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How to Build the European Political Community

A European Union summit in Prague on October 6 could mark a watershed moment in the continent's integration process. With a clearly defined mission, ambitious goals, and serious commitment, the new body could reshape the EU’s relations with its neighbors.

PARIS/BERLIN – When historians look back at the inaugural summit of the European Political Community (EPC), which will take place in Prague on October 6, they may consider it a watershed moment for Europe’s integration project. Or they may view it as a mere footnote.

The EPC, as proposed in May by French President Emmanuel Macron, aims to serve as a forum for European leaders to “find a new space for political and security cooperation” and discuss issues of common concern, like energy policy and infrastructure. The Prague summit will bring together the leaders of EU member states and countries seeking accession, including Ukraine and Moldova. It will also include countries outside the European Union, like Israel, Switzerland, and Turkey. Despite having endorsed Brexit, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss will attend the gathering.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the need to reshape the EU’s relationship with its neighbors. The European Neighborhood Policy – a framework designed to deepen ties with the EU’s eastern and southern neighbors – has failed, and the enlargement process is painfully slow. By granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June, EU leaders demonstrated the sort of determined action that the new geopolitical landscape requires. But the decision also resulted in a conundrum: the EU can either accelerate its enlargement process or keep the current criteria and timetable, which would require applicants to wait for a decade.

Neither of these options is ideal, however. An unreformed EU with 36 member states would be hobbled by veto rights, a bloated European Parliament, and a hopelessly fragmented executive branch. But letting the enlargement process move at a snail’s pace and forcing Ukraine and Moldova to wait until it concludes would turn a politically significant commitment into a discouraging obstacle course.

The EPC is an attempt to overcome this problem. The idea was first floated by former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and quickly embraced by Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. But the EPC still lacks a clearly defined mission. European leaders must use the Prague summit to set ambitious goals and establish a long-term timetable. Otherwise, the gathering may be remembered as nothing more than a photo op.

In a recent report, we and our co-authors Franz Mayer and Shahin Vallée argue that a well-designed EPC could serve as a suitable response to the geopolitical challenges of the twenty-first century. Moreover, the new body could address some of the EU’s internal deficiencies.

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As with all clubs, membership is an issue. Given the ongoing conflict with Russia, participation in the EPC should be conditional on geopolitical alignment. To ensure coherence, entry criteria should be based on fundamental values, including a commitment to democratic governance, the rule of law, and adherence to the principles underpinning the international order.

Instead of relying on predetermined, rigid rules, we propose that a half-dozen countries from within and outside the EU co-author the joint declaration that follows the Prague summit. That would set the bar high enough for self-selection to kick in.

The EPC could serve as a bridge to a larger EU and a framework for more permanent continental integration. To that end, European leaders must use the upcoming summit to build a platform that combines political dialogue with policymaking. The EPC could start as a soft-law agreement between participating states and the EU. It could reach decisions by “rough consensus” without vetoes and serve as a testing ground for much-needed voting rules reforms.

The current energy crisis provides a unique opportunity to create a new framework for inclusive cooperation that would redefine the roles of the EU and its member states and encourage greater involvement by neighboring countries. Connecting Ukraine to the European electricity grid, signing natural gas agreements with Norway, and building green hydrogen infrastructure would require a broader cooperative framework.

The EPC could also advance crucial security and defense partnerships. The war in Ukraine has exposed the weakness of Europe’s security and defense architecture and highlighted the need for European countries to cooperate on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and digital connectivity. Moreover, allowing countries like Ukraine to share knowhow and experience with the EU would show that collaboration could be mutually beneficial.

Finally, the EPC could help to overcome the hub-and-spoke character of the EU’s current relationship with accession candidates. All countries should participate on an equal footing and have the same rights and obligations. Moreover, the EPC would not be regarded as a substitute for EU accession. Instead, it should act as an accelerator.

The joint declaration that will most likely follow the EPC summit should require participating countries to sign a binding agreement by the spring of 2023. This document should lay out the new body’s mission, areas of cooperation, budgetary resources, and membership criteria. In parallel, the EU must advance institutional and decision-making reforms. The corresponding reform agenda should be defined immediately after the 2024 European Parliament election, so that institutional reform and enlargement are concluded by 2030.

Because it is rooted in soft law, creating the EPC would not require a lengthy formal ratification process. Ultimately, however, the EPC should evolve into a more formal arrangement. But that could be discussed at a later date. The task for European leaders is to kick-start a pragmatic and targeted partnership of like-minded countries on our continent. It could not come soon enough.