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Could the European Political Community ease EU-UK relations?

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By Alice Tidey
British Prime Minister Liz Truss and French President Emmanuel Macron during a bilateral meeting ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 20, 2022.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss and French President Emmanuel Macron during a bilateral meeting ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 20, 2022.   -   Copyright  Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP   -  

There could be the start of an EU-UK rapprochement as more than 40 European leaders, including British Prime Minister Liz Truss, gather for strategic discussions about the challenges Europe faces, experts say.

The inaugural meeting of the European Political Community in Prague on Thursday has been billed as an opportunity for political coordination across the continent.

All 44 of the leaders attending will be on "an equal footing" to discuss how best to strengthen the "security, stability and prosperity of Europe as a whole," according to the European Council's invitation letter.

Here's what the UK's participation could mean for its relations with the EU.

'Beginning of a modest rapprochement'

A short few weeks ago when Truss was still Boris Johnson's Foreign Secretary, she had all but ruled out the UK's participation in this new forum, pitched just five months ago by French President Emmanuel Macron. But she has since made a U-turn.

The reasons for this about-face are three-fold, according to Charles Grant, a director at the Centre for European Reform (CER) think tank.

"Macron has bent over backwards to accommodate her priorities, her wishes, her desires," he told Euronews, ensuring for instance that this new forum is held on intergovernmental lines, thus curbing the EU influence.

Another factor is that several non-EU leaders who will also be attending are believed to have lobbied for her participation and lastly, her belief that on certain issues, especially energy and migration, it's best to get Europeans talking together.

"I think it's a great coup for Macron to get the British because this could be — could be — possibly the beginning of a modest rapprochement between the British and the European Union," Grant said.

In the six years since the Brexit referendum, the EU and UK have accused each other of inflexibility and threatened and launched legal challenges.

Relations between the continent and London are now largely viewed as the worst they have ever been and Truss is responsible for the recent ratcheting up of enmity.

The former Foreign Secretary is largely considered to be the architect of **the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill**that would grant the UK power to "unilaterally disapply" parts of the rules over the transport of goods in and out of Northern Ireland.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine, Brexit is no longer the most important topic on the European agenda.

The UK and EU member states are now all scrambling to shield their citizens from the cost of living and energy crises that have been exacerbated by the war.

On foreign policy, on which they have been largely aligned, there is also a growing realisation that they could have done more to build ties with neighbouring countries.

For Truss, joining this new community would be "a way to enhance cooperation with European partners, but without having to do it at the EU institutional level," said Joël Reland, a research associate at the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) initiative.

UK 'ignorant' about Europe

The political community meeting will see leaders gather twice all together for plenary sessions at the beginning and end of the day.

Truss will be one of five leaders to address the opening plenary during which time she will call for stronger support for Ukraine and greater cooperation on energy security and migration, Downing Street said in a statement.

"Europe is facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War. And we have faced it together with unity and resolve," she will say. "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."

During the afternoon, leaders will split up for roundtable discussions on peace and security, energy and climate, the economic situation, migration and mobility -- where Truss is expected to focus on energy security and migration -- before being given several hours to hold bilateral meetings. 

The latter is particularly valued by the Brits.

"I think it's very important for Britain to rebuild contact, human contact, with its erstwhile allies who were in the EU because we’re cut off from European policymaking circles now," Grant said.

"The British political class is incredibly ignorant about what's happening on the continent of Europe but even if it's only on the heads of government level, if we show up occasionally for meetings in Europe, we will learn a bit more about what's going on," he went on.

Truss is currently scheduled to have one-on-one meetings with the Czech Prime Minister, Macron and the Dutch leader. Other informal bilateral meetings are likely to take place.

During these meetings, she will call on them to keep oil and gas inter-connectors open this winter and discuss joint projects to develop new nuclear and offshore wind capacity, Downing Street added.

For Grant, Truss' bilateral meeting wish list should include German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. 

Still, the UK's continued participation will depend on what the community will morph into.

According to Reland, the UK's preference would be for the European Political Community to be modelled on the G7 or the G20, whose members gather for discussion and cooperation on a regular basis. Anything that looks too much like political integration or that is dictated by strict rules and treaties would be a no-go as it would be seen as "politically very toxic" by her Conservative party.

Instead, what London wants is the opportunity to build so-called "coalitions of the willing" that would cooperate on specific topics.

"This idea that you could form ad-hoc alliances with different European partners as and when your interests align is, I think, very much the British European foreign policy model going forwards," Reland flagged.

London is reportedly mulling putting itself forward to host the EPC's second meeting, depending, of course, on the outcome of the first meeting.

The EPC is expected to convene twice a year with the host nations alternating between EU member states and third countries. Moldova is also believed to be in the running.

The reasoning for the UK would be to ensure it can "put a bit of a stamp on the early shaping of the group," Reland said.