Can the European Political Community bring the UK and EU closer?

Opinion piece (Encompass)
01 May 2022

The European Political Community (EPC) is Europe’s newest political forum. The EPC is the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron. It was born in October 2022 in Prague, with forty-three European leaders taking part in its inaugural summit. They discussed shared challenges, focusing on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis and the global economy. Above all they projected an image of continental unity against Russia’s invasion. 

The Prague summit showcased the EPC’s potential as a platform for dialogue between a large and diverse group of European leaders, and as an avenue to foster closer UK-EU ties. The EPC could help rebuild trust after the acrimony of the Brexit years, promote closer dialogue and help the EU and the UK address shared challenges.

In Prague, leaders agreed to hold at least three more summits. These will take place twice a year, with the hosting alternating between an EU member-state and a non-member. The second meeting will be held in Moldova in June, the third in Spain in October and the fourth in the UK in the first half of 2024. 

However, the EPC’s longer-term future and its ability to bring the EU and the UK together are still unclear. Will it remain a loose high-level forum for national leaders, without a secretariat and a budget, or will it become more institutionalised and perhaps involved in implementing concrete projects? What will the EU’s relationship to the EPC be, and how closely involved will the EU institutions be in running the EPC? 

All EPC members agree that it can be useful as a forum for informal discussions on common challenges between a broad and diverse group of European leaders. The question is whether the EPC can become more than that and serve as a platform for pan-European co-operation and co-ordination, Some EPC members, like France and the UK are keen to explore the EPC’s potential to foster concrete co-operation in areas like energy security and countering hybrid threats. Others, like Germany and Poland, are more sceptical and think that the EPC should remain a loose dialogue forum. Many eastern member-states and EU membership candidates have lingering fears that the EPC could be a distraction from the accession process. 

In the near term, it seems clear that the EPC will remain a loose forum. There is little appetite among EPC members to institutionalise it further by giving it a budget or a secretariat. Instead, countries like the EPC’s informal nature: the lack of a strict agenda leaves ample time for unscripted informal exchanges between leaders, some of whom might not otherwise meet. The degree of EU involvement in the EPC is also unlikely to grow. For the non-EU members of the EPC, and especially for the UK, one of the big selling points of the format is that it is a forum of equals and that the European institutions do not have a major role in it. But EU members of the EPC also generally do not want the EU institutions to be more involved, and neither do the institutions themselves. The institutions and EU countries want to protect the Union’s decision-making autonomy and do not want the EPC to touch on EU competences.

A key variable in determining the EPC’s future is whether leaders continue to attend its summits. If some stopped, that would lead the EPC to lose much of its appeal and eventually fade away. The risk of the EPC losing its shine could be especially acute once the war in Ukraine ends, unless it had firmly managed to establish itself as an essential forum before then.

The EPC’s chances of longevity, and its ability to promote UK-EU co-operation would be strengthened if it became more than just a discussion forum for leaders. There are two ways in which the EPC’s role could be expanded. First, its format could be enlarged so that ministers or senior officials from EPC members could meet in their own summits. Second, the EPC could serve as an ‘incubator’ to launch specific co-operation projects between groups of members.

Energy security could be a promising area for the EPC to incubate projects. Some EPC members might agree to work together to strengthen their energy supply and electricity interconnections, or to exchange information on supplies of critical materials. The EU institutions could be involved, or even take the lead, particularly in the case of projects between the candidate countries, or projects involving some EU members and candidate countries. Such multi-national projects would help the EU stabilise its neighbours and complement the enlargement process. They could benefit from EU funding, with candidates being given greater access to EU funds to strengthen their energy security.
Any EPC-born projects involving the UK and EU countries could not touch on EU competences. At the same time, it would not make sense for projects to duplicate NATO efforts or existing bilateral and mini-lateral forms of security co-operation. That leaves the security of the EU’s eastern neighbours as the most promising area for projects involving the UK and the EU. For example, some NATO members, including the UK, and non-NATO EPC members might agree to work together to counter hybrid threats from Russia and to foster societal resilience by exchanging information and best practices.

In the medium-term, the EPC’s role in UK-EU relations will depend on the state of bilateral ties. If the UK and EU concluded a formal foreign policy co-operation agreement, the UK might be less willing to invest in the EPC, as its added value as a platform for co-operation might be lowered. However, the EPC could still be valuable for both the EU and the UK to discuss common challenges with a broader group of European countries, and as a back-up plan for maintaining political ties and dialogue in case relations worsened.

Luigi Scazzieri is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.