Macron’s ‘European Political Community’ Risks Two-Tiered European Union
On Thursday, October 6, European leaders will gather in Prague to launch a new association for European states adjacent to the European Union. Shortly after his re-election, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a new initiative, the European Political Community (EPC), in a speech to the European Parliament highlighting the urgent need for a faster method of integration. As highlighted at a Wilson Center event, French Ambassador Philippe Etienne stated the EPC will be “a place where members of the European family can discuss issues of common interest,” including political and security cooperation, resilience in the energy sector, transport and infrastructure, and the free movement of persons. He stressed that this club would not be an alternative path to EU membership nor would it replace the formal EU accession process. But it would establish concrete and quick responses to the challenges that acceding nations face. No longer would nations in Europe’s periphery wait decades to know if membership was a reality, and if so when. However, the EPC cannot and should not create a two-tiered Europe.
Macron’s initiative bears a striking resemblance to a similar proposal by François Mitterrand. In 1989, as the Cold War was ending, Mitterrand proposed a “European Confederation” that would have included all of the European countries, including Russia. Less than 18 months later, Mitterrand’s attempts to unite post-Cold War Europe had largely failed to garner interest outside of France, despite the support of then-European Commission President Jacques Delors. In a similar sentiment, French President Sarkozy created a political club, the Union for the Mediterranean, to shore up Europe’s southern neighborhood of Mediterranean nations. Sarkozy’s initiative has lost momentum in recent years, although the Union for the Mediterranean still exists. Bolstered by his election win earlier this year, Macron holds an ambitious vision of Europe’s potential strategic capabilities. His time in office gives him clout when measured against the relatively new German Chancellor Scholz tests his mettle. Furthermore, consequences of the COVID pandemic, high energy costs, and the Ukraine war make the moment opportune. Macron recognizes the urgent need and trusts that he can shape the future of cooperation on the European continent more successfully than his predecessors.
Unlike Mitterrand, Macron is not seeking to fold Russia into his new organization, instead focusing on Europe’s periphery and long-time aspirant members, along with a few close economic and military allies. Reportedly, forty-four countries have been invited to the Prague meeting. Ukraine and Moldova have both been granted EU candidate status, however the negotiation phase of joining the EU on average takes more than 5 years – it took Croatia a decade to become a full member – and it will likely take longer for Ukraine, as it will need to rebuild. The United Kingdom, despite leaving the European Union in 2020, signaled interest in membership in Macron’s EPC, with the previous Prime Minister Boris Johnson even claiming he gave Macron the idea. The new UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss, initially rejected her attendance at the Prague meeting, preferring the G7 and NATO for multilateral cooperation, only to back-pedal and both confirm her participation and offer to host the next meeting of the EPC in London.
Türkiye’s EU membership – pending since 1989 – has been the third-rail in the European enlargement debate for decades. However the EPC might prove to be the ideal middle ground in EU member status. The Western Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia), often seen as the likely next wave of EU member countries, will be invited to join the EPC as well. Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland, all famously absent from the EU but economically linked nevertheless, will all be invited to join the club. Further afield, countries such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Israel, and Georgia have been invited. One thing is clear – Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the vassal state of Belarus will not receive an invitation.
What of the EU’s existing neighborhood policy and plans of enlargement? Initial reactions to Macron’s proposal from aspirant members were negative. Critics perceived this initiative as a placating move in place of EU membership, or, at worst, a further slowdown to an already painfully slow accession process. While not replacing the formal process of EU accession, the EPC could offer an interim forum that incentivizes institutional reforms and provides greater security. Currently, the EU is still recovering from enlargement fatigue after its last major wave of largely post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe joined in 2004. Since then, enlargement has slowed considerably, with Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. As we near a decade of no new EU members, the aspirant Western Balkans members languish in the EU’s waiting room, skeptical of Brussels sincerity and weakening the EU's soft power appeal in its neighborhood.
As Macron pointed out in his May 9 speech, the process of joining the EU is a “long road.” The EPC must not replace EU membership but could provide a complementary path. The text of the new community has not yet been published, and its future structure is still undefined. The purpose of the European Political Community is to embrace a wider Europe, offer greater stability, and be open to suggestions for greater cooperation and understanding in the near future. Post-Prague actions will determine whether the EPC achieves that purpose.
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Global Europe Program
The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, US-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media. Read more