Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and the author of POLITICO’s Beyond the Bubble column. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.
While it’s still foolish to even think of a future British return to the European Union and the European institutions, something very interesting is happening in relations between British Prime Minister Liz Truss’s beleaguered new government and its European neighbors.
The days of permanent Brexit revolution and aggression toward the EU appear to be over, as the prime minister herself will travel to Prague on Thursday to attend the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) — a new body linking the 27 EU countries with would-be members, several don’t-want-to-be members and, crucially, the recently departed United Kingdom.
When the EPC idea was revived by French President Emmanuel Macron in May, the notion was mocked by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and his cheerleaders in the British media. What was the point of a new European talking shop, they said, when the Continent was already sinking under the weight of existing bodies with confusing acronyms, from the Council of Europe (CoE) to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)?
To be clear, Truss remains dubious about the EPC. She even wants to change its name to the European Political Forum to avoid any confusion with the old European Economic Community (EEC) — the precursor of the EU. Yet, she is going to Prague all the same, and — what’s more — she’s offered to host a second meeting of the 44-nation EPC in Britain next year.
That’s not the only straw in the warmer winds now blowing from London toward the Continent and Ireland either, with talk of a possible breakthrough in resumed negotiations with Brussels on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The self-proclaimed “Brexit hard man” Steve Baker, a Northern Ireland minister in Truss’ government, has even apologized for previously refusing to see that Ireland and the EU “had legitimate interests” to defend.
But the most intriguing long-term prospects are offered by British participation in the EPC. If the U.K. had chosen to stand aside, it would have damaged the credibility of the community. It would also have sent a very bad signal about the broader state of U.K.-EU relations, as well as the larger role the Truss government wants to play in the region.
President Macron is sometimes accused — wrongly — of being anti-British. He revived the idea of an outer circle of non-EU European countries for several reasons, but partly as a way of reengaging the U.K.
Macron insisted the organization should be intergovernmental, with a minimal role for the European Commission and European Council secretariat. This was to avoid spooking Downing Street and raising fears, however irrational, that the EPC would be a “shadow” EU.
Senior U.K. officials say the diminution of the Commission and Council’s role shows that their legitimate concerns have been taken seriously. “I have not seen any attempt to accommodate the U.K. in this way since 2016, but there is now a change,” a senior Whitehall official said. “The EPC represents a different way of Europeans organizing themselves that is distinctive from the EU.”
Senior French officials who complain about the lack of contact since Brexit agree: “It could be one of the things that brings us closer together, and gives us something to chew on,” one told me.
Moreover, by taking part from the beginning, Britain will also avoid repeating its mistakes of the 1950s, when it stood aside from negotiations that led to the EEC, and therefore failed to shape them in its own interests.
That begs the question, what is the EPC for?
The French would like it, inter alia, to consider European defense and security policy. But that still rings alarm bells in the Truss government, which says defense should be the exclusive domain of NATO.
Macron also sees the EPC as a way of bringing EU candidate countries into the European family, while negotiations on full membership drag on for years . . . and years.
For example, Moldova and Ukraine were offered fast-track candidate status to the EU in June, but “fast-track won’t run all the way to membership,” says one senior French official. Here, officials point to the difficult structural reforms aspiring EU members must implement, which often cut across national identity issues and key economic interests.
At some point, Ukraine’s fast-track process will inevitably slow down.
“It’s then that they’ll see the value of the EPC in filling the political gap left by the enlargement process” says one senior EU official. But whether that will satisfy the impatience of Ukraine’s government, which was also originally very skeptical about the EPC idea, is unclear.
In the short term, though, the EPC is expected to concentrate on two urgent problems — energy and immigration — where pan-European, and not just EU-wide, cooperation could be crucial.
But how much progress can be made is unclear, especially if the Council secretariat and the Commission are excluded. One senior French official says, “The challenge is going to be the fact that we need the skills of the EU system, but not the tools.”
In other words: How can the EPC advance cooperation on common projects without the institutionalization that the U.K. and other non-EU members would balk at? One senior EU official says, “the EPC is happening precisely because it is vague, and countries can project what they want onto it.”
As such, the most important objective of the first meeting in Prague is to emerge with a narrower, more focused set of issues.
Meanwhile, the EPC’s most important short-term achievement will be reintroducing post-Brexit Britain to the idea of European cooperation. In the medium term, that may be of special value to a future British Labour government.
Any step toward Europe by a future Keir Starmer-led Labour administration would be painted as a “betrayal” by the Conservatives and pro-Brexit media. But by going to Prague on Thursday, Truss will create a precedent that Starmer could build on.