Internationally, the balance of power, institutions and organisations are changing rapidly. With the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, a renewed quest for influence over the balance of power in Europe has started. The EU seems to have suspended its enlargement plans in order to deter any further withdrawals. Given that there are still countries waiting for EU membership in the Western Balkans, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the difficulty of accepting a large country like Turkiye as a member of the bloc and Brexit are factors in the suspension of EU enlargement plans.
Russia's military aggression against Ukraine has required this approach to be updated. Some voices in Brussels have called for the fast-tracking of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia into the EU. However, others urge caution due to the fact that their territorial integrity has been compromised by Russia. Granting EU membership would immediately pit the bloc against Russia. To circumvent this problem, some of the more creative thinkers have come up with the idea of a "European Political Community (EPC)".
The establishment of such a grouping was first mooted in the early 1950s. After the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Political Community and then the European Defence Community projects were suggested to facilitate collective action in foreign policy and defence affairs by the six founding countries. These two organisations aimed to take the integration that started with the ECSC one step further. However, because the political community was not approved — it was rejected by the French National Assembly in 1954 — these initiatives failed.
Seven decades later, on Europe Day, 9 May 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced the EPC project (albeit in an altered format) at the EU Leaders' Summit meeting. The leaders did not reject the proposal. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian President Sergio Mattarella expressed interest in the idea.
Since then, the project seems to be on track, and the first EPC meeting is planned to occur before the EU Leaders' Summit in Prague this week. In addition to the 27 EU member states, the leaders of the non-member states across the continent have also been invited to attend: Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, the UK, Iceland, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkiye.
It is said that this proposal was put forward to relieve the pressure on the EU to enlarge the membership. As such, the debate over whether there is an alternative to the EU raises inevitable questions. For example, it is unclear how the EPC process will differ from EU membership negotiations. It also creates an artificial perception, as if it were an idea consisting of European countries meeting as a group, even though they are not members of the EU.
In his speech at the European Parliament on 9 May, Macron actually presented the EPC as an alternative to EU membership for those European states which aspire to become members of the bloc. In his post-speech media statements, Macron said that the criteria for joining the EPC would be respect for Europe's general values and a geographical belonging to the continent.
With this liberal political criterion of "No Doors", the French president determined that all states aspiring to join the EU, from Ukraine and Georgia to the Western Balkans and Turkiye, could be part of this new organisation. Macron even invited the UK and, indirectly, Russia. The latter was invited as part of the 1989 idea of the late French President Francois Mitterrand to create a European confederation, in which Russia would also be involved.
The Russian invasion and the impossibility of Ukraine's membership of the EU at the current time seem to be used by Macron as the main argument to justify the need for a new pan-European organisation. In the same vein, France has created a favourable premise for Russia by announcing that the EU would not admit Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova as members for the time being. This leaves the three former Soviet republics, which aspire to be linked organisationally and strategically with the EU and the West, at a crossroads, which Moscow could interpret as an indirect acceptance by France of Russia's right to have influence over the post-Soviet space.
The immediate negative effect of the French initiative is to close the doors of the EU to new members. There are four EU candidate states in the Western Balkans — Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia — and all have entered the official integration process and are awaiting the EU decision anxiously. By this de facto rejection of their membership, the French initiative is expected to encourage Serbia's aggression and hegemonic ambitions in the region.
Belgrade has opened negotiations on its own to access the EU and has declared that it has both the EU and Russia as the pillars of its foreign policy and security. With the French manoeuvre, Serbia would abandon its EU aspirations and tilt officially towards Russia. Macron's move also validates Serbia's anti-European approach, which has been expressed through Belgrade's rejection of EU sanctions against Russia. Serbia could now openly take this position and adopt more blatant anti-EU policies while continuing to reject the EU's anti-Russian sanctions.
Regionally, Serbia could renege from the condition of recognising Kosovo to gain EU membership, and abandon the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue mediated by the EU. The entire outlook could change overnight, reducing the value of the EU as a mediator.
The French EPC initiative is also expected to damage the two Western Balkan states — Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo — that are not even NATO members and have within them the seeds of destabilisation; Serbia could easily manipulate ethnic and border tensions. In the wake of the French plan, the EU is no longer expected to respect the commitment it had for the stability of these two countries.
The only hope for the pro-West states in the region is that this sudden initiative does not materialise. Some desire Germany to take matters into its own hands and continue its role as the main promoter of the EU integration of aspiring states.
The countries invited to the meeting to be held in Prague on 6 October are countries in Europe with different characteristics and relations with the EU. For example, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Switzerland has separate arrangements with the EU, while the other three EFTA members are in the European Economic Area together with EU members. In the Balkans, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania have advanced their accession negotiations with the EU. Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo, are the countries whose EU candidacy has not been announced yet. The situation of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is known.
The two most divergent countries are the UK and Turkiye. The UK has left the EU, and it is not clear what it will gain by taking part in the EPC. Turkiye, on the other hand, could face two issues by joining the EPC, not least that its EU membership process could be affected. Despite being a candidate country, Turkiye has been treated as a "third country" by the EU for a long time. The EU has reduced its dialogue with Turkiye to issues such as immigration policy or energy that may only be in Brussels' interest. Bilateral issues that would facilitate integration, such as the expansion of the Customs Union and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens are not addressed at all. The integration of Turkiye in the EPC and coordinating with the EU on political issues may pave the way for this path to be presented as an "alternative" to the EU membership process.
The EPC's designation as "anti-Putin" by Moscow is the second potential problem. Being part of this organisation could harm Turkiye's dialogue with Russia, as well as Ankara's mediation efforts between Moscow and Kyiv.
Russia's attack on Ukraine has had a major influence on the roadmap for EU restructuring and future integration. A consensus has emerged among the member states on strengthening the EU's military and security dimensions. In addition, the future scenario has narrowed pathways for expansion and cooperation options.
In the final declaration of the EU Brussels Summit at the end of the French presidency, the concept of "Wide Europe" came to the fore. The EU seems to be heading in that direction.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.