New European Political Community could be a key forum

New European Political Community could be a key forum

New European Political Community could be a key forum
The formation of the forum has been heavily promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron. (AFP)
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The new European Political Community met for the first time on Thursday amid massive shared challenges. Despite the high hopes for its future against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, it is unclear whether the formation of this new “club of nations” will be a significant moment in the story of Europe’s long integration project or little more than a footnote in its history.

The formation of the forum, which has been heavily promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron, highlights the critical policy debates taking place over the role of the EU in a more complex, multipolar Europe and world. This issue has become especially important given Russia’s hostility in recent years, culminating in the invasion of Ukraine in February.

It is in this context that EU decision-makers are thinking about whether and how European and Eurasian states that are not members of the 27-strong EU club can best develop their political and economic ties with Brussels. A total of 44 states were invited to Thursday’s big meeting, including 17 non-EU powers like the UK, Norway, Switzerland, Ukraine, Iceland, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

With so many disparate states at the table, the European Political Community has generated high hopes, but its purpose is far from clear and some doubt that it will last. While the new body’s mission is not obvious, the expectation is that it might convene once or twice a year and aim to address issues that preoccupy all the states in question, including pressing energy, security and immigration challenges.

A key aim for the big EU players is to embrace accession countries, some of which are losing patience waiting for membership of the bloc. In doing so, they seek to counter attempts by Russia and China to gain influence in the continent, especially on its southern and eastern fringes.

One of the other drivers of the new group is Brexit, given that this development created a new non-EU power in Western Europe. This is already changing the EU’s relationship with other non-EU European countries, including Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Liechtenstein and those in the Balkans.

Each of these states has developed relations with the EU that — most obviously in the case of Norway and Switzerland, but also to a lesser extent others like Turkey — were intended as a means to the end of eventual EU membership, or at least closer relations with the bloc. Brexit has not (yet) thrown these processes into reverse, with eventual accession remaining an option, but it does open up new possibilities for future relationships centered on continued non-membership.

With so many disparate states at the table, it has generated high hopes, but its purpose is far from clear and some doubt that it will last

Andrew Hammond

Decision-makers in these states have used the Brexit vote as an opportunity to raise questions about the future of their relations with the EU. There has been some limited discussion as to whether Brexit might open up opportunities for a radical overhaul of Europe’s institutional architecture. Such ambitious plans have faded, but they do point to opportunities for change, potentially via the new community.

For advocates such as Macron, this forum could serve as a bridge to a larger EU and a framework for more permanent continental integration. It could start this process by building a consensus between participating states and the EU.

Take the example of energy, on which cooperative frameworks could be developed where there is, for instance, a possibility of connecting Ukraine to the European electricity grid, signing more natural gas agreements with Norway, and building green hydrogen infrastructure across the region. Another example is security and defense partnerships, as the war in Ukraine has exposed the weakness of Europe’s existing architecture and highlighted the need for European countries to cooperate more, including in areas like counterterrorism and cybersecurity.

Such reforms may also be needed to deal with wider global trends impacting the region. Europe already feels the pull of different world powers, especially the US and China, and it struggles locally with the geopolitical disruptions of Russia. This global multipolarity has brought greater uncertainty to Europe, with the geopolitical terrain becoming all the more complex.

Going forward, at least three states in particular will be crucial to shaping how Europe’s changing geopolitical landscape and the fast-changing multipolar world play out for the EU: Germany, the US and Russia. Other powers such as France, the UK and China will have influence, but it will probably be the choices of the first three — whether to engage, exploit or ignore — that will shape the context of European and international politics in the short and medium term.

What these debates showcase is that the EU, and the wider community of European nations, face several first-order challenges that include the ongoing pressures facing relations with Russia. How Brussels, in particular, now responds will not just frame its future relationship with key non-EU states, including the UK, but also determine its wider place in the world.

• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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