Ideas on Europe

Amelia Hadfield - European Political Community : More than an EU antechamber

Amelia Hadfield - European Political Community : More than an EU antechamber

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Amelia Hadfield again. Professor Amelia Hadfield is Head of Department of Politics, Founder of Centre for Britain and Europe, and Dean International at the University of Surrey.

One of the ‘Big Ideas’ of 2022 is the ‘European Political Community’. ‘Ideas on Europe’ mentioned the EPC for the first time back in May, and in October it had its big launch in Prague. Can you update us on where things stand?

The EPC was instigated largely by French President Emmanuel Macron. There was the usual ‘summer of scepticism’, in which the idea was received pretty coolly by various Member States. Some, however, felt the opportunity to bring together key European states in a freer, less constrained structure, with a loose agenda, might actually produce results.

As a concept, EPC is wide in scope. To quote Macron, it represents a “new European organization [that] would allow democratic European nations that subscribe to our shared core values to find a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons and in particular of our youth.”

Ultimately, some of this fell away: the war in Ukraine dominated the security aspects, and led the energy conversations. As did tricky issues regarding mobility. But discussions on a wider Europe remained.

Are there any achievements yet?

The simple fact that it actually got off the ground is an achievement ! With 44 countries in attendance, widening the nature of the conversations about Europe beyond the EU.

The loose agenda was another win, I think. The freer forms of diplomatic interaction were able to provide more authentic opportunities to address key issues facing the continent. From a UK perspective, there was a positive resetting of relations with France in particular, with a commitment to restart regular UK-France bilaterals, including a long-overdue summit in 2023. I would suggest that EPC helped the ‘warming up process’ that is gradually seeping into some EU-UK relations, including in the realm of defence.

And was there a breakthrough in the field of defence?

Not exactly a breakthrough, but certainly a helpful development. Members of the PESCO, the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation group, invited the UK to join the project, alongside other third countries participating, including Norway and the United States. This feels like a good step forward, post-Brexit.

Moreover, the discussion of European energy security requiring strategic attention, as well as ideas about managing the next stages of the war in the Ukraine, pointed implicitly to the idea of the EU as an increasingly robust foreign policy actor, capable of onshoring key assets and adopting a more pragmatic approach to principles. Indeed, EPC “highlights an effort by European to take on increased responsibility for managing their own affairs” by aligning both EU and non-EU participants (including EU institutions) and discussing overarching security issues with the widest possible range of voices.

44 members, you said! Who was invited?

Some key non-EU states attended, including Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the UK. This reinforced the sense that the EPC isn’t just another ‘EU only’ club. At the same time, Emmanuel Macron’s initial wish that EPC gather ‘like-minded democratic countries’ was possibly weakened. Still, the EPC sent a strong message to Moscow.

And did anything go wrong?

A final communique would have provided clarity for what actually WAS achieved in Prague. It’s one thing not to have an explicit agenda, or informal sessions, but contemporary summits are inevitably judged by the tone of their final communique. Given the widespread nature of political situations facing the 44 countries in the room, including their varying perspectives to the EU, as well as critical policies like enlargement, a brief statement could have gone a long way. For instance, the EPC could have usefully commented on its role as a broad European forum, quite separate from EU enlargement.

What do you think comes next?

The next three EPC meetings have already been lined up, with biannual get-togethers, one of which is in lockstep with the EU Council Presidency. There is a challenge in appearing as something of an antechamber for those in the accession queue, a rehabilitation clinic for the UK, and a pseudo-G20 for those with no interest in EU enlargement. Macron worked hard throughout summer 2022 to reassure states ahead of the Prague meeting that enlargement and membership were unrelated to the overall purpose of the EPC, but it is bound to remain an untidy, underlying dynamic.

Provided it can retain a degree of uniqueness in terms of its members, and aspects of strategic autonomy – albeit widely interpreted - in its approach, the EPC reduces the risk of becoming ‘just another’ diplomatic talking shop and become an authentic forum for meaningful dialogue.

‘Ideas on Europe’ will be back week, and we will welcome Natasza Styczynska from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow.

Interview by Laurence Aubron.