The European Political Community is born with little fanfare, but already some modest success
On 6 October in Prague, the leaders of 44 European countries gathered in the historic settings of Prague Castle for the first meeting of the European Political Community (EPC). Such an initiative was needed. The war in Ukraine, Russia’s bellicose postures, and the threat of an energy crisis caused by the disruption of Russian energy supplies have helped focus the minds of European leaders. Prague offered an opportunity to discuss and analyse and approximate positions. Important discussions on the margins of the main event, such as the quadripartite meeting with Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Turkey-Armenia leaders meeting, contributed to the process of resolving some of the more intractable problems of the last decades. The work of the European Political Community needs now to be taken forward. In future, the biggest task of the EPC will be to engage Russia. But not yet. For the moment the Community has done what is needed, which is to contribute to build a united front against Russian aggression in Ukraine. It must continue to do so until Russian aggression ends.
On 6 October in Prague, the leaders of 44 European countries gathered in the historic settings of Prague Castle for the first meeting of the European Political Community (EPC). Europe already has plenty of frameworks for co-operation across the continent: apart from the EU and its various initiatives, including the Eastern Partnership, there is the European Economic Area, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. So why another one?
The simple answer is, that it is needed. The EU consists of only 27 countries, the Council of Europe is too narrowly focused on human rights, humanitarian and cultural issues; and the OSCE, the organisation that brings in all European countries, including Russia plus North America and Central Asia, is proving to be increasingly dysfunctional. Then there is NATO, too military, and for some at least, too much dominated by the US.
At a time when Europe is facing the most serious threat to its peace and security since the end of the second world war, leaders feel they need the right space and context to discuss the continent’s peace, security and stability. The Community’s stated objectives are to “foster political dialogue and cooperation to address issues of common interest” and “to strengthen the security, stability and prosperity of the European continent”.
In Prague the format of the summit was unusual. This allowed leaders to meet and discuss, without the pressure of having to negotiate a final document till the early hours of the morning, or the tedium of having to listen to each other’s set-piece speeches for hours on end.
Furthermore, whilst the process leading up to the creation of the European Political Community has been EU driven, care was taken to make everyone feel equal, and this enabled everyone to attend. Everyone at least, except Russia and Belarus who were not invited. For some reason, of the five European micro-states only Lichtenstein was present in Prague, and it was not clear if Andorra, San Marino, Monaco and the Vatican State were invited at all, even though they are members of the OSCE and the Council of Europe. But of those present there was diversity enough: the states of the Southern Balkans and the South Caucasus, non EU western European states, such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, and the brand new EU candidate countries Ukraine and Moldova. But it was the presence of Britain and Turkey at the Prague summit that made it significant.
No flags please, we’re British
The United Kingdom has only just left the European Union after a divisive referendum and years of acrimonious debate. No wonder the British government was wary to be seen somehow reversing this by entangling Britain into yet another European project so soon after. That at least was the view of many Conservative politicians. But Britain has also been throughout the Ukraine crisis one of the leading supporters of Ukraine, and of the need to unite against Russia. To have been absent from Prague would have sent all the wrong signals. The Foreign Office in particular argued strongly in favour of attending despite some resistance from Downing Street. In the end reason prevailed and Liz Truss took time off from her economic crisis at home to be in Prague in time for the family photo. On one condition, British diplomats insisted there should be no blue flag with the twelve yellow stars, even though this flag is used more widely as a symbol of the continent, rather than just the EU – it is in fact also the flag of the Council of Europe, of which Britain remains a member. But others seem to have thought that that was a small price to pay, so a huge flag of Czechia served as the backdrop for the family photo. I guess we are all Czech now.
Another awkward participant, though perhaps less awkward than Liz Truss, was Turkey’s president Recip Tayip Erdogan, reminding everyone that Turkey is a European country, and Erdogan, a European leader. Turkey is currently locked in various disputes with other European countries: foremost Greece (not to mention Cyprus), and is also currently dragging its feet regarding the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland to the great frustration of everyone else. Yet Erdogan’s presence in Prague was also a statement, than Turkey remains committed to the continent’s security and to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Prague also served as an opportunity for Erdogan to meet the Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan as part of the process of normalisation of relations between the two countries. This augurs well for the ongoing negotiations, and gives the process a new momentum.
An Armenian-Azerbaijani historic moment
But perhaps what Prague is going to be remembered for most as memories of it blur into the myriad of European and international summitry, is the quadrilateral meeting between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the president of France and the President of the European Council.
This meeting came at a crucial moment when Armenia and Azerbaijan are edging towards a peace process, but also at a time when events on the ground threaten to erupt in further violence. Two very important decisions were taken:
“Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed their commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and the Alma Ata 1991 Declaration through which both recognize each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. They confirmed it would be a basis for the work of the border delimitation commissions and that the next meeting of the border commissions would take place in Brussels by the end of October.”
Mutual recognition of each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity has always had to be the foundation on which future relations can be based. Reconfirming this commitment that the two countries made on assuming their independence following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 enables the peace process to gather momentum
The second decision was:
“an agreement by Armenia to facilitate a civilian EU mission alongside the border with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan agreed to cooperate with this mission as far as it is concerned. The mission will start in October for a maximum of two months. The aim of this mission is to build confidence and, through its reports, to contribute to the border commissions.”
This, for the first time, gives the European Union a direct role in supporting Armenia and Azerbaijan as they seek peace between them. The Mission’s deployment is very welcomed by Armenia, and although Azerbaijan appears to be less enthusiastic it has also acquiesced. The mission needs to be deployed as soon as possible, and apart from high quality technical expertise, it must have very acute political sensors. The mission has a mandate for two months, which given that it is threading on uncharted waters, is understandable. But it is also obvious that an international presence will be required for longer than that, so the Mission is likely to evolve, in tandem with the wider peace process.
For Armenia-Azerbaijan relations Prague was a major breakthrough. But there is no place for complacency. As my colleagues, Ahmad Alili and Benyamin Poghosyan, wrote in a Joint Policy Discussion Paper last week, the lack of trust between Armenia and Azerbaijan at all levels is so high that any progress in negotiations will not be sustainable unless trust and confidence are restored.
(Read the Alili-Poghosyan joint paper here)
Building on the success in Prague
The war in Ukraine, Russia’s bellicose postures, and the threat of an energy crisis caused by the disruption of Russian energy supplies have helped focus the minds of European leaders. Prague offered an opportunity to discuss and analyse and approximate positions. Important discussions on the margins of the main event, such as the quadripartite meeting with Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Turkey-Armenia leaders meeting, contributed to the process of resolving some of the more intractable problems of the last decades. The work of the European Political Community needs now to be taken forward. The launch of the EPC came with a disclaimer, “This platform for political coordination does not replace any existing organisation, structure or process, nor does it aim to create a new one at this stage.”
The next summit will be in Moldova. Holding the summit there sends a strong message of support for this small country that Russia has also tried to manipulate. But the new community will also need to organise its work better going forward. One suggestion that is being discussed, is the idea to create a European Security Council, where issues of peace and stability on the continent can be kept under constant review and positions co-ordinated. In principle this is a good idea, but it should not be rushed into, simply because it needs to be well thought through and well delivered. But for the moment some loose arrangement to help prepare EPC summits can be created without creating a new bureaucracy. An arrangement similar to the one that supported the work of the CSCE (1973-1994) can be envisaged.
In future, the biggest task of the EPC will be to engage Russia. But not yet. For the moment the Community has done what is needed, which is to contribute to build a united front against Russian aggression in Ukraine. It must continue to do so until Russian aggression ends.