What could the European Political Community do for Britain?

Opinion piece (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)
20 October 2023

People who are keen to see an improvement in UK-EU relations should not overestimate the power of the European Political Community, says Luigi Scazzieri. It is not a route to rejoining the EU. Nonetheless, on some foreign policy issues and especially those affecting the EU’s borders, it could prove very useful.

The European Political Community (EPC) summit in Granada on 5 October 2023 was the third meeting of Europe’s newest political forum. A group of 44 leaders of European countries plus the heads of the EU institutions gathered to discuss common economic and security challenges. The next summit is scheduled to be held in the UK in the first half of next year, allowing Britain to set its agenda. But what can the EPC’s role in UK-EU relations be?

A recent report by Franco-German thinkers gained significant attention in British media because it mentioned the EPC as an outer layer in a multi-tier EU, and therefore a possible avenue for UK-EU reengagement.

In reality, the EPC’s potential in the UK-EU relationship is modest.

What is the EPC for?

The EPC was launched by French President Emmanuel Macron in a speech to the European Parliament in May last year. Macron wanted to “find a new space for political and security co-operation" between a broad group of European countries. One of his key aims was fostering closer dialogue between EU members and non-EU countries, including the UK. Macron’s initiative took many by surprise. Despite assurances to the contrary, there were concerns that the EPC could result in a loss of momentum for EU enlargement. Meanwhile, the UK and the EU institutions were uncertain about how to view the initiative.

These fears have now been largely put to rest, and both the EU and the UK recognise that the EPC fills a gap by providing a way for a very broad group of leaders to meet informally in a flexible format. All leaders are on an equal footing, and they are free to talk without having to agree on formal conclusions. For some of the leaders from the smaller countries, it is a very important opportunity to meet their counterparts. Concerns that the EPC is about bypassing the enlargement process have also diminished.

For the UK, the EPC represents a valuable avenue to engage its EU partners. Now that British leaders no longer attend European Council meetings, the EPC summits provide an important informal opportunity to meet other European leaders. The fact that the EPC is unlinked from the EU institutions is a major advantage for the UK and has allowed British prime ministers to engage more closely with European partners while bypassing the Euroscepticism of many of their backbenchers. In particular, the UK sees the EPC as valuable in terms of fostering closer cooperation in tackling illegal immigration and people smuggling; building resilience and countering hybrid threats such as election interference; and energy security. These are likely to be the UK’s priorities when it hosts the EPC summit next year.

On the EU side, there is no consolidated view of the EPC. All Member States accept that it will be a feature of Europe’s political map, at least for some time. Not all are equally enthusiastic about it, however. For some, the most the EPC can be is a meeting platform for national leaders. Others, particularly France, still think that the EPC could have a role in promoting cooperation between its members in areas such as security, energy, and connectivity.

Many EU countries think that the EPC is useful in projecting a united front against Russian aggression, and that it might also have a role to play in addressing conflicts amongst its members – like those between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or Kosovo and Serbia. But the main value of the EPC for its EU members is that it offers a platform for engagement with the candidate countries, particularly on issues relating to security.

What the EPC cannot do

Expectations that the EPC could foster closer EU-UK relations should be modest. The EPC will not have a major economic dimension and won’t become an outer tier of the EU’s single market. As a result, it cannot become a backdoor through which Britain could develop closer links to the EU. Any improvement in the terms of the current UK-EU relationship will occur through a revision of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement or through additional agreements, and not through the EPC.

The EPC can help foster more contacts between UK and EU leaders on a range of shared concerns, as shown by the side meeting on migration that the UK organised at the Granada summit. But the EPC can also be a source of friction, as shown by disagreements between the UK and Spain over whether to include migration on the official agenda. When it comes to generating practical cooperation, the EPC cannot realistically be involved in issues that are the primary tasks of other institutions. Economic cooperation, including in its energy dimension, belongs to the EU-UK relationship or to bilateral relations. Meanwhile, security cooperation between the UK and EU countries takes place either bilaterally or within NATO.

The EPC also does not have any tools or institutions and cannot follow up or implement decisions that leaders might agree to. Nevertheless, it could be useful in pushing some issues up the political agenda, and acting as a platform to launch projects that can be pursued by groupings of countries or by other organisations. Both the UK and EU members would be open to some light institutionalisation of the EPC, for example by giving it a system of presidencies through which the outgoing, current, and future presidencies assist each other and provide a degree of continuity.

Countering threats on the EU’s borders

The EPC is likely to be most useful in fostering EU-UK co-operation in policy fields that are not part of the UK-EU relationship, and that do not fall directly under NATO’s remit. Perhaps the most obvious is fostering greater engagement between the UK and the EU on issues relating to foreign policy towards other countries.

It is possible to imagine the EPC as a platform for greater UK-EU engagement in buttressing countries in the Western Balkans, Georgia, Ukraine and other non-NATO members against foreign interference and aggression or helping them strengthen their energy security. The UK’s priority of countering illegal immigration could also be a potential area of focus for the EPC, at least as far as the fight against smuggling networks is concerned. But Britain should be wary of trying to make migration the principal focus of the EPC, as it is a lesser priority for the other members.

The fact that several leaders did not attend the summit in Granada does not bode well. The EPC’s future will be at risk if leaders stop seeing a reason to turn up to its summits, given that one of the key advantages of the EPC is that it can foster more contacts between leaders. Similarly, given that one of its key rationales is projecting unity in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the EPC may not outlast the end of the war.

The trajectory of the UK-EU relationship will be another key variable. If the Labour party forms the next government and seeks closer and more structured ties to the EU in foreign policy, then the EPC could become less important for the UK. Even then, it could still be valuable if it served as a way for the UK and the EU to engage with other EPC members.