European Political Community: French idea that works

The recent summit of the European Political Community (EPC) in Chişinău, like the first meeting in Prague, carried considerable political and symbolic significance. The meeting of 49 European leaders reiterated European unity in the face of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It also sent a strong message of solidarity to Moldova – a country exposed to the threats stemming from Russia. Despite the initial skepticism, the EPC seems to have found its niche in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape where more traditional regional arrangements struggle to make the mark.

Teona Giuashvili is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance of the European University Institute.

Talking shop with a purpose

The war in Ukraine and the consequent re-opening of the debate on the enlargement of the European Union (EU), following the application for EU membership by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, set the stage for President Macron’s proposal in May 2022 to establish the EPC, a new framework for European political and security cooperation.

The initiative triggered contrasting reactions. Some welcomed it as an opportunity to strengthen the alignment of all the European countries that oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Others were sceptical, suspecting France of promoting a generic agenda of pan-continental dialogue that would side-line prospects for EU enlargement in Eastern Europe. However, the historic decision of the European Council in June 2022 to grant EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and, in perspective, to Georgia marked a breakthrough, dispelling concerns that the EPC could challenge or delay EU enlargement and unlocking political support for the initiative. The decision of the UK to join the EPC was another factor that added political momentum to the format.

The Prague and the Chişinău Summits have established the EPC as an informal intergovernmental forum, which puts its participants on an equal footing irrespective of their membership of the EU and NATO. All the participants appreciate the opportunity to meet face to face, organize bilateral meetings on the margins of summits, and engage in exchanges on issues of common concern.

Flexibility is what distinguishes the EPC from other formats for cooperation in Europe. The EPC has no secretariat and no institutional framework. The two EPC summits have not produced political declarations or conclusions. The presidency rotates among member countries, alternating between EU members and non-members alike. The country holding the presidency proposes the agenda of the summits.

EU institutions take part in the summits but are not in the lead, which from a political standpoint, facilitates the participation of non-EU countries, such as the UK, Switzerland, and Turkey. Flexibility is and should remain a strength of this format, but the sustainability of the EPC will depend on what it can deliver. The EPC could fulfill multiple roles, depending on convergence among its members and the scope for delivering added value compared to other European organizations.

Engagement before Enlargement

While being neither a competitor nor a prelude to EU enlargement, the EPC could assist and complement this process. It could help foster political engagement between the EU member states and the European states beyond the EU, enabling community building, including at the level of heads of state and government. This could also be useful to create political space to informally address the complications that the next phases of the EU enlargement process might encounter. At the Chişinău Summit, the leaders of Ukraine and Moldova made a plea for accelerating the EU accession process and used bilateral exchanges with EU leaders to press this message.

Security Dialogue

The EPC could evolve into an inclusive forum for security dialogue, building confidence among its members and helping prevent or manage crises. First, the format can continue to offer a platform for pan-European consultation on dealing with Russia’s aggression and the eventual aftermath of the Ukraine war.

In Moldova, President Zelensky called for Ukraine, and all countries bordering Russia to join NATO and held numerous exchanges seeking security guarantees for Ukraine, with a view to the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius.

In addition, the EPC could perform as a venue for a strategic dialogue on Europe’s political and security agenda beyond the current war, especially considering that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is largely gridlocked due to Russia’s destructive actions.

Dealing with Conflicts

Finally, the forum could be useful in discussing contentious security matters and promoting de-confliction among its members.

An early test was the quadrilateral meeting that took place at the margins of the Prague Summit involving the Prime Minister of Armenia and the President of Azerbaijan, together with the French President and the President of the European Council, which helped to create the necessary conditions to deploy a civilian EU mission in Armenia on the border with Azerbaijan.

In Chişinău, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met within the same format, with the Chancellor of Germany joining the group. The second EPC summit also provided an opportunity to address the rising tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.

Furthermore, the meeting between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Erdogan at the Prague Summit in October 2022 marked an important step in the process of normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey, leading to the participation of Pashinyan in Erdogan’s inauguration ceremony in Ankara in June 2023.

Given its wide membership and flexibility, the EPC has the potential to achieve political progress on sensitive issues by convening the right actors in small formats.

Sectoral Convergence with EU

Third, the EPC might be useful in fostering sectoral cooperation between EU and non-EU countries in energy, connectivity, education, climate change, digital and green transitions, and telecommunication networks.

Joint exercises in cyber security, infrastructure development projects, and strengthening critical infrastructure security could be other potential priorities for joint work.

Providing tangible deliverables, such as the decision to lower roaming charges between the EU/EEA and Moldova announced at the Chişinău Summit, will be one of the principal criteria in assessing the added value of the forum.

The EPC is not the only framework through which cooperation occurs between EU member states and their partners in Europe. However, due to its pan-European scope and top-level engagement, it can provide a suitable venue for undertaking various initiatives in areas of shared interest, bridging different sub-regional projects. In most instances, cooperation will occur within groups or states’ coalitions at variable geometry.

Looking ahead

Established to embody a firm, common response to Russia’s aggression on Ukraine and to help re-think the European political and security architecture, the very creation of the EPC forum marked a significant innovation.

The Prague and the Chişinău Summits established the EPC as an important platform for exchanges and deliberation in the context created by the war. Moving forward, however, the EPC will need to produce deliverables that meet the interests of its members through policy initiatives on a larger range of issues. Only by defining a clear sense of purpose the EPC can find its proper place in the European institutional landscape.

The third EPC summit set to take place in Granada in October 2023 will mark another milestone to clarify the trajectory and added value of the new forum.  

This commentary draws on an earlier policy paper published by the author with the School of Transnational Governance of the European University Institute.


Back to top button