The European Political Community will be a distraction, at best, in the institutional architecture of the continent.
The EU—western Balkans summit in Tirana last month put the spotlight on an already-contested idea, that of the European Political Community. The EPC has few merits: a wide range of intergovernmental institutions deal with the issues it seeks to address, it goes against democratic principles and it could legitimise violations of labour and other human rights.
The idea was floated by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, last May, during the closing ceremony of the Conference on the Future of Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Comprising 44 European heads of state, the EPC is expected to hold biannual meetings.
The first was held in Prague in October, a day before the informal meeting of the European Council. The two key issues discussed were the energy crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Forthcoming meetings will be in Moldova in the spring, Spain in the autumn and the United Kingdom in the spring of 2024.
Lack of clarity as to the purpose of the EPC has encouraged scepticism from the start. Before the inaugural meeting, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine expressed their concern that it could be deployed as an alternative to the European Union membership they desire. On the other hand, the UK was careful not to get too close to its neighbours and former EU partners, and become bound by new obligations.
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The focal points of the October meeting were peace and security. All European countries were invited to Prague except Russia and Belarus. The official ‘family picture’, as well as events such as the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan—their conflictual relationship once more destabilised by the invasion—were certainly meant to send a strong message of unity to Russia. The long-term agenda of the EPC seems however to be much more diffuse.
The day before the meeting, an article appeared penned by the prime ministers of Albania and the Netherlands, Edi Rama and Mark Rutte respectively, arguing that the EPC should ‘discuss pan-European higher education, research and innovation capabilities, competitiveness and sustainability’. These issues are directly linked to EU competences, such as employment and social affairs, research and innovation and competition rules.
The EU has formal structures through which stakeholders, such as trade unions, are actively engaged when addressing, and legislating on, these issues. For instance, the European Council regularly organises a tripartite social summit, to facilitate dialogue between the EU institutions and the social partners.
The lack of such structures at the EPC could offer an excuse for European heads of state to bypass key stakeholders. Resulting policy proposals would however likely be less rigorous and fail to balance social and economic interests—hence representing corporations, rather than workers and communities, and working against a truly social and democratic Europe. With a social dimension lacking in the surrounding rhetoric, it could be a pretext for governments and EU institutions to avoid enforcing important social policies, undermining the European Social Charter of the Council of Europe and the European Convention of Human Rights.
One of the key selling points of the EPC is indeed its informality. It is being promoted as a platform to exchange ideas with minimal rules of procedure. Yet, given the high profile of its participants, conversations in this arena could wield significant power over national and EU policy agendas, even without binding legislation being involved. The EPC could thus represent an insidious development, given the absence of democratic legitimacy and accountability.
Overlap and redundancy
If the EPC were to become an important multilateral institution, it would need clear rules, democratic accountability and mechanisms to involve the social partners. But then what would distinguish its raison d’être from other European institutions, such as the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, avoiding overlap and redundancy? Revising existing institutions surely makes more sense than devising new ones.
It could be argued that the EPC will improve European security co-operation in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet it is hard to see what it brings to the table that the OSCE and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization do not.
The EPC could become a body with de facto influence subject to very few constraints. It has taken several decades of negotiations and treaties to build the current EU institutions, with their checks and balances, and associated instruments such as social dialogue. We cannot, and should not, create new institutions for every new challenge.
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