Richard Whitman explores how the European Political Community can add most value, suggesting it should focus on being a relatively informal diplomatic gathering that facilitates useful discussions between leaders at the fringes, and discusses European security questions in the absence of Russia and Belarus.
The third meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) takes place this week in Granada. Bringing together the political leaders of 47 European countries, the gathering, the brainchild of France’s President Macron, resembles a diplomatic ‘flash mob’ with its absence of published conclusions and the impressive choreography required to arrange the family photo of its attendees. But are we any closer to knowing what its purpose is?
The EPC’s invitation list encompasses a head of state or government from each European country from the Atlantic to the Caucasus. The attendees include EU member states (and the President of the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament), EU candidate states, aspirant EU members and European states with no membership vocation. The two conspicuous non-invitees are Russia and Belarus.
Meeting first in October 2022 and in the aftermath of Russia’s February 2022 military offensive against Ukraine, the imperative has been to create a diplomatic forum to discuss the consequences of Russia’s war on Europe. Its diplomatic leitmotif has been the stress on fostering ‘political dialogue and cooperation’ and strengthening the ‘security, peace and prosperity’ of the European continent.
In the absence of any secretariat or work programme, the two previous hosts of EPC summits (Czechia and Moldova) have structured the meeting with roundtable discussions, bilateral discussions among participants and a concluding plenary session. The stress has been on relative informality to allow for an exchange of views among Europe’s leaders rather than working towards the production of a summit communique or developing a work programme.
Since it started meeting, there has been no shortage of proposals from think tankers and commentators to give the gathering greater form, substance and possible institutionalisation. The most headline grabbing and controversial of these ideas was the proposition from a group of 12 Franco-German think tankers envisioning it as key pillar for the EU in restructuring its relations with other European countries.
In this model, the EPC represents a prospective ‘second outer tier’ of states not bound into the EU integration project, its legal order or the single market. The reference to the UK in that paper as an ‘associate member’ in the ‘first outer tier’ was sufficient to generate front pages in a number of UK newspapers and an extended bout of semi-informed critical commentary.
But how helpful is it to think about the EPC in these EU-centric terms? For prospective EU member states it is an obvious turn-off, which smells like a second class “waiting room” in lieu of full membership. – It also serves little purpose for states that do not (currently and possibly never) see their future as a members of the EU, – and thinking about the EPC in this way underplays where it could be a distinctive addition to the European diplomatic landscape, and severely limits the scope of its future possibilities.
The diplomatic Davos?
Rather, the EPC’s greatest utility may lie in functioning more as a ‘diplomatic Davos’ – its value being in creating a gathering that brings together Europe’s leaders for a collective exchange of views on key trends and developments.
A key component of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos is high-level networking. Similarly, the key added value of the EPC as an opportunity for a range of bilateral and minilateral exchanges was demonstrated by the joint meeting of the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan on the margins of the first summit.
The EPC also adds value in bringing together a group of political leaders who are not regularly convened in such an informal diplomatic setting (especially where they are not EU or NATO members). Likewise, summit preparations also bring officials into working relationships that might not otherwise be established.
The value of the EPC might, therefore, not be the event itself but the creation of opportunities for bilateral and minilateral diplomacy – performing a function not dissimilar to the annual autumn opening session of the UN General Assembly, which brings many leaders into proximity in New York allowing for discreet talks.
With Russia’s war against Ukraine continuing, there is also significant value in having a gathering of European states that excludes Russia and Belarus. It is a useful forum through which to bring European states which are outside NATO – Europe’s key military security organisation – but that are also being impacted in their economic, societal and energy security by Russia’s actions into the collective discussion.
Additionally, there is the especial need for broader discussions on European security issues beyond the war in Ukraine. The work of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – the body with primary oversight of pan-European security – has been rendered almost impossible by Russia’s efforts to stymie its operations. If the OSCE proves to be untenable due to Russia’s actions, then having a ready-made platform like the EPC which could take on more substantive work and with a greater range of functions connected to pan-European security is a useful insurance policy.
The UK follows Spain as the next host of the EPC in Spring 2024. This will present an opportunity for it to set the tone and shape the agenda for the future of the gathering. The UK has previously sought to see the EPC as a forum where the issue of cross-border migration might be addressed.
While the temptation will be strong to advance a particular domestic political priority, the UK might usefully also stimulate a dialogue on how best to future-proof the EPC. Creating a distinctive diplomatic culture which blends a fairly informal vibe with the facilitation of meaningful diplomacy at the fringes, for the collective purpose of sustaining a broad coalition against Russia’s upending of European security order, would have significant value.
By Professor Richard Whitman, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.