(Analysis) European Political Community: The French Approach Towards Greater Europe

Vitalii Rishko

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has fundamentally changed the geopolitical situation on the European continent. It has triggered discussions on the need to ensure consensus and coordinate joint actions between European countries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted a radical change in the foreign policies of distinct European states and the EU. However, there are still issues that the EU cannot resolve alone because of the lack of unity inside the bloc. The war accelerated specific processes both inside the EU and outside its borders. Once again, the question of Europe’s strategic autonomy has become quite popular among researchers and politicians. There is hesitation whether the EU-27 is ready to welcome new members from the Western Balkans and the Eastern flank, for example. There have even been extensive discussions regarding the future of European integration and the essence of the EU. This is the context within which French President Emmanuel Macron proposed creating the European Political Community.

The Idea of a Pan-European Community: From Mitterrand to Macron

The idea of a Greater Europe/European Confederation is not revolutionary in European politics. It can be traced to the views of French President Francois Mitterrand. The European Political Community reflects an initiative that was first proposed but never materialized. There were different contexts surrounding such an idea. The geographical coverage of this project was also different. Mitterrand proposed his project in 1989 when the Cold War ended, but Europe was still politically divided despite the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a need to reunite Western Europe with Central and Eastern European states. Mitterrand, at that time, saw the importance of discussing critical issues of international affairs in a wide format. At the same time, his view of the European Communnities (EC) enlargement was quite pessimistic. He believed the EC should not accept new members from Central and Eastern Europe. In place of this, the EC should perform within the geographical boundaries of Western Europe, focusing on cohesiveness and economic growth. For this reason, Mitterrand proposed a European Confederation project that would embrace members from the Atlantic to the Urals.

The French vision of the EU’s enlargement policy has not changed significantly. France is still perceived as one of the key actors who are reluctant to welcome new members into the EU. Moreover, Macron often criticizes the EU’s enlargement policy. Under his presidency, the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia was blocked. Considering rifts on various issues within the EU, it is reasonable to assume that it is still divided. It could be disagreements over sanctions, security and defence issues, or the vision of the European project. The divide between “New” and “Old” Europe is also visible.

The most common contextual similarity that one can apply to the EPC is the extreme level of uncertainty that politicians then and now are confronted with. Back then, it was unclear what would happen with the USSR, similar to with the difficulties to predict what will happen to Russia after its war inUkraine. Another parallel comes from the ambitions of Francois Mitterrand and Emmanuel Macron. Mitterrand wanted to amend the bipolarity of the international order and make France a major global power. Along the same line, Macron plans to make France the dominant actor in the EU and beyond. This is in addition to further enhancing its status as a respected global political and security power.

However, Mitterrand’s idea failed to come into practice due to various factors. One of them was the Central and Eastern European states’ perception regarding Mitterrand’s project. Central and Eastern European nations saw the European Confederation as an ill-defined waiting area. Its only purpose, in their eyes, was to delay the integration of new members into the EC and NATO. These countries feared that it would only sow discord in the region instead of healing the rift in Europe. In the post-Cold War era, Mitterrand’s project sought to affect the interaction of European powers. In the same vein, Macron’s proposal is facing challenges, which may be explained by the EU’s “enlargement fatigue” and misunderstandings with acceding countries. Macron’s idea appears in a context similar to Mitterrand’s but in a geopolitical setting that is becoming increasingly troubling.

The European Political Community and its Structure

This new European organization would allow democratic European nations that subscribe to our shared core values to find a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons…

MAY 10, 2022

In May 2022 Emmanuel Macron outlined his vision of the proposed European Political Community framework. With the increasing security threats Europe is experiencing, Macron proposed this initiative as a solution to the present situation. With 44 members in the European Political Community, the platform can discuss a wide range of issues. The proposed institution brings together the EU-27, Balkan countries, the United Kingdom, Turkey, the Eastern Neighbors of the EU and Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The EPC includes other EU partners, such as those that belong to the EEA/EFTA. The President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council are also participants in this format. According to diplomatic sources, the suggested format is more likely to operate as G7 or G20. The EPC will create no institutional system to not duplicate the functions of other organizations such as the Council of Europe and OSCE.

Having so many participants makes one wonder whether such a format is feasible in terms of decision-making, because each country pursues its national interests. Often, consensus is not reachable within the EU, with only 27 members. It is also unclear how the participating countries intend to set up the agenda of their meetings in the EPC. Does any potential country have the ability to block certain issues and remove them from the agenda? Will the EPC publish any binding documents or recommendations as a result of its meetings? Overall, the EPC structure still needs to be clarified, which is the biggest constraint of this format.

The Interests of Participating States

Participants of the EPC gather around common security issues, however, they will try to promote their own agenda. Therefore, it is worth considering the positions and interests of individual states that are key participants in this initiative. France and Germany, as driving forces of the EU and other strategic partners of the bloc — the United Kingdom and Turkey — are interesting to observe.

Meeting of the European Political Community. Source: European Union

For France, the EPC is an opportunity to increase its influence in Europe and beyond. Merkel’s retirement from German politics strengthened Macron’s leadership within the EU. It allows France to lead the EU toward French interests while improving its standing in international relations. Paris might try to push further the idea of strategic autonomy, which is not widely supported in the EU. France will likely attempt to frame the EPC agenda to suit its interests and those of the EU. This would encourage other states to actively participate in it, resulting in closer cooperation between the EU and non-EU members. France is also interested in reinforcing closer ties with the UK amid the Russian war on Ukraine. It is vital for Paris that the UK plays an active role in European affairs. It is problematic for London because of inflation growth and other domestic troubles that the UK is facing now.

The EPC is therefore a tool to prevent the UK’s isolation from regional politics. Having Greece and Turkey as members allows France to support Athens and seek agreements with Turkey, deterring Turkish aggressive behavior in the Mediterranean Sea. By inviting conflicting parties, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, France might seek to expand its influence in the Caucasus. This would replace the vanishing influence of Russia. This opportunity can be critical for France, given its diminished diplomatic efforts in the last decade. For example, failing to stop Russia’s aggression against Ukraine during the existence of the Minsk Agreements, to which France was a mediator. France’s stance on the EPC can be explained by the desire of Paris to boost its international status, which has been severely harmed by foreign policy mistakes and diplomatic mistakes committed in Europe and other regions.

Regarding Germany, it is critical to note that Russia’s war against Ukraine is evidence of the failure of German Ostpolitik. Berlin considered Russia to be an indispensable part of the European security order. Germany thought it could avert all possible conflict situations by building economic and commercial ties with Moscow. Nevertheless, Germany’s bet on economic interconnections and interdependence was ill-advised. Consequently, the European Political Community could be a great opportunity for Berlin to rethink its strategic policies and make what Olaf Scholz called a “Zeitenwende” — a turning point in changing key strategic principles that had dominated German security and defense policy.

In this respect, Scholz and Macron would need to find common ground to formulate new guiding principles for their respective countries. This would critically influence the EU’s relations with Eastern European states and Russia. The contours of these policies are not yet clear. Both Germany and France need to reaffirm their reliability within the EU and outside its borders. As Paris and Berlin are required to consider the future of enlargement policy, their participation in the EPC will enable them to communicate the common agenda with acceding countries and candidates for EU membership. In other words, the EPC can serve as a platform for redrawing German Ostpolitik and for confidence-building measures between the EU and its partners.

Concerning the United Kingdom’s interests, London is more or less satisfied with the proposed structure of the EPC as it lacks any institutions and a clear decision-making line. It seems to have a striking contrast with the EU that the UK no longer belongs to. With the EPC, the UK has a new opportunity to engage in European affairs and project its influence and vision. Against the backdrop of the worsening security landscape in Europe, the UK might use the EPC to exert pressure on European states to make them provide more security and defense-related aid to Ukraine. This idea could be explained by the fact that so far, the UK has provided more military equipment to Ukraine than other European powers. Strengthening cooperation in the energy and migration field could also be an area of mutual interest. After all, the EPC could ease the tense relations between the UK and the EU, caused by disagreements between the UK and EU about Brexit conditions. In general, the EPC would allow countries to build bridges between them; however, the UK is likely to pursue its own vision of European affairs and is expected to be quite pragmatic. In particular, the UK government would like to show that its independent position is relevant to justify that Brexit was not a mistake. It also wants to demonstrate that Britain can conduct independent yet efficient foreign policy without being an EU member state.

Turkey’s presence in the European Political Community raises many questions concerning its domestic and foreign policy. Ankara’s participation in the initiative appears to be controversial. While the EPC advocates a common space for all who share democratic values, recent developments within Turkey have emphasized strengthening authoritarian practices and the struggle against the opposition. As a result, many question the country’s participation in the initiative. Moreover, in the last decade, Turkey has seen significant growth in its role as an international actor. Turkey’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy and pivot toward expanding Turkish geopolitical power accompany this growth. Despite this, the Turkish government welcomed the initiative, seeking to promote its interests regarding Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions. Turkey is eager to increase its weight as a mediator in European affairs. Since Turkey seems to be less interested in EU integration under Erdogan, having another platform to shape European politics besides NATO is indeed in Ankara’s interests.

The EPC and European Security Order

Despite its controversial nature, the EPC can in fact be beneficial and has the potential to be helpful in the long run. After the EPC summit, Oliver Várhelyi, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, made some remarks about the EPC. He raised the issue of the security order in Europe against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine, saying that: “for the foreseeable future, it is impossible to conceive a new security order or ‘peace architecture’ in Europe of which Russia would be an integral part. Russia remains a geographical neighbour and a member of the international system – but right now, we have to build a European security order without the Kremlin.”

Since the old international security structures failed to address the challenges posed by Russia, the European Political Community may prove an essential forum for debating the future of European security architecture. After the end of Russia’s war against Ukraine, a platform is needed to discuss the restoration of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries whose territories were occupied by Russia. Therefore, the EPC could play its role in maintaining dialogue between European states on the de-occupation of captured territories by Russia — Moldova’s Transnistria, Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali). Additionally, it could be helpful to discuss in the EPC what European countries can do to prevent future conflict by developing security guarantees for Ukraine. A consensus would have to exist within the European continent and with other non-European nations that respect the rules-based order to achieve this goal.

Provided the political will of the members of the European political community is present, the project can strengthen political integration on the European continent. This would enhance Europe’s position in the confrontation between the United States and China. Since the US and other allies are not involved, the French initiative may contribute to achieving some degree of strategic autonomy. However, even though European countries responded strongly to Russia’s aggression, the war proves that Europe is still dependent on the US to ensure security. Therefore, the desire to make Europe more independent in terms of foreign policy and security can be quite painful for the EU and the European continent. Moreover, this is not a matter of 5 or 10 years but a long-term initiative. Considering a number of European states’ misunderstandings, work on its implementation is unlikely to begin soon.

Given that sometimes French ideas are perceived with a certain level of suspicion and scepticism it would be a difficult aim to achieve. France would have to convince other European nations about the need to acquire strategic autonomy and convince the most prominent sceptic among European countries — Germany, who has different ideas about the EU’s partnerships with other leading powers. Hence, the French notion of the EPC is manageable in theory but difficult to implement in practice. France would have to manage and direct EPC development to achieve significant results. This would require France to define objectives in detail and develop the structure and bring together the interests of 44 members. Otherwise, the EPC will be a “talking shop,” as many analysts claim, without meaningful outcomes or convergence of interests. If the EPC follows this path, Macron’s hopes for France’s prestige and influence in Europe will crash. There will be no talks about l’autonomie stratégique, which France is so overwhelmed with.

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(Analysis) European Polit…

by Vitalii Rishko time to read: 10 min