Blog/The potential of the “European Political Community”

The potential of the “European Political Community”

By Stop Media BanJune 2, 2023

This week, nearly 50 leaders from across Europe met in Moldova during the summit of the “European Political Community”, a project launched last year by French President Emmanuel Macron.

As opposed to the format of the European Union, there are no democracy or rule of law requirements to take part, after from perhaps not invading and brutalising a neighbouring country, which is why Russia and its client state Belarus are not invited, as the only European countries. An authoritarian form of government is not preventing an invitation, as for example the leadership of Azerbaijan is welcome.

In further contrast to the EU Summit machinery, no formal conclusions are adopted at the end of the gathering. The key purpose is to foster discussions between the leaders of European nations.

A welcome new initiative

Fundamentally, the emergence of the EPC should be welcomed. The importance of actual physical interaction between top politicians should never be underestimated. From the cold war talks between Reagan and Gorbachev to the heated discussions in the middle of the eurocrisis: really important stuff tends to be discussed face to face.

In an interesting paper by a new think tank, the “Brussels Institute for Geopolitics“, academics Hans Kribbe, Sébastien Lumet and Luuk van Middelaar explain the value of the “European Political Community» and why it fulfils a role which the European Union cannot fulfil.

They write:

“The European Union, while unquestionably part of the answer to the continent’s many new strategic challenges, is not suited to the task of drawing the greater European family together in response to the Russian onslaught. In June 2022, in an effort to make clear that ‘they are with us’, the EU opened the door to Ukraine’s accession and signaled the same to Moldova, while indicating to Georgia it has a prospect of membership. But as Brussels officials privately admit, the road to the EU, governed by strict and burdensome legal and administrative criteria, is long and takes time, whereas the need to anchor these and other states in a new European and non-Russian home is immediate.

Moreover, a significant number of European states have no intention of joining the EU. Energy and economic powerhouses Norway and  Switzerland are two. Turkey’s accession bid has stalled. Then there is the UK. That such strategically important states are not part of the Union makes it evident that EU membership, whether actual or prospective, does not define Europe. Here lies the raison d’être of the European Political Community. It offers precisely the sort of arrangement the continent currently requires: pan-European, flexible, informal, and egalitarian and intimate in spirit.”

They stress:

“The decision to invite Turkey’s Erdogan – once Greek and Cypriot hesitations were overcome in the summer of 2022 – revealed what leaders are attempting to achieve. In the context of Putin’s war of aggression, it is tempting to frame the initiative as a community of democracies, based on liberal values, human rights and the rule of law. However, Turkey’s presence – and even more that of Azerbaijan – indicates this is not what the protagonists envision. Instead, the EPC forms a broad community of interests, bound together by the threat the war poses to their joint security. Although it was never explicitly stated at Prague, and some continue to speak of the EPC as a values-based body, geostrategic imperatives inevitably lead to this outcome. Russia was not invited, not because it is an illiberal autocracy but because it is a geopolitical rival waging a war on the continent. As with NATO, Turkey is in, not because it is a democracy but because it is an important strategic partner.”

Tellingly, at the last moment, Turkish newly elected President Erdogan declined to take part, as a sign of distancing himself from the West, which is firmly embraced by leaders attending the EPC, and can perhaps be considered the ideological core of it.

A closer look at host country Moldova

The host country of the EPC summit, Moldova, was chosen as the host country, to alleviate UK concerns that the new initiative should not be overly EU-centered, but also as a clear signal to Russia not to try an invasion, following rumours Putin may be planning to do this.

Then a few eyebrows can be raised when taking a closer look at Moldova. Yes, it is a democracy, and yes, Russia’s shadow is looming large over it, not least because Russia still occupies a part of its territory, but even without the Russian threat, there are considerable problems that still need to be addressed before the country could even hope to become part of the European Union or considered a solid democracy.

Just like in other countries in the region – not to name Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine or Serbia – Moldova does score rather poor on corruption perception indices.

Also deeply problematic is the media situation. According to an assessment by “Reporters Without Borders”, “Major media, such as TV6, NTV Moldova and Prime TV, are in the hands of political leaders”, also noting that the licences of six TV channels deemed pro-Russian have been suspended since December 2022.

The latter has triggered a campaign, named “Stop Media Ban“, as some of the journalists that were the victim of the ban even travelled from Moldova to the European Parliament to protest and demand attention for their cause.

In a letter to MEPs, their leader, Alexei Lungu, explains:

“Stop Media Ban is an association of journalists and media members established in the aftermath of the wide media ban across six (6) Television channels in Moldova. On 16 December 2022, the Commission for Exceptional Situations recalled our streaming licenses accusing our channels of streaming Russian propaganda and not featuring “enough” the war in Ukraine.

In reality, our channels were banned because we speak out when our government is in the wrong. We do not sit silent when the opposition is taking steps to improve the life in the community. As the code of journalist profession requires, we always present all sides to the story, yet sometimes our elected leaders refuse to talk to press they deem as “opposition”.

Fundamentally, according to the group, there is the problem that “while our government claims Moldova’s commitment to the European values and the European future, it doesn’t respect the fundamental values of free press and the rule of law in the country. (…) In February 2023, a poll among the Moldovan population, “Socio-Political Barometer”, showed that 68% of those interviewed believe the decision of the Commission for Exceptional Situations to suspend the licenses for the six television stations is an abuse on the part of the current power.”

This is unfortunately also the case for a number of EU countries taking part in the EPC summit. Yes, the EU may be employing double standards in how it is tackling Poland and Hungary – for a start, Bulgaria could be provided with similar attention – but fundamentally, there are serious concerns to be raised about the development of the rule of law over there, without thereby assuming that the democraties in “old Europe” would be perfect.

Ultimately, it is of no help for the likes of Moldova or Ukraine to remain silent about the corruption over there. On the contrary, to highlight the issue is the best thing what one could do. If these countries want to belong to the West, they should adopt Western practices.

The EPC as a vehicle for the UK to re-engage in Europe?

My former Open Europe colleague Stephen Booth, now an Associate Fellow in Political Economy at Britan’s “Council on Geostrategy”, comments on Conservative Home about the EPC:

“Originally the brainchild of Emmanuel Macron, the EPC provides a diplomatic opportunity for Britain, if the Government is prepared to put political energy into driving it. (…) There is an opportunity for the UK to carve out a niche for the EPC and rebuild its influence in its European neighbourhood. The UK may not wish to be subject to EU governance, but it will still be affected by decisions taken in Brussels and other European capitals. Therefore, the UK should view the EPC as a forum to consult and coordinate on policies that will affect the wider European neighbourhood, from energy security to asylum policy. The EPC should provide the broader strategic context for an improved bilateral UK-EU relationship and deeper relationships with individual nations inside and outside the EU.

The Government has an opportunity because, if the EPC is to be a viable project at all, the UK’s role will be key to ensuring its success. Previous attempts to establish such an organisation have foundered because they have been viewed by non-EU members as a pale imitation of full membership. The UK, however, has the profile and the motivation to stake out its own European identity as a non-EU member, and provide the EPC with a mission that isn’t confined to being the EU’s waiting room.”

Serving as a platform for Europe’s top politicians to meet without the pressure of having to agree on something and irrespective of whether they come from an EU member state or not, serving as a manner to bring the United Kingdom, which has proven so pivotal for Ukraine to be able to defend itself against Russia, back into a European forum, and serving as a means to gather the leaders of established European democraties together with their colleagues from nations with more shaky institutions: all of that is ultimately a very good thing.

Written by Pieter Cleppe

Originally published on Brussels Report on June 2, 2023.

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