Written by Roger Cohen
Ever restless in his quest to forge a Europe of independent strength, President Emmanuel Macron of France has a new brainchild, the 44-nation European Political Community, which will convene for the first time Thursday in Prague.
Larger than the 27-nation European Union, the new body includes countries like Ukraine and Moldova that are impatient with the long process of securing EU membership. A mild provocation to the United States, which was not invited, and a larger one to Russia, which sees any Western turn by countries on its border as incendiary, the association aims to give a voice to a broader Europe.
Macron believes the war in Ukraine will be long, extending well beyond the winter as Russian reinforcements reach the front. Given this prospect, officials close to him say, he is determined that Europe remain united, that it join forces to confront its energy crisis, and that it emerge from a transformative moment closer to his often-stated goal of “strategic autonomy.”
The European Political Community, which he first mentioned in May during the French presidency of the European Union, is clearly a response to these concerns. It is an idea typical of Macron: a bold, far-reaching and disruptive strategic gamble meant to stir new thinking, even if its end result and even its practicability are uncertain.
What exactly defines the Europe taking shape in Prague remains unclear. Israel will participate, as will Turkey, Iceland, Georgia and Armenia.
“We can have a debate about where Europe really ends,” Mikulás Bek, the Czech EU Affairs Minister, told Czech Radio.
Prime Minister Liz Truss of Britain, who is interested in exploring ways of cooperating with Europe in a forum outside the jilted European Union, will also attend. Britain, whose post-Brexit blues have grown more acute of late, has even offered to host the next meeting after Prague, which Macron wants within six months.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine will open the meeting with a speech delivered from Kyiv and is expected to press hard for accelerated membership in NATO and the European Union.
But one of the reasons for the new forum is precisely that such membership involves a long, cumbersome process. It appears that no nation in Ukraine’s current fractured state can meet the criteria required.
For example, one condition for joining NATO, set out in Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, is that any prospective member be in a position to “contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” Macron has said Ukrainian membership in the European Union could take “decades.”
More immediately, France sees the meeting as an important opportunity for discussion of energy cooperation on a Continent that in February was reliant on Russia for 41% of its natural gas, a number now slashed to 7.5% through rapid diversification and Moscow’s supply manipulation.
The presence of Norway and Azerbaijan, two major oil and gas producers, and the imminence of winter will ensure “this goes well beyond a photo opportunity,” said a senior French official who requested anonymity in line with government practice.
She spoke as Saudi Arabia and Russia, leaders of the OPEC+ energy cartel, agreed Wednesday to their biggest cuts in oil production in more than two years in a bid to raise prices.
The move, a demonstration of the shifting alliances the war has revealed and reinforced, was a direct rebuff to the United States and Europe, which have sought to slash Moscow’s revenue from the sale of crude, in part by capping its price.
Saudi Arabia appears unswayed by American outreach.
The danger, as Macron sees it, is that Europe will merely seek short-term energy solutions. U.S. exports to Europe of liquefied natural gas have risen sharply since the war began. But the gas is expensive and dependence on it would disadvantage European industries, as compared with their American counterparts, as well as create new forms of strategic vulnerability.
One of Macron’s obsessions is ensuring that Europe not become a bystander to history, as he puts it, by losing control of its fate in the 21st century. The war in Ukraine has sharpened these concerns: The United States, which is essentially energy independent, and Europe, which is not, do not live the war in the same way.
France, which has already spent over $120 billion to help industry and households through the crisis provoked by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, wants to leverage European unity to confront the crisis — by giving the European Commission in Brussels far-reaching powers similar to those it had during the COVID-19 pandemic. These might include negotiating purchases of gas at a Europe-wide level to obtain the best prices, just as with the purchase of vaccines.
Whether the war and the energy crisis will spur Europe’s transition away from fossil fuels, or oblige it to shelve some of its plans, is unclear. Germany is turning to increased coal production as one means to wean itself of Russian gas, a move France sees as an error induced by the so-called nuclear taboo of its neighbor.
The French president has made clear he wants to see more electricity production on European soil. For him, the response to the war must be more nuclear power, more renewable energy and more energy efficiency. He has announced ambitious plans to build new-generation atomic reactors in France.
How his new European “community” will react to such ideas is uncertain. Macron has a tendency to get ahead of himself in his perennial quest to shake up tired thinking. The new intergovernmental body in Prague has little in the way of formal structure.
But it will at least ensure that, instead of thinking only in terms of EU enlargement, with countries sometimes stuck in a waiting room for decades, Europe will have a forum for broad discussion of all the assumptions President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has shattered.