‘Greater Europe’ project begins to take shape
The new European Political Community of almost 50 nations meets for the third time on Thursday. The group has generated much media interest since its formation in 2022, yet the debate around its core purpose has only become energized in recent weeks.
While the mandate of the body will not be finalized by the 47 leaders meeting in Spain, new voltage has been put into the discussion by a Franco-German working group, the General Affairs Council. This council concluded in its influential September report that, in an already crowded institutional landscape, “Greater Europe” needs a new political architecture.
What is specifically proposed are four overlapping rings. Firstly, an inner core, or “coalition of the willing,” of select EU states such as Germany and France that are prepared to go further and faster with integration. Secondly, the rest of the EU’s 27 member states. Thirdly, “associate members” of the EU, which largely means Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are wholly or partially in the European single market.
This would then leave a fourth, outer ring of Greater Europe, which includes: the UK; the Western Balkan states (Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro), which have been identified by Brussels as candidates or potential candidates for EU membership; Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, all of which applied to join the EU following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022; Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkiye; and also San Marino, Andorra and Monaco.
Given the hugely diverse nature of this outer ring, which comprises a previous EU nation (the UK), potential future ones like Ukraine and Turkiye and states never likely to join the EU like Armenia, it is still uncertain whether the formation of this new club of nations will be a significant moment in Europe’s decades-long integration project or perhaps little more than a footnote in its history.
The European Political Community could serve as a potential bridge to a larger EU and a framework for more permanent continental integration
The key question facing the European Political Community’s leaders is how such a vast grouping can best work together economically and politically on “soft” issues like energy and climate, let alone “hard” ones like security, given some members are bilateral foes, such as Turkiye and Greece and Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This also needs to be done without any central secretariat or permanent staff, nor any large financial resources. The body’s only explicit, official purpose is to act as a forum for political and strategic discussions, similar to the G7 or the G20.
Leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron hope that the European Political Community may be effective at dealing with such shared European issues due to the exclusion of Russia, whose membership of other organizations, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, gives rise to significant challenges. Similarly, the new community’s flexible structure and emphasis on bilateral ties potentially allows for greater freedom for leaders to focus on their own specific concerns compared to other bodies that have more official procedures, like the Council of Europe.
A further key aim for many of the 27 EU states is to more fully embrace accession countries, some of which like Turkiye are losing patience in their very long wait for membership of the bloc. So, the European Political Community could serve as a potential bridge to a larger EU and a framework for more permanent continental integration, building a consensus between participating states and the EU in areas like energy and defense. In doing so, it can 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 community is Brexit. This is already changing the EU’s relationship with some other non-EU European countries, including Norway, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and the non-EU states in the Balkans. Each of these states has developed relations with the EU that — most obviously in the cases of Norway and Switzerland — 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 to the Brussels-based club remaining an option, but it does open up new possibilities for future relationships centered on continued non-membership.
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 future change, potentially via the European Political Community.
For example, the community has given a new context for the UK to reach new post-Brexit accords with some EU member states to increase bilateral cooperation, in what Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called “a new phase of UK-EU cooperation.” London has, for instance, agreed to join at least one project under the remit of the Permanent Structured Cooperation, an EU structure for military capability cooperation.
The UK has also rejoined the Calais Group, where discussions on migrant crossings of the English Channel are held with France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Moreover, London has also recommenced cooperation with the North Seas Energy Cooperation, a body comprising eight EU members plus Norway with the goal of developing offshore renewable energy.
Taken together, it is increasingly clear that the European Political Community has the potential to be a significant moment in Europe’s integration story over the coming years. However, the jury is still out on whether this promise will be fulfilled.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.