed by the first UK-France bilateral summit in five years, held on 10 March this year.

What was discussed at the first two meetings?

The first meeting was held on 6 October 2022 in Prague.

Discussions were concentrated around the Russia-Ukraine war – which included the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, giving an address to the leaders – and also energy policy.

No concrete measures were agreed upon with regard to Ukraine. However, the leaders did signal their unity by jointly condemning Russia’s actions and by standing in solidarity with Ukraine through somewhat vague pledges to maintain ‘support for Ukraine’ and to continue attempts to ‘return peace and stability to Europe’.

The leaders also agreed on six ‘paths’ for co-operation between the states. This included plans to develop a common European strategy to protect critical infrastructure and also to work on a new ‘energy strategy’, particularly with non-EU partners, to bring energy prices down.

The second summit was held on 1 June 2023 just outside of Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. The decision to hold the second summit of the EPC in Moldova, a former soviet state which borders Ukraine, was partly  an attempt to signal European unity against Russia’s invasion as well as the isolation of Russia and Belarus.

Along with Ukraine, Moldova applied for EU membership in March 2022, and was granted candidate status three months later.

The scope of the agenda for the second summit was broader than the first and focused on three areas:

  • Joint efforts for peace and security.
  • Energy resilience and climate action.
  • Interconnections in Europe.

 What is on the agenda for the third meeting? 

The next summit will begin on 5 October 2023. On the agenda is how to make Europe more resilient, prosperous and geostrategic. The website of the Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU describes the aim is to take advantage of the attendance of most European leaders to re-establish their unity vis-à-vis Russia’s aggression against Ukraine’, and European security will likely feature prominently.

The official programme includes an opening plenary session followed by ‘clusters’ and an official press conference.

The roundtables will focus on three themes: digitalisation, with a particular focus on AI; energy, environment and green transition; and multilateralism and geostrategy.

“Some have argued that the real value of the EPC lies in its informality and lack of rigidity”

Although the agenda and structure might appear vague, some have argued that the real value of the EPC lies in its informality and lack of rigidity which allows for bilateral and smaller group discussions to take place on the sidelines.

Has the EPC produced any concrete measures? 

The informal structure of the EPC has served as a useful setting for leaders to hold talks in an attempt to ease tensions between their countries.

In addition to discussions between Truss and Macron, a meeting was held between the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in an attempt to find a resolution to the border crisis between the countries.

These discussions led to a joint statement from the leaders of both countries confirming their respective commitment to the UN Charter, in which each recognises the other’s ‘territorial integrity and sovereignty’.

As agreed in the discussions, the EU has deployed a monitoring mission in Armenia to watch over the border and de-escalate tensions between the countries.

By Peter Jurkovic, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe. 

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