Amelia Hadfield and Christian Turner / Jul 2023
:European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Moldovan President Maia Sandu, Chişinău, Moldova - May 31, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock
On 1 June, 45 European leaders and the European Union institutions gathered for the second summit of the European Political Community. In 13 months, the forum has gone from an unexpected brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, to hosting its first summit in Prague, to being hosted by a non-EU member. As agreed in Prague, the next two hosts will be Spain (as part of their EU Presidency) and the UK.
For Moldova, the EPC has come at a key time. In the early days of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, concerns rose that Russia could seek to further escalate conflict by making a play for Transnistria, the disputed self-declared state holds Russian troops since the 1990s. In June 2022, when the European Council approved both the EPC and granting EU candidate status to Ukraine, it did so to Moldova as well. Yet, Moldova is often the forgotten European country, situated next to Romania, which has seen NATO’s eastern flank greatly increase in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was this NATO presence that helped Moldova secure its airspace during the summit via its AWACS aircraft. The EU for its part provided financial support by way of both the CSDP mission and the EU Peace Facility.
Moldova for its part did not rest on its laurels. Unlike the Czech Republic, who saw the EPC as a part of its broader, ambitious EU Presidency, Moldova saw an opportunity to place itself for one day at the centre of European geopolitics. Its President, Maia Sandu, utilised the pre-summit build-up to engage with European leaders, including opportunities such as a shared return flight from the Council of Europe summit in Rekjavik with President Pavel (Czech Republic), President Van der Bellen (Austria) and President Čaputová (Slovakia). Moldova was keen to demonstrate it was capable of hosting the summit and saw the opportunity to welcome foreign leaders, many of whom visited Moldova for the first time, as a significant benefit.
The summit itself continued its early tradition of discussing matters of great importance. This included cyber, security, energy resilience and interconnectors. Yet, Prime Minister Sunak’s decision to tweet about migration, whilst also not referring to the summit as the EPC, has suggested that it is already beginning to fall into the trap of leaders pursuing their own domestic agendas. Spain has unhelpfully opted to call a General Election next month, meaning that any protracted attempts to form a government in the aftermath will impact on the third EPC summit in October.
The UK, for its part, may also see its summit fall in a General Election year and will likely face pressure to avoid going too close to the European Parliamentary elections in June 2024. Finally, the under-discussed prospect of the fifth summit going to Hungary, at a time when the European Parliament debates the prospect of stripping Hungary of its EU Council Presidency in 2024, means that the EPC may face some bumpy moments ahead as it begins to gather pace.
Functionalists, including David Mitrany, are fond of suggesting that “form follows function”. In other words, once the key idea of a given entity is worked out, the nature of its overall ‘look’ - including membership and internal organisation will fall into place. The EPC could well follow these same lines. Two key tensions continue to bedevil the EPC: what is the group actually for, and who are its natural members? Or, perhaps the reverse provides clearer logic, given the widespread number and type of its members, what can the EPC reasonably be expected to do?
In a nutshell, has the EPC’s widespread, evolving membership posed a problem to its current goals, and will they present a hindrance to its future evolution? In its first 2022 iteration, the EPC numbered 44, and included states that set the ‘must be democratic’ bar low, including Turkey. Its recent 2023 iteration now sees its membership expanded to include San Marino, Andorra and Monaco, this time around Erdogan did not attend. On the one side, one could argue that the EPC’s evolving, evidently continent-wide goals necessitates a fluid membership, one that can be numerous in quantity and diverse in type. On the other, that the EPC’s shape-shifting ethos will render it an inclusive contender in European geopolitics, whose members’ identities are already defined in starkly inside/outside modes, in terms of the EU itself, trade, investment, security, migration and energy, and will gain little tangible benefit from yet another talking shop.
There are two broad areas in which the EPC could emerge as a fruitful forum, providing clarity to its goals, and definition to the composition of its state-based membership. Each however operates as a double-edged sword, with the real risk of increasing tensions.
EPC : Antechamber for EU membership ?
First, as a forum by which to solve quintessentially EU-based problems, the EPC offers a new, rebooted method of conceptualising, and approaching the EU’s own neighbourhood. The active problems are indeed security, energy, migration, and more; however, the passive issues that complicate these issues are directly connected with which states in continental Europe form either the core, or the periphery of the EU’s overall neighbourhood, particularly in east-west terms.
From this perspective, those who support the idea of the EPC as a possible loose format by which to inject the arduous and complex engagement process with new incentives, find in its loose format far more possibilities for states who have for years been mired in a rather zero-sum process of accession. With EU Council President Charles Michel and other championing this approach, this suggesting that if enlargement itself could be transformed into a more reform-by-reform approach of “compartmentalized access” to key EU areas, then the EPC can act as a biannual, permanent forum to keep integrationist ideals alive at the macro level, and country-based aspirations on board at the micro-level (CEPA, 2023, p. 6). The drawbacks are obvious. The EPC reverts – with non-EU members – into yet another format, but one still devoted to sorting out EU-specific problems, from membership to security.
EPC: EU Escape Room?
The second is a forum that has far less to do with EU problems and institutions, and is driven by the fractures and opportunities of the entire continent itself. In other words, the EPC could plausibly be “a format for European states to work perhaps (but not necessarily) alongside the EU, on continent-wide problems that fall outside the EU’s scope and mandate” (Ibid). This would require a far more outward-looking approach, sidestepping the “made in Brussels” moniker associated with a neighbourhood-driven approach and its associated membership issues.
Rather than an ersatz accession format, the EPC would focus on the overwhelming need to address the immediate and future need to restore security and stability to war-torn Ukraine. In doing so, the EPC could make use of its ability to bring together and generate ad hoc policy groups, capable of working together on individual, project-specific formats for the intrinsically cross-border issues that mix EU and non-EU states, including security, energy, migration, etc. Stepping outside the well-worn Brussels-based formats, the EPC could politically catalyse these project first by ensuring their budgetary support, and operating with basic, ‘MoU’-like conventions to bring clarity to key groups, avoiding the temptation both to institutionalise the EPC within EU formats, and formalise it legally into EU law. For states with no desired wish to formally join the EU (including the UK), the EPC becomes a welcome mode by which to transcend EU institutionalism, but commit to a broad and compelling goal of redesigning 21st century Europe, in the contours of war, and eventually, peace. Those supporting this perspective will be alive to the EPC’s resemblance to variable geometry, the idea that there can be separate but complementary modes of European interaction that allow for differential methods of attaining forms of integration.
Ultimately, the EPC’s uncertain status, membership and symmetry with existing formats ensures it still faces many grave doubts as to its durability. Formed in the shadow of war, it has served as a means of gathering European leaders to discuss serious geopolitical challenges. Yet, its complementarity, or lack thereof, to the European Union and its own institutions will likely prove to be its overarching challenge. Ultimately, this challenge will need to be addressed if it is to survive beyond the planned summits over the next year.
 At the Prague Summit, it was agreed to rotate the EPC presidency between EU and non-EU members, with the EU member coinciding with the Presidency of the Council of the EU.
 San Marino opted not to attend after Lucca Beccari visited Cuba instead.