European leaders giddy with new forum — as long as they overlook lingering tension

EuroActiv Politico News

Leaders had a spring in their step as they exited the majestic surroundings of Prague Castle on Thursday night following the inaugural meeting of Europe’s newest diplomatic forum — the European Political Community. 

The prospect of yet another talking shop — this one bringing together over 40 European leaders — had left many skeptical, but there was plenty to keep leaders feeling upbeat.

British Prime Minister Liz Truss confirmed French President Emmanuel Macron was indeed a “friend,” not a “foe,” before Macron returned the compliment in spades. Leaders from warring Azerbaijan and Armenia got around a table to talk peace — twice. (And leaders got to dine on sea bass, venison and ice cream draped in meringue, mascarpone and “red fruit coulis.”)

A plan was also made for follow-up summits, with Moldova, Spain and the U.K. chosen to host. 

Moving the forum to Moldova, an EU aspirant, is “a sign of support we value highly,” said Maia Sandu, the country’s president. “Making Europe stronger and more resilient needs to be a continuous endeavor.”

Behind the eager veneer, however, tensions and feuds were bubbling beneath the surface. 

Disagreements over how to tackle Europe’s energy crisis kept arising. At least two adversarial countries couldn’t contain their mutual anger during the session. And at least one big question remains: Can this broader community of European leaders — an idea that has been touted in various fashions for decades but always fizzled out — really get off the ground and deliver concrete results?

The EPC’s intent is to focus minds and remind allies of what binds them as Russia’s war rages in Ukraine. Yet already, many are wondering about the point — and cost — of yet another high-level summit involving thousands of traveling politicians and dignitaries, when forums like the G7 and G20 already exist. 

Still, there were definite high points.  

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his arch-foe, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, sat down amid rising tensions along their borders. In a sign that despite the hard stares around the table the meeting was a success, Aliyev and Pashinyan agreed to a second get-together the same evening, according to a French official. 

Other rivalries proved more insurmountable.

A major unknown going into Thursday’s meeting was how increasingly autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would behave. The leader of Turkey — a NATO member — was greeted with lengthy handshakes and warm words as he circulated at the beginning of a roundtable on peace and security. 

But the friendliness soon descended into acrimony, when the Turkish president used his speech at the final session to berate Greece. Rumors quickly spread that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had walked out, but those proved unfounded. Still, both leaders later railed against the other at press conferences, revealing the chasm that remains between the two NATO allies.  

The other main attraction on Thursday was embattled British Prime Minister Truss, who re-discovered her attachment to Europe after a rocky few weeks as British leader. 

Macron and Truss marked a new stage in their relations, agreeing to hold a Franco-British summit next year and to increase cooperation on migration and civilian nuclear power. 

Macron was gushing about Truss in the final press conference. 

“I think this is very good news and a very good choice she made. We share the same Continent, I hope this is the beginning of the day after,” Macron said. 

Britain “is an island but this island didn’t move from the Continent,” he added. “We have the same values and histories.”

But the British prime minister made it clear that her attendance doesn’t mean she is “moving closer to Europe” — a comment that illustrates the U.K.’s delicate balancing act as it tries to recalibrate a post-Brexit relationship with Europe. 

As the European Political Community goes forward, a looming challenge will be buy-in from potential EU joiners, particularly the nations of the Western Balkans — and even Ukraine — who are anxious to join the EU as soon as possible, and won’t settle for a place in the amorphous EPC.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani told reporters that she had “been reassured” by the organizers, Macron and Czech leaders that the ECP was “not a replacement of the process of European integration for Western Balkans.”

An aspiring EU member, Kosovo has not yet obtained candidate status, and has limited prospects of joining the EU anytime soon due to ongoing issues with Serbia.

But Osmani even went as far as saying the EPC was “an important platform to have our voice heard,” making the case that Kosovo was “100 percent aligned with the European Union values” and belonged in the EU. 

Yet one day of talking inevitably couldn’t solve the major issues — not least of which is energy. 

In many ways, Thursday’s meeting was about the EU making inroads with energy-rich neighbors, as the bloc desperately tries to wean itself off Russian gas. 

Norway, a crucial gas exporter, participated in Thursday’s gathering. But according to multiple officials, the Norwegian prime minister hedged his bets about how far it is prepared to go when it comes to lowering prices, as Europe mulls a gas price cap.

Similarly, in a sign that fireworks may arrive during Friday’s EU leaders-only meeting, Macron dismissed a key energy project some of his own neighbors argue will help the EU’s energy problems — the so-called “MidCat” pipeline connecting Spain with Germany and the rest of Europe. 

Europe’s 27 EU countries also look as fragmented as ever when it comes to a possible gas price cap, with multiple proposals now circulating. The complexity of the issue — and lack of consensus — means Friday’s meeting is unlikely to generate a final decision.

Meanwhile, anger lingers over Germany’s decision to introduce a colossal €‎200 billion energy package to help its own consumers and businesses — a cost not every EU country can bear.

And as the sun set in Prague on Thursday night, the country which arguably instigated this whole process — Ukraine — had very little to show from the meeting. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his address to call for security guarantees, following his country’s pledge to join NATO. But for all the talk, nothing new was announced for Ukraine as the meeting drew to a close, except vague promises from Macron to “continue” militarily and financially to help Ukraine and a pledge that he would reveal more details on Friday.

So as Kyiv looks to Europe as it thinks about its future, it remains to be seen if the European Political Community will become anything more than another talking shop.