Behind the Scenes: It takes a village...

Behind the Scenes: It takes a village...
Credit: European Union

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

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With SAM MORGAN

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It takes a village

The first ever meeting of the European Political Community, a new cosy waiting room of sorts for EU-hopefuls, kicks off next week. Is this the missing piece in the enlargement puzzle? Or a buffer zone designed to keep membership at arm’s length?

Emmanuel Macron’s latest brainchild, the European Political Community (EPC), will see the light of day on 6 October, when EU prime ministers and presidents meet with the leaders of countries that share the bloc’s values on trade, energy and other political priorities.

It has also been touted as a new forum for countries that are either seeking full bloc membership or improved relations with Brussels to get together on a regular basis with existing members.

But there are already fears that the EPC will be used as a buffer zone of sorts by EU members that do not want to enlarge the Union but also do not want strategic partners to take their business elsewhere.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


What the EPC hopes to achieve, what format the organisation will take and what legal basis will be given to any decisions made within its framework all still need to be hashed out. Next week’s meeting is just a photo op but will set the tone for what is to come.

The invitee list includes Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Iceland, Israel, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Ongoing economic chaos triggered by the UK Conservative government’s new tax cuts and that party’s adherence to Brexit dogma meant that Prime Minister Liz Truss only confirmed late this week that she would attend the Prague meeting.

The UK is reportedly keen to use the EPC as a forum to discuss migration and energy policy but is less keen about the EU running the show. Truss will likely hope that her attendance is not seized upon by Brexit hardliners who might see this as a ‘soft-rejoin’.

Other potential members make fathoming out the true function of the EPC more difficult still. Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in conflict, Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo and Turkey has problems with seemingly everyone.

Building a community 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was once again the trigger for this latest development, spurring the invaded country to seek EU membership in the early days of the war. After an expedited process, Brussels granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status.

The Commission had to manage expectations after Kyiv sought immediate membership, having to remind everyone that a lengthy accession process would be required before that could happen.

Calls to turbocharge the procedure for the war-torn country were also nipped in the bud, for much the same reason that Ukraine’s NATO bid was shot down and out of fear that it would upset countries already in the queue.

Brussels also knows that enlargement cannot happen in the short-term without a review of the EU’s treaties first. The Union already struggles to function properly with 27 members, so adding more countries is a recipe for full policy paralysis.

That is where the idea of the EPC comes in. The concept is still vague but has been touted as a way for EU hopefuls to get some of the benefits of full membership while they undertake all the reforms needed to join the bloc.

Ukraine is on track to be granted single market access perks normally reserved for full members, as a way to help it repel Russia’s invasion. Whether that would be offered as a carrot to other EPC members is a question that will have to be answered.

You could also see this new scheme like a form of geopolitical Erasmus. Foreign leaders that maybe only get one summit a year and some bilateral meetings with their EU counterparts would get more face time, more exposure to those ‘good’ values we hear so much about.

At the end of the day, the EU has no army, a small budget compared to its big rivals and is limited by its internal organisation – unanimous voting, a cumbersome legislative process – so soft power is crucial. This could be a vector to deliver it on a regular basis.

Ideas about how to actually structure this new forum are already doing the rounds. Bruegel, a think tank, says that the EPC should focus on energy and climate, security and defence, and economic and social convergence. Vetoes would also be banned.

That will probably be the key to success of this new initiative: picking a lane and staying in it. The G7, G20, EEA, UN, WTO and so on all have certain raison d’etres, so it would be a waste of time for the EPC to duplicate work.

Comparisons have already been drawn with the Council of Europe, a 46-member-body that ostensibly looks like it already performs the functions that the EPC may aim to carry out once up and running.

That is why the new club has to discuss issues that really matter to the potential members. Visa access and liberalisation, economic convergence and how to join the EU or at least get on the path towards it.

Otherwise, it will end up as a fairly useless talking shop and after a few high-profile meetings will fade into obscurity.

The EPC should be ambitious and aggressive too. Weaponise it as another tool to smash Russian influence.

The Russia-led Eurasian Union of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan looks wobbly at best under the current geopolitical climate, so go after it. Make Armenia and Kazakhstan, in particular, attractive offers of future collaboration.

Hurdles

Macron, who first proposed this idea, European Council President Charles Michel and other EU dignitaries have all insisted that this is not an alternative to EU membership. Those are probably not empty words.

It is easy to see why aspiring members would be wary of this initiative, Macron was after all one of the main champions of a ‘two-speed Europe’, where countries willing to do more on certain policies would be unshackled from less progressive members.

Not much has come of that thinking. In fact, Europe has started to become decidedly less ‘two-speed’ given Croatia’s imminent joining of the eurozone and Schengen areas, two of the prime examples of how EU countries are split into tiers.

Other considerations to keep in mind include what would happen if some EPC members hypothetically joined the EU? Would its function cease to be useful once a certain number of them were bloc members?

How will meetings be chaired? Will there be a president or presidency like with the EPC? Will there be a budget? There is so much to discuss and organise that we shouldn’t expect this to be fully up and running before the second half of the decade.

Whatever format the EPC takes, whatever name it ends up taking, the potential for all countries involved to benefit from better cooperation is clear to see. Willing participants should give it a go with gusto.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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