Sometimes symbolism matters. This time, however, it also opens a Pandora's Box. French President Emmanuel Macron will get what he wants when the leaders of 44 countries gather in Prague for the first meeting of the European Political Community, a new forum created in response to the Russian invasion to offer a broader and more inclusive European network, Politico writes.
"Given Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s constant attempts to exploit a divided West, the simple act of gathering European bigwigs for a shoulder-to-shoulder family photo is, in itself, a victory.
But Macron’s plan also risks alienating people before it has even started. A broader network means a more diverse cast of characters. And the danger is that, with so many interests at play, Macron is promising all things to all people, without keeping anyone happy.
Ukraine won’t be satisfied with simply joining a talking forum. Brexit Britain will try to dominate it. Turkey, and its creeping autocracy, will suck up attention. And the Western Balkans are already tired of stale EU membership promises.
“We support this initiative of the French president — but this should not be a substitute for the membership process,” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna told POLITICO ahead of Thursday’s gathering, which Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address. “It should accelerate the integration throughout the accession process.”
The European political community was originally conceived as a forum in which European leaders - but not specifically the EU - could discuss areas of common interest.
This is the latest version of a concept that has been in the air in the EU for decades. Former French President François Mitterrand promoted the concept of a "European confederation" more than 30 years ago, but it never got off the ground.
Then, as now, a myriad of European programs turned the effort into a political minefield. And there will be plenty of them at Thursday's meeting.
Involving Turkey, for example, means giving Recep Tayyip Erdogan a seat at the negotiating table while the Turkish leader voices increasingly harsh threats against Greece, an EU member.
The presence of the British is also fraught.
Britain blew up 60 years of EU history in 2016 when it became the first member to ditch the bloc. Though the EU has weathered the storm, welcoming Britain into the EPC could be perceived as a message to other EU-skeptic members that they could also enter the fold as ex-members — particularly given London’s recent intransigence over the unresolved Northern Ireland protocol.
It also gives Britain a chance to promote its own message on the European stage after Brexit. Of course, Britain is happy to take this chance. A press release issued Wednesday evening explicitly stated, “UK will play a leading role in the summit to drive international action on national priorities.”
The British government said it would use the event to pressure EU countries on one of their most painful issues: military support for Ukraine.
The French oppose the notion that the ENP will normalize Britain's behavior in defiance of the EU.
Officials involved in preparations for the summit emphasize that this is an "intergovernmental" process, not an EU-plus club.
But this move, aimed at presenting Thursday's meeting as a community of international equals, is not just about appeasing Euroskeptic participants such as Britain. It is also about ensuring the integrity of the EU itself and preventing anything that infringes on EU laws and structures.
For months now, diplomats in France have been trying to find a landing pad for the ENP, trying to find a compromise between the rigidity of EU institutions and the vagueness of a simple forum.
“We’ll be attentive to the hierarchy of standards. We cannot get involved in a project that would weaken EU standards,” said an adviser from France’s foreign affairs ministry.
“It looks more likely that we’ll move towards a series of cooperations between governments on a voluntary basis,” he added, while admitting the project was still “vague.”
Directing the ENP toward topics such as security and defense, energy or research, in which the EU is not fully integrated, is one way to avoid collisions, according to some observers.
The new community already faces the limitations of its own structures.
At a press briefing Wednesday, a French spokesman said the ENP would act more like the G7 than like organizations such as the Council of Europe or the OSCE. But officials said there won't even be a written communiqué, as with the G7 and G20 meetings.
“There’s an idea that it could be like the G7, a group of countries with authority that gives orientations to the IMF, the World Economic Forum, etc., and that rests on international networks,” said French economist and early Macron supporter Jean Pisani-Ferry. “But statements from the EPC won’t carry much weight.” He argued that without the political influence of the world's largest economies, the European political forum “won’t have the impact of the G7, where a statement sets a political orientation for others to follow.”
These issues are becoming more and more serious as leaders prepare to meet in Prague. Much of Thursday's debate will be devoted to discussing the timing and location of the next European political community, with a second meeting to be held in a non-EU country.
For now, however, the fresh forum seems more like a talking shop than anything else.
Of course, given the war on the continent, another diplomatic outlet is not inherently a bad thing. It is another way to find areas of cooperation on a range of conflicts, from Brexit to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. But for now, we can only talk about Macron's ambitious concept.
Impatient potential members, including Ukraine, which was granted EU candidate status earlier this year, may quickly tire of a process that resembles a two-tiered Europe.
The European political community is an idea born at this particular moment in history. But as a long-term political project, it may already be dead.