"Without more efforts to inject credibility and energy into the enlargement process, the European Political Community will amount to no more than a fig leaf to cover the EU’s geopolitical struggles."
The idea of a European Political Community, launched by Emmanuel Macron in May, is taking shape.
Macron wants to create “a platform for political co-ordination" between European Union countries and their neighbours.
It could be the "right response", the French President said, to "stabilise our neighbourhood” in the context of the Russian war and the European Union candidate status granted to Ukraine and Moldova in its wake.
The aim would be to give the aspiring countries a sense of belonging to the European club before their formal accession.
An informal leaders’ summit building upon Macron’s initiative will be held on 6 October in Prague, with the Czech Republic currently holding the EU presidency.
Forty-four states have been invited by the EU, among them the United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey and the EU candidate countries.
While initial objections to Macron’s initiative, seen by many as yet another attempt to slow down future EU accessions, have largely disappeared, the bar still seems to be set quite low.
According to a Prague diplomat, the summit should send a “positive signal in this turbulent situation”.
This is certainly worth an effort. However, if the EU wants to live up to its geopolitical responsibility in the neighbourhood, it should invest more in the enlargement process rather than developing new summitry formats.
Granting Ukraine and Moldova candidacy status at the EU summit in June was no doubt a milestone decision. It not only gives the citizens of these countries hope amidst concerns about their security and stability, but signals to Russia that the EU will not cave to Putin’s reckless behaviour.
It is no less important that last summer the EU also overcame the shameful deadlock in the Balkans and opened the way for accession talks with Albania and Macedonia. For far too long the EU had dragged its feet on enlargement, undermining candidate states’ trust in European orientation.
It is in the EU’s self-interest to make the enlargement process a success. And engagement for Ukraine – via financial assistance, integration offer and military support – could become the best vehicle for that.
There is no better way to ensure that these efforts are sustainable and effective than to make them part of a well-prepared strategy to welcome Ukraine into the EU.
Other candidate countries could only benefit from a recommitment by the EU to what has historically been its most effective instrument: bringing peace and stability to Europe.
Obviously, there can be no shortcuts on the candidates’ path to the EU. But the bloc would be well-advised to smooth the process and avoid sleepwalking into yet another enlargement malaise.
Whether the European Political Community can ensure that remains doubtful, though. Participation by countries like the United Kingdom or Israel makes it a format that by definition would not be prone to deal with EU enlargement.
The Prague summit is mainly expected to reconfirm the 1975 Helsinki principles, including territorial integrity and respect for the sovereignty of all countries.
In line with the French preferences, its focus is on European security and geopolitical challenges. The new community, which may reconvene once or twice a year, could thus resemble an OSCE 2.0 – a group of like-minded countries united in its rejection of Russia’s destructionist policy.
While such a framework may give candidate countries access to a high-level strategic forum, it is unlikely to make their integration process more meaningful.
It will be a “co-working space for European leaders”, as a senior official of the European Commission puts it, while the key questions remain unanswered: How can it give a credible mid-term perspective and tangible benefits to the candidate countries, remove institutional hurdles to accession, and better integrate them into the EU before they join the bloc?
A key challenge for the EU in the upcoming decade and beyond will not be the reform of its institutions to prepare for the absorption of new members, but how to maintain the pro-European orientation of their neighbours without being able or willing to accept them as full members of the club for any time soon.
To address this fundamental need and "stabilise the neighbourhood" as Macron said, the EU will have to do much more than establish a new conference of the heads of state. It should provide a long-term vision for their integration with Europe, including full access to the EU’s four freedoms as soon as they have fulfilled the criteria.
This offer would encompass not only a significant assistance to prepare for EU membership over the long term, but also access to cohesion funds if they join the single market before becoming full EU members. It will also be necessary to help these countries integrate more closely with EU energy infrastructure to meet their international climate obligations.
Starting with Ukraine and Moldova, the EU should also offer neighbouring countries a security compact with concrete commitments to strengthen their self-defence capabilities, offer military assistance and regular strategic consultations, and upgrade cybersecurity and strategic infrastructure cooperation.
These are turbulent times, and the EU leaders should do their best to send a positive signal at the Prague summit. But without more efforts to inject credibility and energy into the enlargement process, the European Political Community will amount to no more than a fig leaf to cover the EU’s geopolitical struggles.
Piotr Buras is the head of ECFR’s Warsaw office and co-author of Survive and thrive: A European plan to support Ukraine in a long war against Russia.