Stephen Booth is an Associate Fellow in Political Economy at the Council on Geostrategy.
The Prime Minister will join 46 other European leaders in Moldova today for the second meeting of the fledgling European Political Community (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.
Macron’s vision for the EPC was the latest in a string of French proposals for a Europe of concentric circles, with a tightly integrated Eurozone at the heart. As the Iron Curtain fell, Francois Mitterrand proposed a European Confederation including the Soviet Union and the post-communist Central and Eastern nations. However, the latter baulked at sharing a club with their past masters and the idea that they were only to be second-class Europeans.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposed Union for the Mediterranean was designed as a means of parking the thorny issue of Turkey’s potential EU membership, but it was also motivated by a desire to balance Germany’s growing influence in the EU following the 2004 enlargement to the east, where Berlin traditionally had more influence than Paris. The Mediterranean Union remains a going concern but with little influence.
Macron’s concept of the EPC seemed to be doomed to the same fate as previous French efforts to create a wider European space. His early definition seemed to resemble EU satellite status, which was likely to alienate both Britain and prospective EU members such as Ukraine, who would see it as an attempt to hold them at arm’s length from membership.
Instead, the EPC has been launched as a loose association of European nations. The risk is that it becomes yet another international talking shop. Most significantly for the UK, the inaugural Prague summit saw a reset in Franco-British relations. However, there was no formal summit communique, and there is still the question of how the EPC will sit alongside the existing international institutional architecture, such as the Council of Europe, the OECD, the OSCE, the G7/G20 and NATO.
Nevertheless, 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.
France has always seen the EU as a vehicle for boosting its global influence, but for historical reasons Germany has always been, and seems likely to remain, a reluctant partner in this endeavour. So, while the Government would like greater help from Paris in tackling issues such as the small boats, we should not forget that Macron needs Britain too.
The invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally altered the geopolitical landscape of the Euro-Atlantic, highlighting the geostrategic limitations of the EU and the significance of the UK as a European geopolitical actor, which has been welcomed by many of the UK’s traditional allies within the EU. Recent French appeals to the notion of EU “strategic autonomy” or the European Commission’s vision of a “geopolitical EU” are viewed by many member states with suspicion because it is often pitched by Macron as an alternative to a US-led West. Russia’s war in Ukraine has only underlined many European nations’ scepticism of greater EU autonomy under Franco-German leadership.
Nevertheless, the outlook for US global leadership is less certain, and it is clear that Europe must shoulder a greater share of the security burden and could coordinate more closely on questions of economic resilience, including energy security and critical industries, where US industrial policy is increasingly America First. Equally, the potential scale of migration from developing countries is a unique challenge for Europe. These issues increasingly transcend the limits of EU competence, in both the legal and practical sense.The UK is due to host the fourth EPC summit in spring 2024. It should shape an agenda focused on the key strategic questions – security, economic resilience, climate, migration and asylum – where it can contribute to a wider European effort (e.g. on security and climate finance) and where it will be impacted by the policies of others (e.g. asylum and industrial policy). In the security sphere, for example, this would not mean simply docking to EU programmes or duplicating NATO activities, but providing a means for coordinating European positions, including how they interact with EU policies.
The detail of UK-EU economic relations will continue to be governed by the UK-EU bilateral Trade and Cooperation Agreement. But the EPC should provide a forum where the UK can demonstrate to its allies, within and outside the EU, its commitment to European cooperation in the round, putting the bilateral UK-EU relationship in its proper strategic context. Throughout its EU membership and the Brexit negotiations, the UK’s contribution to European security and as a transatlantic bridge was undervalued by many of its closest partners within the EU. However, a meaningful EPC would provide the means for the UK to assert that strategic questions around European security and economic resilience, including trade, should be considered in conjunction.Messina Conference in 1955, arguably finding itself on the backfoot ever since. This moment is not as seismic for European international relations, but the UK should not pass up the opportunity to shape the post-Brexit, post-Ukraine, Europe where it can.The secret to a success may lie in the UK’s ability simultaneously to convince Paris that the EPC amplifies French influence, while convincing others that the EPC provides the vehicle for the UK to play its traditional role of balancing Franco-German power on the continent. Just as the maxim is that NATO’s purpose is to “keep the Americans in”, the UK’s role in the EPC would be to ensure that European strategic questions remain embedded in a wider transatlanticism and liberal economic outlook. The UK made a strategic mistake in dismissing the