Another French Pipedream?
6 October marked the first summit of the newly-minted European Political Community (EPC), grouping the leaders of 44 European states into the rather dreary looking Prague Castle. It was a great show of Pan-European initiative in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bringing to the same table the likes of Hungary’s Orban, Turkey’s Erdogan, Germany’s Schultz, and France’s Macron. One must especially commend the new organisation’s feat of getting Switzerland on board — a country whose ever-affirmed neutrality stopped it from even entering the United Nations until 2002. The great facade however shows many cracks: whether it be the unconvincing Polish and Hungarian responses to the war, the wide differences in economic, political, and social development throughout the continent, or even “oh dear, you again” Liz Truss’ very clear reluctance towards anything branded as European, the endeavour seems perilous.
Though the images of the meeting seemed cordial enough, one question remained: what exactly is the EPC’s goal? It turns out that the answer is as vague and generic as humanly possible: fostering discussion between leaders and promoting political cooperation and coordination. More than its unclear purpose, the project is seemingly redundant: between the European Union and the Council of Europe, the Old Continent seems already full of misunderstood or unknown international organizations. However, its creation seems justified by the growing concern for the future of inter-state relations in Europe, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A theory which seems convincing is that the EPC is intended to serve as a tool for European consolidation, giving an alternative to expanding the European Union. In that sense, it would allow the Union to be seen as less of the ultimate tool for the European project, maybe even putting an end to its expansion, with the goal of consolidating what already exists, and offering a more flexible alternative to other European states.
The project was presented in the media as president Emmanuel Macron’s ‘brainchild’, started under his presidency of the Council of the European Union. It’s interesting to see how, since the Second World War, France has strived to create such Pan-European projects. More than being a founding member of many post-war organisations, under president Mitterand (1981-1995) it had already tried to create, what he called, a “European Confederation” in 1989, which was intended to, once again, promote cooperation, peace, and trade: originality has always been Europe’s strongpoint. The project was stillborn, and barely survived the Prague summit (plus ça change…), intended to be its founding moment.
This all raises the question of why France would do this, beyond the generic-sounding goals which every country nowadays claims to agree with. It’s undeniable that it could be ego, but is that a bad thing? France has a ‘certain idea’ of its place in the world, and especially in Europe, in that it should be a leader of peace and cooperation, emphasis on ‘leader’. Faced with a world in which it’s difficult for the Great Powers of the past (save the United States) to maintain hegemony, due to their underwhelming demography and increasingly challenged economic dominance, they must search for other ways to maintain their rank on the international stage. France understood this early on: in the 1960s, General de Gaulle saw France as having much more to gain by affirming itself not as a military or economic behemoth but as a pacifying force. And it has gained much from it: France is still an unavoidable actor of the International system, being one of the great diplomatic powers (upon which a great deal of the EU’s diplomacy relies). France is a funny country, which sometimes seems disconnected from our reality; its idea of itself might be a tad grandiose and a tad embellished, but this “old country from an old continent” as Dominique de Villepin once said, wants nothing more than the good of Europe. A nation that never asks “Why should I?”, but rather “Why not I?”, France’s position inside of Europe has always allowed it to take the initiative and manifest this bold mentality.
The EPC might be a pipe-dream, who knows, but its vagueness gives hope that it might evolve into something it hasn’t announced yet: a framework for European cooperation, this time spanning from the Atlantic to the Aegean without excluding anyone, and perhaps, just perhaps, being able to bring this old continent together when the existence of its members is under threat again. Time will tell.