Why Macron wants a more muscular Europe with allies

Some critics claim the new forum could be an attempt to put the brakes on EU enlargement, while others wonder if it is a vanity project for the French president

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli

Published: Mon 10 Oct 2022, 10:23 PM

A new political organization was launched without fanfare last week as the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) was held in Prague.

Embracing all 27 members of the European Union along with diverse nations such as Israel, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine, the 44-member EPC could also signal a rapprochement between the EU and Britain as the region faces shared geopolitical challenges in armed conflict, energy and health.

Despite its name, the nascent organisation seems to reach out beyond the traditional borders of Europe to create what could be a new sphere of influence with Paris or Brussels at its core.

It almost harkens back to the original concept of the Third World. While today the term is often used interchangeably for poorer or developing countries, the notion of the Third World was originally conceived to describe non-aligned countries that lay outside the two poles of influence during the Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union. With the US and Russia pointedly not asked to join the EPC – and China clearly well beyond the borders of Europe and without legacy ties from WWII – the bloc could provide a third center of gravity in geopolitical power and influence that actually has greater ability than the EU to act in a timely way to crises.

Responding to questions about the geography of the EPC, Czech EU Affairs Minister Mikulás Bek told the media “we can have a debate about where Europe really ends”.

Prime Minister Liz Truss of Britain, who is reportedly interested in exploring ways to cooperate with Europe following Brexit, attended the inaugural forum. In an earlier op-ed in The Times newspaper, she said the British government would urge EPC unity over energy and migration. She also offered to host the next meeting following Prague.

The brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, the new organization is designed to foster political dialogue and cooperation to strengthen the “stability and prosperity” of the continent.

Long an advocate of a more muscular Europe, is Macron finally getting his way as Europeans look for greater security and solutions to the many severe challenges they now face?

Not lost on analysts is the composition of the group, which includes energy producers Azerbaijan and Norway, which though in Europe is not an EU member. In addition to the UK, other non-EU countries in the bloc include Switzerland, Iceland, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As the US faces its own issues and is no longer willing or entirely effective as the guarantor of European security, a role it played for decades following WWII, the EU – designed to administer peace, not war – is almost by definition moribund in the face of any open aggression. Nato, while precisely a military coalition, includes the US as its main pillar. If Europe wants an exclusively European response and policy, the answer is not always Nato, also by definition.

Already home to a proliferation of multinational organizations – including the EU, Nato and the 46-member Council of Europe founded in the wake of WWII – some question the need for yet another grouping in debate-prone Europe. Could a new bloc really offer timely action to protect and ensure energy supplies, military security and supply chains?

The rapidity with which it was organized could be an indication the group is more streamlined and agile. Its founding meeting was held five months after Macron first pitched the idea, a short timespan by European standards.

Yet as it was formed so fast, many questions naturally remain. No joint statement was released following its first meeting last week so we don't know what, if any, consensus was reached.

Daniela Schwarzer, executive director for Europe and Eurasia at Open Society Foundations, told the media “the best outcome of the first meeting would be to agree on a sort of minimal terms of reference under which condition they would meet again because there is a real need to redefine the EU's relationships with its neighbors in a fresh way”.

“It really has the potential to build a new forum for strategic exchange and policy-making on a pan-continental scale, which is very much what the geopolitical situation requires at the moment,” she said.

There is also the question of money to pay for projects and basic administration as well as how decisions will be reached. Should it act as a unified bloc or allow “coalitions of the willing”, as they are now known, to proceed on their own?

As the EU faces harsh realities ranging from military conflict, public health, energy and climate change, it has become crystal clear that its requirement for total unanimity for action is an ideal too far. Some leaders of member countries are now pushing for amendments to EU treaties to allow for majority votes to adopt measures, members and policies. The EPC is another route to enable quicker responses.

Some critics claim the new forum could be an attempt to put the brakes on EU enlargement, while others wonder if it is a vanity project for Macron. The proof of its success will likely be any coordinated or effective action on energy and the conflict in Ukraine this winter or even next summer – and whether a second meeting actually takes place.

- Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy.

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