After weeks of reported deliberation, Liz Truss, the Prime Minister, will travel to Prague to attend the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) on 6th October 2022. The EPC is the latest geopolitical vision of Emmanual Macron, President of France; it was put forward in his address to the closing session of the Convention on the Future of Europe on 9th May 2022 – otherwise known as ‘Europe Day’. There, Macron asked:
How can we organise Europe from a political perspective and with a broader scope than that of the European Union [EU]? It is our historic obligation to respond to that question today and create what I would describe here before you as “a European political community”.
His answer was that the opportunity exists to create a new forum for democratic European countries ‘to deal with the most pressing issues of the day, and, importantly, to find a new space for political and security cooperation, [including] cooperation in the energy sector…’
Seizing on Macron’s proposal, various opinion shapers within the European political establishment moved swiftly to centralise the EU. Notre Europe counselled that the French president’s initiative should be used as a mechanism to ‘associate’ countries such as Ukraine, Norway, the nations of the Western Balkans, and Turkey – even the United Kingdom (UK) – with the EU. It is for this reason that some have advised His Majesty’s (HM) Government to steer clear of the EPC; their argument is that it has the potential to draw Britain into the orbit of a project to extend European integration beyond its existing membership .
Without a shadow of doubt, Macron’s proposal elicits a number of important questions:
- What problems does the EPC solve which are not currently being addressed by existing alliances and institutions?
- What place could it occupy in Europe’s international relations and to what purpose?
- How could it be arranged so that the EU or specific formations of its member states do not exercise hegemony over the EPC’s agenda and purpose?
- And how can it avoid becoming another moribund European multilateral organisation such as the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM)?
And yet, if answers to these questions can be found, it would be a mistake for the British Prime Minister to spurn or write off the EPC. It would stymie what might be a useful forum whose purpose and modalities still need to be fully fleshed out. Through active UK engagement, a useful platform may be designed and created which not only ‘decentres’ the EU as the appropriate forum to debate Europe’s future, but also serves a practical strategic purpose.
Recent experience has shown that without a geostrategic raison d’etre, multilateral endeavours will fail or descend into talking shops.
After all, the UK has generated much goodwill since January 2022, particularly among the Baltic and Nordic states, as well as Poland and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Due to its forceful response to Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, many of Britain’s European partners, whose geopolitical and geoeconomic preferences are often heavily aligned with those of the UK, look to HM Government to provide strategic leadership. Truss’ ambition to boost British defence spending to 3% of Gross Domestic Product by 2030 has also not gone unnoticed.
Meanwhile, most EU countries in Eastern and Northern Europe are deeply sceptical of French proposals for Europe, particularly since France was seen as being too friendly towards the Kremlin in the runup to its ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine. Germany, meanwhile, is said to be disinterested in the French president’s proposal for EPC, favouring North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and EU-led formats instead where it already has a powerful voice.
Under these circumstances, France needs British involvement for the EPC to work. This provides Britain with significant political leverage. The UK offered to host the second gathering of this prospective European group – a signal that HM Government is approaching the EPC with a spirit of positive engagement. This is important in signalling to British partners that although the idea for a new diplomatic gathering for European states may have originated from France and that the first meeting will be sponsored by the EU, the EPC needs to be independent of the project of European integration to be credible.
But what would be in the UK’s best interests for the scale, scope and ambition for this prospective new arena for diplomacy between European states? At present Europe is stuck with some pan-European organisations that with Russia on the inside are now essentially moribund (such as the OSCE), organisations which are effective but functionally delineated and set a high bar to entry (such as NATO), and institutions which have important powers, but where powerful European countries, such as the UK, Turkey, Ukraine and Norway, remain on the outside (such as the EU).
If properly designed, an EPC could sit across all of these institutions, providing a common forum for European leaders to set a strategic agenda for the more competitive age that Europe has not itself remained immune from. In this sense, getting the name of Macron’s initiative right from the start should be a priority: British proposals to rename the proposed grouping the ‘European Political Forum’ – or even, more simply, the ‘European Forum’ – should be given active consideration.
Equally, the UK has also demonstrated considerable expertise in establishing purposeful plurilateral groupings – such as the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and AUKUS – in which all the participants have become deeply invested in their effectiveness to mutual benefit. This might be contrasted favourably to stilborn proposals such as the ‘European Security Council’ or failed initiatives such as the ‘European Intervention Initiative’. Granted, a European Forum would be substantially broader in terms of members than even the JEF, but it could take shape if HM Government can encourage its European partners to focus on using it to solve common problems rather than as an end in itself.
Indeed, recent experience has shown that without a geostrategic raison d’etre, multilateral endeavours will fail or descend into talking shops. The most pressing problems for Europeans today are geopolitical: helping Ukraine defeat Russia; maintaining a common, more robust, European approach towards the Kremlin; pushing those European countries which were recently highly dependent on Russian energy exports towards more sovereign supplies; and resisting Russian and Chinese political and economic penetration of the continent’s most vulnerable countries, especially in the Western Balkans and the Caucasus.
If Europeans can establish a geostrategic forum to focus on solving geopolitical issues, rather than a talking shop, they may not only forge a grouping which may work, but one which may serve a useful purpose. Alongside France, Britain has the potential to take a lead in realigning European geopolitics for a generation, once again proving its centrality as Europe’s security activist.
James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy. Prof. Richard G. Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.
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