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    How can a 30-year-old idea help European integration

    Kremlin’s bloody war in Ukraine has dominated political discussion in Europe and beyond since its very first days. It has permeated not only the European Union’s policy- and decision-making, but also its discussions on how to reshape the EU and the wider European continent and make it fit for the new challenges. On the 9th of May 2022, at the closing ceremony of the Conference on the Future of Europe in Strasbourg, the newly re-elected French president Emmanuel Macron expressed the desire to form a communauté politique européenne – a European Political Community (EPC). Envisioning the future of integration and cooperation within the European continent, he outlined the EPC as a distinct organisation from the EU, seemingly as a geopolitical response to the ever-raging conflict on Ukrainian soil.

    The original inspiration for the idea traces, as Macron himself admitted, back to former French president Francois Mitterrand, who proposed the establishment of the European Confederation back in 1989. Yet, Mitterrand’s idea came at the time when the European Economic Community limited European integration (mostly) to economic policies. Since then, the European Union with its political pillar was born in 1993, and further developed and structured by several consecutive changes of the EU treaties. These efforts, however, have proven to be insufficient to reach the level of political integration needed for the Union to act in a manner that would prevent other forces from taking hostile actions on the European continent. Hence the rationale behind Macron’s re-introduction of the notion of developing a wider club of European states for political and security cooperation.

    Despite its evident ambition, Macron’s idea is nevertheless ambiguous and opens numerous questions. To begin with, it is worth inquiring how such an entity could equip Europe to become a more credible geopolitical player? Moreover, can the EPC have an added value in European integration processes at large? Finally, can it complement EU’s enlargement policy without risking of becoming a substitute for further EU enlargement? It is important to analyse these questions and offer ways in which the design of this new political construct in Europe can ensure the answers to them are positive.

    Building a more geopolitical Europe

    The present-day European Union could be seen, in large part, as the realisation of Mitterrand’s vision for a common European confederacy. Namely, the EU treaties have since formed common political, security and defence policies and structures unifying large parts of Europe’s West and East, in addition to the common single market, the common currency for the Eurozone countries, and a large Schengen zone without borders. Yet, unlike Mitterrand’s vision of having a confederation extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, the increasingly complex EU, with a strong supranational element, has meant a long-time exclusion from that entity of a number of countries which have not been willing or able to accede to it. This has resulted in a politically fragmented continent, leaving ample space for non-democratic actors, such as Russia and China, to assert their influence and undermine the EU’s democratic values. Hence today’s Europe is still searching for ways to better politically unify at a time when it finds itself at a completely opposite political and security spectrum from Russia.

    Macron’s call for a European Political Community is thus a direct response to the aggravated security situation following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war and the efforts to impose unprecedented sanctions on Russia have additionally highlighted the necessity of a politically united Europe. The crisis has also dramatically increased the need for the EU to cement its influence in its immediate neighbourhood as well as avoid a possible new iron curtain from being formed across Europe. But according to Macron, the EU is not and should not be the sole means of structuring the continent. He expressed the need to build lasting peace and a “sovereign, united, democratic and ambitious” Europe, and one that does not compromise the “closeness” within the EU. Therefore, his version of the EPC is for it to become a new platform for international cooperation that would incorporate the EU as well as other European democracies.

    The proposal therefore sounds like a bid to unify the continent against powers that do not share the EU’s values, most notably the Russian incursion but also China in case it continues to grow its political influence on European soil. The EU’s learning curve with regards to external threats has been rather steep, as the 2014 Crimea crisis failed to generate the political will to maximise cooperation among both EU member states and other European democratic states in the areas of foreign policy, defence, and security. Although PESCO, the Strategic Compass and other similar initiatives were launched as products of the post-Crimea era, their potential to induce profound changes in European security landscape remained rather moderate. Against that background, the EPC might just be the right opportunity to deepen and widen the existing political and defence tools, recognising that the notion of “European strategic autonomy” can only become truly European if it encompasses all democratic countries on the continent. The EPC would thus have as its main objective the consolidation of Europe’s own geopolitical sovereignty, with the EU as the continent’s guiding spirit.

    An added value in European integration

    While the geopolitical purpose of this new political organisation is undisputable, it remains unclear how it would help structure collaboration in the specific policy areas floated by the French president. His aim for the EPC would be to “find a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons”. To ensure meaningful contribution in these policy areas, the EPC might need to replace numerous separate agreements that already govern these relations between the EU and different groups of European countries, such as the EFTA, the EEA and the associated countries. As such, the EPC might need to become a catch-all entity encompassing countries with vastly different contexts of cooperation and integration with the Union. Such a vocation might pose a considerable practical challenge for its establishment as well as for its possible functioning. Unless a clear added value is defined for it, one which would be perceived as beneficial for all parties involved, the EPC risks being rejected on the same grounds of ambiguity in relation to the existing European organisations as Mitterrand’s 1989 idea was.

    Moreover, the process design for this new political entity would have a major impact on how it is perceived across the continent and to what extent it truly supports a geopolitically sovereign Europe, rather than simply offering a new EU product of questionable attraction to non-EU countries. If the idea is to ensure the widest possible participation of European democracies and a truly pan-European character for it, then it would be logical for such an organisation to be created through multilateral negotiations of all qualifying European states, in which the EU would participate as a bloc. Even if the EU takes the lead and presents a first version of a multilateral agreement as a basis for negotiations, only a proper pan-European negotiation process could stand to create a shared sense of responsibility for the future of the European continent among all involved parties. The convention called for at the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe could then become a springboard for initiating EPC negotiations. Yet, those negotiations should be taken forward as a separate process from that of revising the EU’s founding treaties aimed at EU’s own internal reform. A clear distinction between these two processes might therefore be important for ensuring an added value for the new political community in the wider European integration context.

    A supplement or substitute for further enlargement?

    A discussion about the formation of the European Political Community is inseparable from the EU’s enlargement policy, not least because the French president linked it strongly to Ukraine’s (as well as Moldova’s and Georgia’s) applications for membership in the EU. While the French President was supportive of the plight of the Ukrainian people, he nonetheless also recognised that it could take decades for the country to become a full member state of the EU. That achieving EU membership is a daunting endeavour has been demonstrated by the Western Balkan countries which have been in the process of accession for two decades. The EPC can therefore be seen as a meeting point between the good will to quickly integrate Ukraine and the harsh reality which reminds that EU accession cannot happen overnight.

    Depending on how it is shaped and juxtaposed to the EU’s enlargement policy, this new organisation could mean either good or bad news for the existing EU aspirants. On the one hand, Macron’s speech did reconfirm the importance of the accession process that have already been initiated with the Western Balkan countries. He made it clear that the path of those countries towards EU accession has already been paved and that it would need to continue. Moreover, at the press conference with Moldovan president Maia Sandu a few days after the Strasbourg speech, Macron reiterated that the EPC would not be a substitute for enlargement. These statements combined should be sufficient to calm possible concerns that what he has offered would become a substitute for enlargement.

    Yet, where the road paved with these good intentions will lead remains uncertain. Macron did clearly emphasise that enlargement could not be the only way to structure the continent, considering the EU’s depth of integration. This statement has provoked suspicion, particularly having in mind the EU’s recurring failures to pursue its enlargement policy in a credible manner, offer a real membership perspective to Western Balkan candidates, and reward progress made by some of them in the recent years – most notably North Macedonia.

    The key to distinguishing if the EPC will become a supplement of substitute for further enlargement could lie in two main criteria – clarity of EPC’s own structure and sincerity of the EU’s enlargement policy. The first condition relates to how clearly the plans for the EPC will be distinguished from the enlargement policy, both content-wise and process-wise. Here, one can go back to the issues raised in the previous section. Namely, if the EPC is negotiated as a new multilateral agreement of like-minded European democracies, attracting non-EU countries from both the West and East of Europe, its distinct purpose from that of the EU would be more easily delineated. In such as case, membership in the EPC could in the long run even become a prerequisite for opening accession negotiations with the EU, having in mind the policy areas envisaged by Macron for this community. Yet, in the short run, its creation as a separate entity from the EU, through negotiations between European democracies, would clearly demonstrate its distinct purpose from that of the enlargement policy of the EU.

    The second criterion has to do with the sincerity, proactivity and ingenuity with which the EU will manage its enlargement policy in the coming few years, particularly towards the Western Balkan countries that were given membership perspective twenty years ago. In an earlier speech from January this year Macron rightly pointed to the competing needs to offer a tangible accession prospect in a reasonable timeframe for the Western Balkans and to improve the internal decision-making mechanisms of the EU. In translation, he called for a way forward to enlarge the EU in parallel with the internal reforms of the Union. The answer to this call has already been given through the model of “staged accession to the EU”.[1] This comprehensive proposal for further reform of enlargement policy proposes a temporary regime for new member states in which their veto power in the Council of the EU would be limited and their democratic performance within the Union closely scrutinised. During this temporary period of limited voting rights for new entrants, the EU would have sufficient time to both monitor the sustainability and consolidation of the democratic systems of new members and revise its treaties to limit the space for future abuses of veto powers.

    By pursuing such an innovative accession process for the Western Balkans, the EU would show that it is serious about enlargement and that the years of accession process with the region have not been wasted. This would simultaneously send a clear message to other potential aspirants that the establishment of the EPC is not merely an instrument to replace their future membership perspective, but indeed a platform for all European democracies to engage in a structured political relationship on common challenges, regardless of EU’s size. In fact, for future EU candidates – those that might start their membership negotiations after the EPC is introduced, this new political body could become a foundation towards their own staged accession to the EU.

    Unless the two described conditions are met, the EPC as a new platform of international cooperation could well become an alternative to membership, merely a remnant of EU’s failed capacity to support the transformation of its neighbours into functional EU members. In such a scenario, there is a risk that the EU aspirants would be highly discouraged to participate in the EPC, as such a construct would simply be seen as a long-term consolation prize, due to the lack of capacity to enlarge the EU. What is more, by acquiring the image of a permanent limbo for failed EU members, the EPC could also easily lose its appeal for those not aspiring to join the EU.

    In sum, the European Political Community is still too early on the drafting table to fully understand its effect on Europe’s geopolitics and the relations between its democracies. Nevertheless, the important questions highlighted above, and others that will emerge from every new discussion on this new political organisation, will define not only how it will affect the overall European integration project and the EU’s enlargement policy, but also its own feasibility and pertinence as an idea to build a stronger geo-political Europe. Therefore, the process of conceptualisation of this new community should be open to external contributions and while it is understood that the current events may add to its urgency, haste should not preclude it from properly responding to these and other important questions. After all, it is just those answers that might decide its ultimate destiny.

    [1] M. Emerson, M. Lazarević, S. Blockmans and S. Subotić, “A Template for Staged Accession to the EU”, European Policy Centre (CEP) and Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), 2021, available at: https://cep.org.rs/en/publications/a-template-for-staged-accession-to-the-eu/

    *With contribution by Ivan Yovtchev, intern in CEP.

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