Oct 06, 2022

Filling Europe’s Geopolitical Vacuum

The European Political Community is being launched today at a summit of 44 states in Prague without a clear concept of what it is for. There is a chance now, however, for Germany to finally show leadership and broker a deal between France and Poland to move the EU forward.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala welcomes European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Informal EU 27 Summit and Meeting within the European Political Community at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, October 6, 2022.
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At a time when Europe’s security architecture is broken, a potential new forum has emerged to fix it. This week, 44 European leaders are meeting during the greatest geopolitical crisis to hit Europe for at least three decades. Top of the agenda: to work out why they are meeting, and whether to do it again. This jumbo summit is the fruit of a French proposal to establish a European Political Community, and if it remains rather shapeless and directionless then that’s because this ought really to have been a German proposal with German guidance about its purpose and future. This is the story of a missed opportunity—and a chance to draw the right lessons.

Shooting that Old Canard: Widening vs. Deepening

In May, when Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia applied for European Union candidate status, they unwittingly revived an old split between European Union member states—between the “widening” camp and the “deepening” camp. Fans of enlargement say that widening has allowed the EU to adopt sanctions against Russia on a continental scale. Skeptics say the failure to deepen integration has allowed the new intake of member states to slow the adoption of those sanctions. It is a debate that has been playing out since the 1970s, when the United Kingdom joined the EU and identified enlargement as a means to slow political integration. It is a hugely polarizing debate.

In the red corner, France—keen on streamlining the EU’s capacity to act in the world and convinced that enlargement hinders this. In the blue, Poland—cheerleading enlargement and nervous about deeper foreign policy cooperation for fear of Europe detaching from the United States or Poland being outvoted by France. And in between: Germany. Back in spring, there was a deal to be brokered: The Poles get enlargement, but give up a veto on EU foreign policy; the French get streamlined EU foreign policy structures and a smaller European Commission, but only in order to make the future enlarged EU workable. Germany was ideally placed to do the deal.

Lacking German Leadership

However, this would have required political leadership from Berlin. In purely procedural terms, of course, there is no real tension between widening and deepening; enlargement has always obliged member states to streamline decision-making. But merely tinkering with EU procedures does not prevent political fragmentation. Germany needed to make a political argument—saying to Cyprus and Malta, you may think you risk being dominated if you give up your veto, but in fact, you invite domination, as Russia and China press you to block EU decisions; or saying to Hungary, disrupt this EU deal as you did the sanctions packages and risk serious repercussions.

On August 29, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did finally make his bid for greatness, and his speech in Prague indeed sketched out the contours of this deal. But it was too German—too late, too technical, and diverted by a demand for more German seats in the European Parliament. There was also too much focus on getting France on board (it’s an outdated myth that if Germany and France agree, they forge a compromise for all Europe). And there was too much bashing of Poland, which happens to have shown huge solidarity to displaced Ukrainians as well as breaking ties to Hungary (Scholz’ clumsy provisos on migration solidarity and the rule of law).

A Problem Looking for a Solution

So, we were left with the French proposal, or more precisely: the French method. In launching the European Political Community (EPC), President Emmanuel Macron embarked on his usual modus operandi: invent an attractive container term and fill it up with French interests (enlargement-phobia, protectionism, Anglo-skepticism); furiously deny to other EU states that it is indeed a vehicle for French interests; then lock in French interests by concluding a Franco-German compromise. The EPC was thus all set to dupe Ukraine into an alternative to full EU membership, whilst ticking German boxes of “inclusiveness” and respect for existing EU rules and regulations.

But then came the unexpected twist: With Germany confused and other member states suspicious, the French seemed to get cold feet and tossed ownership to the Czech EU presidency. The idea was then accidentally invigorated by the British with the last-minute announcement that new Prime Minister Liz Truss would be attending the initial summit after all and even wanted to host the next one. Was Truss looking to escape her domestic woes? Was she playing the same trick as when she became foreign secretary and surprised the EU by taking a conciliatory tone? Her motives are immaterial; the effects were real: Lazarus-like, the proposal was back from its deathbed.

A Life of Its Own

Now like Frankenstein’s monster, Macron’s is showing serious signs of developing a life of its own, away from its master. In British hands, the EPC would become an intergovernmental forum for coordinating on the Russian threat and the rise of China. The EPC would provide the kind of high-level meet-and-greet sessions show-cased by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand on September 15, an inclusive political forum designed to prevent China from picking off the fringes of Europe with one of its “plus one” formats. With London in the driving seat, the EPC would detach itself from the EU altogether, perhaps providing the foundation for a new European security architecture.

Meanwhile on the other side of Europe, Moldova is pulling the proposal in a very different direction. Theirs is a project-based notion of the EPC, based on a strong sense that, even if the EU has rhetorically committed to enlargement, in practice the goalposts are moving. The EU is deepening its norms, introducing new taxes, and investing in its own green and digital transformations. Accession hopefuls need infrastructure projects, just so as to keep them within touching distance of the EU. They also hope the EPC will be a technical forum for the EU to learn from, rather than merely lecture, its neighbors—on decentralization, digitalization, and defense.

 “The Center of Europe Is Moving Eastward”

The good news: The EPC, despite its sneaky French beginnings, is fumbling its way toward plugging a major European geopolitical vacuum. The bad news: These developments have skirted around the original split inside the EU between France and Poland, meaning the EU cannot provide a cohesive and inclusive political core for the wider European periphery. The other good news: France has not succeeded in locking in its interests, and Germany still has a chance to broker a deal between its two neighbors. The other bad news: to do that, Germany must get over itself. It must recognize that Poland, not France, and not Germany, is in the ascendancy.

Since the election of the Law and Justice (PiS) government in 2015, Germany has tended to write off Poland as euroskeptic and xenophobic. But Poland is now out fighting for European democracy and opening doors to refugees, and this rather eclipses Germany’s “refugee solidarity mechanisms” and “rule of law conditionality.” Germans know this in their hearts. But in their minds, they expect that Poland will soon cast aside the moral high ground, and the cozy status quo can return. Poles always shoot themselves in the foot, with their desire to spite the Germans (viz. their quixotic demands for German war reparations and tendency to align with the fringe UK).

The old EU status quo is, however, unsustainable. The status quo locks in German advantages and interests. Germany can no longer claim Franco-German ownership for its development and write off other attempts at reforming it as an attack on the natural order of things. Poland, already during the eurozone crisis, saw that it needed to move from passive EU policy-taker to active policy-maker, and presented its economic reform ideas. It was told to sit quietly by France and Germany; likewise its proposals for an EU energy union in 2014. By the 2015 Schengen crisis Poland played a spoiler role, happy simply to block France and Germany’s excesses.

Germany must therefore acknowledge that it bears some responsibility for Poland’s political souring, and that Poland’s euroskepticism—like Italy’s—comes not from a rejection of the EU but a strong sense of belonging and ownership that has been rebuffed by France and Germany. It must see, too, that the debate about “EU deepening” is about much more than veto rules in the European Council. Rather, it is a desire for change and a fear of domination. Poland would likely be more constructive about “deepening” if it felt it had a fair chance to influence it. Making concessions to Poland would have been unthinkable until recently, but there is a window now.

Roderick Parkes is Research Director at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and head of its Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies.

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