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Will they or won’t they? Britain’s lukewarm support for the European Political Community

Christian Turner / Jul 2022

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

The sun set at the end of June on the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Seen as Emmanuel Macron’s opportunity to shape his vision for Europe, it coincided with the conclusion of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Yet, on the same day that the reports recommendations were being presented to him (9th May, Europe Day), President Macron opted to present a new vision for a ‘European Political Community’. This new community would look to include EU candidate members such as Ukraine and Serbia, EFTA nations like Norway and Iceland, and could even include ‘members that have left the EU’ – ala Great Britain.

The European Political Community (EPC) builds on a previous idea of Macron’s, namely a European Security Council, which ultimately fell flat. Yet, the EPC appears to be generating more momentum, building on the rapidly changing world since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is an acknowledgement across European capitals that the protracted negotiations that Ukraine now faces to join the EU will not help matters, and the hope is that the EPC can serve as a potential forum on the way to full membership. In Macron’s 9th May speech, he envisaged the ECP allowing ‘democratic European nations’ that share ‘core values’ to ‘find a new space for political and security cooperation’. It would include cooperation in areas such as energy, transport, investment, and the freedom of movement of people, especially youth.

The EPC proposal builds on the French desire for European Strategic Autonomy; namely, a desire for greater independence and autonomy on European decision-making. Whilst the support of the United States during the Ukrainian conflict has been steadfast, there is a concern that another Trumpian-style presidency risks undermining the security and defence order of Europe. The EPC would also go further and deeper on specific policy issues, distinguishing it from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is also currently hamstrung in part by Russia’s membership.

Global Britain or rational Britain

Since meeting Emmanuel Macron last week and seemingly supporting the idea, Boris Johnson and his Government have flip-flopped on their support. His press secretary played the idea down, before the French Foreign Ministry turned to Twitter to insist it was discussed and supported. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss stated that Britain would not take part, stating that the UK sees NATO as ‘the key guarantor of security in Europe’ and the G7 as the ‘key economic alliance for us’. Boris Johnson then seemingly supported it on his way to the NATO Summit in Madrid, although appeared to push for an expanded version that would include Turkey and the Maghreb countries (Northern Africa), suggesting that he may use it as a potential vehicle for dealing with migration challenges. It is believed that France is unsure on including Turkey due to the populist nature of the Erdogan Government, and may be concerned that too big of a club risks turning the EPC into another talking shop.

Since leaving the European Union, Britain has often found itself more comfortable engaging in bilateralism and ad-hoc minilateralism. Owing in part to the short negotiation window, Britain opted against the proposed Security, Defence and Foreign Policy chapter for the Trade Cooperation Agreement with the European Union. This has seen Britain on the outer periphery of EU decision-making over the Ukrainian conflict, with Liz Truss invited to an EU Council meeting of Foreign Ministers, only for Boris Johnson to not be invited to a Leaders meeting with Joe Biden a few weeks later. Britain appears to have made the biggest impact in Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries in recent months, sending additional troops and resources to back up NATO’s Eastern flank whilst providing a mutual defence pact with Finland and Sweden. Yet, this reliance on hard power may work with nations most under threat from Russian aggression, but has shown little impact in Western Europe, especially Paris and Berlin. There is a need for the Johnson Government to rebuild relationships with the EU and the E3 if Britain is to retain any soft power credibility in Europe.

The European Political Community therefore comes at an opportune time for Boris Johnson. It allows him to address the Swiss Cheese problem of British Foreign Policy at the moment – namely, that on Europe, it is full of holes. The EPC won’t be as extensive of a special relationship that the EU offer on the TCA was, but it still presents a forum for Britain to rebuilds its relationships and potentially to build the club to its interests. If all else fails, one is reminded of the Yes, Minister scene of when the civil servant declares that the reason Britain joined the European Economic Community was because it was “determined for it to not work, that’s why we went into it”. One hopes that Britain may have more genuine motives for the European Political Community, especially for the potential it offers in underlining Britain’s commitment to Europe.

 

Christian Turner

Christian Turner

July 2022

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