Britain’s Prime Minister Liz Truss’s decision to take part in the inaugural summit of a pan-European grouping this week has given a boost to the initiative, the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron. that some have already dismissed as just another gathering.
The summit in Prague of the European Political Community (EPC) will bring together the 27 leaders of the European Union with 17 leaders from the continent who are currently outside the bloc, including the United Kingdom, Turkey, Norway and Ukraine.
Truss’s decision to attend Thursday’s meeting gives Britain a chance to shape a new European forum from within after Brexit and could shift the spotlight away from financial and political turmoil at home.
“The British took a very pragmatic tack: if you can’t ‘kill’ the strange initiative, it’s better to fully engage and run it your way,” a European diplomat told Reuters.
Diplomats say the purpose of the CPE is far from clear and many doubt that, with so many around the table – enemies and friends alike – it will last, even though it will address issues of concern to all: energy, security and immigration.
One of Macron’s main goals is to embrace the EU candidate countries that are losing patience waiting to join the bloc and thus counter Russian and Chinese attempts to gain influence on the southern and eastern fringes of the continent.
“One of the points is to be able to tell Kosovo and Albania that we can do things with them and that they don’t have to depend only on Russia and China to invest,” said a French official.
Macron worries that the long road to meeting EU membership criteria could turn off Western Balkan nations, fueling populists and Euroscepticism.
The French also believe it is important to have a forum to discuss security with the UK, Europe’s other major military power, or energy with Norway, which is currently helping Europe wean off Russian gas.
Yet Macron’s lofty ideals of a happy “European family” are not widely shared.
His proposal was initially viewed with suspicion by Eastern European countries, and Ukraine in particular, who suspected it was a ploy by France, long reluctant to admit more countries to the EU, to keep them in a kind of “purgatory”. .
French officials deny that this is the case and strive to reassure them.
“At first we feared that the EPC would be an alternative to joining the EU, but as it is developing now, I don’t think so,” said an Eastern European diplomat.
However, expectations remain low.
“It will be just another ‘blah blah’ forum to discuss, (…) but after a few meetings it could end without any great success,” the Eastern European diplomat added.
“There are too many countries with too many interests. (…) How can you have Serbia and talk about Russia? How can you have Turkey and Greece/Cyprus together? How can you have Armenia and Azerbaijan at the same table?”
France is aware that, without a clear agenda, many believe the summit will be nothing more than a big family photo of the leaders at Prague Castle.
Still, he was glad that Ukraine had put forward proposals on what the EPC should look like, as well as Moldova, which had offered to host the grouping’s second summit.
Another French diplomat said that some concrete initiatives could emerge from the forum, such as university cooperation after the United Kingdom left the Erasmus exchange program or even free telephone rates in member countries.
European diplomats believe the move also has the advantage of bringing Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan closer to Europe and further away from Russia.
The Turks, initially annoyed by France’s misgivings, eventually received an invitation and will attend, but have warned the EU not to believe that Ankara will give up its hopes of one day joining the club. 23 years ago it started accession negotiations with the EU.
Before the Prague summit, some European diplomats recalled another French initiative, launched with great fanfare more than a decade ago by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, that fell into oblivion.
“Like the Mediterranean Union, it will be a big French project with no great success, no real impact,” said a Baltic diplomat.