Leaders across Europe hailed on Thursday their united front against Russia’s war on Ukraine, after gathering in Prague for the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community.
They insisted on common values as the new club of nations met for the event, which was billed as an opportunity for European leaders to to discuss the continent's challenges.
The inaugural summit of the European Political Community brought together the 27 European Union member countries, the UK — now outside the EU — as well as aspiring partners in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
Russia was the one major European power not invited to the gathering at Prague Castle along with Belarus, its neighbour and supporter in the war against Ukraine.
The conflict has fueled an energy crisis and high inflation that are wreaking havoc on Europe's economies.
“Leaders leave this summit with greater collective resolve to stand up to Russian aggression. What we have seen in Prague is a forceful show of solidarity with Ukraine, and for the principles of freedom and democracy,” said UK Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Her Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, said “if you just look at the attendance here, you see the importance. The whole European continent is here, except two countries: Belarus and Russia. So it shows how isolated those two countries are.”
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said the fallout from the war is something they all have in common.
“It’s affecting all of us in the security sense, and its affecting all of us through our economies, through the rising energy costs. So the only way that we can handle this is working together, and not just the European Union. All the European countries need to work together,” he said.
The summit was initially pitched as a community of democratic nations in response to Russia's war in Ukraine.
But some of the heads of state in Prague have questioned the presence of some of their counterparts including the Turkish and Azerbaijani leaders, according to an EU official quizzed on the issue.
"Many leaders are insisting on values," the official said, with adherence to the international order and rule of law seen as a prerequisite for inclusion in this new forum.
The topic of membership and whether the EPC should therefore be expanded or instead reduced is expected to be brought up during the closing plenary session, the official added.
'United Nations in Europe'
The war in Ukraine dominated the agenda of the first meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy joining the summit virtually. The Ukrainian leader called on those gathered in the Czech capital to ramp up sanctions against Russia and to boost financial and military assistance to his country.
He also demanded they issue "security guarantees before we join NATO."
Emmanuel Macron said later that European countries would send Ukraine more military equipment to counter Russia, including more French Caesar-type howitzers.
"We are working indeed on several requests, with several members of the EU, including on new Caesars," French president said.
The 44 leaders also discussed the economic situation, energy and climate, and migration and mobility, in smaller groups before breaking up for bilateral meetings.
"It is certainly useful to have this platform, which will allow us, I hope, to exchange in substance on how to converge a certain number of actions in order to defend the interests of our citizens everywhere on the European continent," European Council President Charles Michel said as he arrived at the Prague Castle for the summit.
The new format was dubbed a "United Nations in Europe" by Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and a "historic event" by his counterpart in Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir.
"It's interesting because here we have EU leaders and non-EU countries meeting and really talking about European politics, not just in the EU context. And I think that's a good thing coming from Iceland," she told reporters upon arrival.
'A strategic intimacy'
French President Emmanuel Macron first floated the idea of this community during a speech at the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe in May as Russia's unprovoked aggression on Ukraine was entering its third month.
Macron said then that the EU couldn't be the only way of structuring the European continent and that it was time to organise Europe with a broader scope.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also called for this new community during her September State of the Union address.
To assuage the concerns of Western Balkan counties that have been waiting in the EU's wing for years, both Macron and the Commission chief stressed that this new format would not be a replacement for enlargement.
This was echoed by an EU official this week, who said that discussions with Western Balkans countries had in recent years focused solely on the accession process but that the new political community would allow for "broader political discussions" on security and stability.
"We want the whole of Europe, not only the European Union, to pursue a policy of security, peace, expansion, freedom and economic growth," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Thursday.
"We want to help our neighbours. We know very well that peace throughout Europe depends on a safe neighbourhood, so to speak, but also in the Western Balkans," he added.
Macron, for his part, said the aim of the meeting was to send a message of unity and to "build a strategic intimacy" with all European countries.
"The objective is first of all to share a common reading of the situation affecting our Europe, to build a common strategy and therefore a strategic conversation which until now has not really existed and which could give rise to divisions. And I hope to come up with common projects," he added.
'Unity and resolve'
Norway, Switzerland and the UK, which do not want to be in the EU, also attended. All three have deep economic ties with the EU but have had no opportunities until now to discuss wider pan-European issues.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss spoke during the opening plenary session, stating that "Europe is facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War. And we have faced it together with unity and resolve."
"We must continue to stand firm - to ensure that Ukraine wins this war, but also to deal with the strategic challenges that it has exposed," she added according to a Downing Street statement.
She then had one-on-one meetings with French President Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Rutte to discuss shared issues including energy and migration. The UK-France meeting was followed by a joint statement, while the Dutch leader reportedly described his meeting with Truss as "fantastic".
Macron and Michel also used the opportunity to hold a quadrilateral meeting with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan as tensions remains high in the region following a recent bout of deadly hostilities both blame on the other.
There was no formal written text following the first meeting of the community. But Macron, the Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, and Moldovan President Maia Sandu took part in an evening press conference at the event's conclusion.
Moldova is currently the frontrunner to host the next meeting with Spain and the UK seen organising the subsequent ones, according to an EU official.
Leaders of the 27 EU member states will meanwhile meet alone on Friday for an informal EU council meeting to fine-tune their common response to the war in Ukraine and its consequences on economic and energy markets.
Divisions between the member states over sanctions on Russia and the best ways to shield Europeans from spiralling cost of living and energy crises have however started to expose deep cracks in the bloc's unity.