Will the European Political Community redraw the map of Europe?
The late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once recalled the Greek myth of Cadmon, who asked the Oracle of Delphi about his kidnapped sister Europa and received the clue: “You won’t find her.” That suited the theorist of ‘liquid society’ well. Europe at the turn of this century did seem a postmodern adventure, its final borders undefined and its structure to be established.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago shattered this vision, and with it the notion that there is no need to obsess about looking for Europe if different versions of it can peacefully coexist. As 44 heads of state and government gather in Chisinau, Moldova on 1 June 2023 for their second meeting as the European Political Community (EPC), this age-old search no longer permits elusive answers.
At the group’s first, rather impromptu, meeting (in November 2022 in Prague), held at the initiative of the French, the photo-op alone was a statement of unity and defiance. Over the years, the likes of Turkey, the United Kingdom, and some Balkan states have clashed with the European Union or its member states. But here in Prague, they stood together in support of Ukraine and in its defence of European values, against the military onslaught by Russia.
Much like the stalemate in the trenches of eastern Ukraine, however, the ensuing months have witnessed little progress for the EPC. It remains a platform in search of a mission, leaving ownership to those willing and able and eventually antagonising others. The Delphi Oracle ultimately advised Cadmon to move on and build a city. This is what the EPC should also be doing. There are three layers of coordinated action which can give meaning to this endeavour; they are discussed below in order of increasing strategic significance.
The first is sectoral policies. The wider Europe has been a space of policy experimentation for the better part of the past two decades. From energy policy to migration, the EU has constantly sought to expand the reach of its instruments and the benefits of its single market, with mixed results.
Technocratic design has often imploded in the face of political realities. It openly exploded in cases like the EU’s deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with Ukraine, which effectively constituted the first casus belli for Russian aggression in 2014. The last months have seen proposals to create flagships within the EPC, for example building on the Energy Community to advance sectoral integration in this critical area. Progress will be painstaking but essential to grounding the EPC, when governments will be asked to explain what this new animal is all about.
A second layer is institutional. A whole generation of policy scholars and European officials, this author included, was moulded on two assumptions. First, that EU enlargement is the Union’s most successful foreign policy. Second, that you can encourage a systemic transformation in the ring of neighbours in Europe’s East and South by extending some benefits of EU accession but without membership itself.
We were wrong on both counts. Enlargement in itself is not a guarantee for reform, as the post-accession backsliding in Hungary and Poland testifies. It is also paradoxical that this successful ‘foreign policy’ will eventually have to stop, as the EU cannot expand infinitely. Other policies have tried hard to make up for a structural and strategic vacuum that only EU membership could fill.
Several proposals have emerged for turning the EPC into a veritable waiting room on the way to EU accession. These would require us to ignore French President Macron’s remarks to his diplomatic corps in September 2022, when he argued that the EPC would permit a halt to the ‘logic of infinite expansion’ of the European Union. Moreover, they suggest that the European Commission should build on its 2020 reformed enlargement methodology to create what some scholars have called a staged accession – one that can measure progress in a credible way, and reward it with gradual and selective participation in EU institutions. In any event, the EU will need to resolve its ambiguities about the prospects of thorny cases like Serbia, Turkey or Ukraine. Short of doing this, the EPC will go the way of the Union for the Mediterranean, a largely dormant body designed to encompass Europe’s relations with North Africa, and an organisation which shares with the EPC a French godfather.
This brings us to the third level, which is normative and geostrategic, and should pick up where Bauman and others left off in redefining the wider European order and the idea of Europe. The EPC here refers not to the intergovernmental forum but to the very idea of political community. It is a sort of narrative device for reimagining the wider European constellation. If Russia’s invasion has proved anything, it is that Europe can no longer afford ill-defined buffer zones at its borders. The ‘imperial’ notion of overlapping peripheries with multiple allegiances is over. Political Europe will need to be clearly delimited in territorial terms, while continuing to embody a unique laboratory of transnational and planetary politics.
Grounding the EPC
Squaring this circle is possibly the most daunting task of a European Political Community, the very idea of which Ukraine is defending on the battlefield. A track-II process (using non-governmental linkages) at the level of rigorous reflection and public participation should be promoted. This should encompass public intellectuals and political grassroots organisations in the countries currently invited to the EPC who interact regularly with their governments.
The emergence of this ‘post-imperial’ Europe would be tied to the success of new policies or institutional linkages. But it would go beyond it and herald the greatest conceptual and strategic shift since the end of the Cold War – and the only proportional response to the extraordinary shock that Europeans have experienced since Russia’s invasion.
Fabrizio Tassinari is Executive Director at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance, where he develops the STG’s strategy and policy programme. A political scientist, he has held positions at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of Why Europe Fears its Neighbors, among other publications.