Last week saw the first meeting of the new European Political Community. First proposed by President Macron in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EPC has been created to perform a dual function: managing strategic relations with European states outside the EU and acting as a waiting room for EU candidate countries during the lengthy accession process. 44 states attended the inaugural meeting, including the UK, whose relationship with the EU is strained to put it mildly.
For practical observers of European regional politics, the EPC is an interesting development. For one thing, it could bring the EU and UK together outside the tense channel of their bilateral relationship and get them talking about issues of mutual strategic interest, rather than sources of division. Macron wants the group to focus on security and energy, neither of which can be addressed without the UK, and sit explicitly outside the bilateral framework agreed in the Brexit divorce. While Paris is taking the lead on this, Berlin has given the initiative its explicit backing as a new way to structure regional partnerships. That buy-in will reassure London that the agenda won’t be monopolised by the Élysée.
This is far from meaning the group will endure or find a meaningful role in a world already filled with high-level platforms like the G7 and G20. At the very least, three obstacles will have to be navigated to get there.
The first is the inherent tension in the two roles envisioned for the group. If conceived as an ‘associate’ tier of EU membership or a holding pattern for candidate countries, the UK is highly unlikely to engage seriously. If it is a looser grouping, then the UK will be more comfortable, but states like Ukraine are likely to resent it as a poor substitute for full EU membership. A looser grouping risks becoming all things to all people, and it would be difficult to distinguish the EPC from the G7, except for its explicit European focus. Either way, the UK will be wary of getting too close to the EU, whereas Ukraine and others will insist they are not close enough.
The second obstacle will be how the group manages its deliberations. Without a secretariat, it will be incapable of sustaining much focus or delivering concrete outcomes. If the group is indeed focused on candidate countries, then the obvious candidate for staffing that secretariat would be the European Commission. While this may be the preference among many member states, this Conservative government will be averse to any sense of Brussels taking the wheel. The UK’s preference will be for an inter-governmental model akin to that of the Eurogroup, where the Commission is one actor among many, rather than the central node. Notably, Macron has already accommodated the UK by ensuring that neither the Commission nor the Council were front and centre at the group’s first meeting.
A third question will be about policy areas covered by the group, and the extent to which it becomes a mechanism for binding commitments. This will matter to the UK. Security is one of the areas where British leadership is readily welcomed in European capitals, and this positioning has only been strengthened by the UK’s fulsome support for Ukraine. While NATO will remain the primary vehicle for British security policy, there is scope for the EPC to play a role, especially in the context of Russia paralysing the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Likewise, London could favour a non-NATO platform in the event of another “America First” president after 2024. That being said, the UK will be very wary of making concessions on security without parallel concessions from the EU on trade, which is the reason London ultimately kept security out of the bilateral relationship in the first place.
As things stand, most businesses and investors might be inclined to dismiss the EPC as high politics with little practical impact on day-to-day trade. One optimistic spin would be that the EPC could reduce the scope for misunderstanding between the EU and UK and lend some perspective to narrower roadblocks like the Northern Ireland Protocol. This kind of cooperation could allow the relationship to approach something resembling normal. As for whether the EPC can find a meaningful role for itself, the jury is out.