Analysis of the European Political Community Misses the Point
The recent meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) – a jumbo summit of 44 leaders in Prague – has been followed by two weeks of intense commentary. Given the breadth and scale of the challenges facing Europe, the format was almost uniformly seen to have proven its worth after just one meeting. The main question still bothering analysts is about the relationship that the EPC should have to the European Union. This gets things backwards.
In truth, the European Political Community (EPC) is a platform that performed tasks that a well-functioning EU should have been capable of itself. The fact that most of the commentary in the aftermath of its inaugural summit in Prague focused on linking the EPC to the EU – rather than quietly relegating it from sight and focusing on improving the workings of the EU and how it deals with Wider Europe – only cements the underlying problem.
It is absurd, for instance, that a meeting at that level and of that breadth – 44 heads of state and government – should be needed to achieve the meagre outcomes of the EPC. Its notable results were de-escalating a renewed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia by sending a short-term EU mission to the Armenian border, and some conversations with non-EU states on shared infrastructure issues. The European Union should not need a format like the EPC to achieve such things in Wider Europe.
So why has the EU struggled? There is a very specific issue at the heart of the workings of the EU that requires attention: the relationship between France and Germany. We argue that the EPC is a sideshow of European politics and that the dysfunctional Franco-German tandem is the elephant in the room – or, more accurately, the uncooperative push-me-pull-you at the heart of continental politics.
The EPC Cannot Be Compared to the G7 for One Key Reason
If analysts have been quick to accept the EPC, then in part because the French have a strong track record of launching new international formats and posts for purposes of high statecraft. These include the European Council, the EU’s high representative, and, of course, the G7. When he proposed the EPC, French President Emmanuel Macron intentionally compared it to these past formats, most notably the G7, specifying that both focus on peer-to-peer meetings among leaders under a rotating presidency.
There is one important difference, though, between the EPC and all these other creations. Unlike the EPC, the European Council, the post of the EU high representative, and the G7 were all launched with the active backing of the Germans. Together, Paris and Berlin made sure that they focused on the big problems facing Europe and the world. But the past months have found this kind of Franco-German cooperation at almost the breaking point. And that affects the genesis and purpose of the EPC.
There is a risk that President Macron’s European Political Community will do for the EU’s relations to Wider Europe what his Conference on the Future of Europe (COFOE) has done for the EU’s internal reform. That is: not very much. The EPC, like the COFOE, could turn out to be a huge Potemkin exercise. The COFOE was designed by France simply as a way to circumvent a Germany that seemed more focused on itself than European reform. The EPC is quickly taking on a similar function.
At the Prague summit, the French used the EPC in a bid to boost EU cooperation with the British on migration, energy, and defense – a relationship that Germany has blocked. Germany used the EPC to do something similar with Ukraine and Moldova, fed up with a lack of previous French engagement in EU enlargement policy. The reason is simple: France and Germany cannot agree on the course of the EU. Consequently, there is no bandwidth for the EU to agree on change and cooperation with non-EU states. The result is a kind of de facto protectionism by the European Union that cuts the EU off from its neighbors.
The EPC Format Has Not Yet Proved Its Worth
The EPC still has some niche potential to be constructive, independent of the EU’s functioning. Indeed, in Prague, it served as a kind of speed-dating hall for the 44 leaders, a means of deepening multiple bilateral initiatives. Moreover, choosing to discuss matters at the highest level that really ought to have been resolved at a much lower one had some benefits. One example was gaining peer-to-peer acceptance for states like Moldova. Just sitting at the table with other European leaders is significant – and likely gave weight to the proposal that Moldova should host the next EPC summit in spring 2023.
Nevertheless, in our analysis, it is still too early to say if this new platform for “informal strategic discussions” should or will stick. The Prague summit set a very low bar for success when just getting EU and non-EU leaders around a table was praised as a diplomatic achievement – even if there were no truly concrete results and no declaration was adopted. Because the whole process of setting up the Prague meeting was rushed, improvised, and chaotic, the EPC is still half-baked: its goal, agenda, and rules of procedure are still to be specified and negotiated before the next summit.
That summit, scheduled for spring 2023 in Moldova, will need to pass a sterner test. It needs to get some energy and infrastructure projects online. That means securing financing. And securing serious financing likely means getting the European Commission to open the purse strings of the EU budget. For the French, attached as they are to the notion of the EPC as a strictly intergovernmental forum, the Commission’s involvement could be unacceptable. For the Germans, anxious that EU states will use the EPC to circumvent the EU’s procedural rules if the Commission is not involved in Moldova, its absence could be unacceptable.
In the event of active disagreement between Paris and Berlin, the Commission will likely be given a one-off role in Moldova, an unsatisfactory state of affairs. The Commission might then feel obliged to compete with the EPC. Seeking advantage against a rival body that achieves its goals by inclusive means, the Commission may be tempted to act increasingly through protectionism, leveraging the access of its neighbors to the EU economy and financing to achieve concessions from them – another example of EU protectionism-by-default.
The EPC May Be Performing an Unnecessary Function, But Is It Doing Any Harm?
This shows that we cannot simply accept that the EPC has a right to exist and give it time to muddle through: its very existence comes at a cost. Ordinarily, EU policies on enlargement, neighborhood policy, or Europe-wide energy infrastructure would run on autopilot and without the need for active Franco-German support. But the scale of the challenges facing Europe mean that the pair need to actively agree on the way ahead and find common solutions. The EPC superficially allays the need for agreement, with both France and Germany using it to circumvent the blockages posed by the other. Thanks to the EPC, we are losing sight of the underlying issue that must be addressed.
The way that the EPC fosters bilateral relations is positive, of course, not least because it takes some of the pressure off the Franco-German tandem. Elite speed-dating can spawn tailor-made responses by the EU – or by “coalitions of the willing” – to critical situations in Wider Europe. And yet, there are also costs here. Too often, these bilateral relations are now focused on exploiting differences between France and Germany, trying to tip the balance of power in the EU to the east or south. If France and Germany do not resolve their toxic relationship, it has the potential to infect all other bilateralisms.
This can all be fixed in time. But time is not on our side. Organizing the next EPC summit is going to be a huge challenge for Moldova – the political equivalent of winning the Eurovision Song Contest. European leaders have already raised expectations by choosing to assemble in a small state that is directly threatened by Russia, heavily impacted by Russia’s war in Ukraine, and looking to the EU for its future. Yet, despite these expectations, France and other drivers of the EPC format are likely to continue to be self-serving and little capable of offering the support that the reformist Moldovan government needs to achieve visible successes for its citizens.
Indeed, Moldova’s leadership will probably be on the ropes in spring 2023, reeling from a spike in energy prices and growing social protests that are now being instigated by pro-Russian oligarchs. Hosting an EPC summit at that time – especially one that diverts attention away from delivering concrete EU and other international assistance to Moldova – could further undermine the most reformist and pro-European government that Chisinau has ever had.
This online commentary was published on October 26, 2022.