Europeans are training for the kind of Baroque summit that will take place this week in Prague, inside the grounds of the castle where the Thirty Years’ War began. Forty-four national leaders – including friends, foes and mere foes – show up for the inaugural meeting of the so-called European Political Community.
44 European leaders meet in Prague. What could go wrong?
That’s the vision, anyway. It was designed, as such rising inspirations tend to be, by Emmanuel Macron, the President of France. He came there with the conviction that all other European structures are too imperfect to help a continent torn by war, border conflicts and various energy, migration and economic crises.
In this assessment, Macron is correct. Just listing these other institutions becomes confusing. It starts with clubs such as the Council of Europe (no connection with the European Council) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (which even includes non-European countries and Russia, the biggest mainland war). At the very top is the European Union. Intended to be the largest peace project in history, it is in theory supposed to gradually integrate its member states – currently 27 – into the United States of Europe.
Macron must not realize that none of these groupings is flexible or strong enough to solve Europe’s biggest problems. The EU, for example, is so institutionally complex that it is difficult to count the number of presidents it has (probably around ten). In political areas such as trade it may be a superpower, but in most others, notably defense, it is a servant.
Its design flaws are legion. The EU cannot expel errant members (Hello, Hungary) and is of no use when a country wants to leave voluntarily (Bye, Brits). On many important issues, any rogue member can veto all decisions. On others, the EU treaties are ambiguous – they contain a mutual defense clause that no one relies on, for example, which is why all but six EU countries are also members of the EU. NATO.
Another shortcoming of the EU is that it excludes too many European countries. Turkey officially became a candidate for membership in the bloc in 1999; he gave up hope of joining a long time ago and may not stop sulking. Several Balkan countries fear being in the same waiting pattern. Worse, from their point of view, is that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia — which the EU wants to support against threats from Russia — could get ahead of the Balkans in the queue.
Macron apparently hopes that the European Political Community will one day do better. Launched as a “soft law” institution, it could become a club in which members can come and go, but not obstruct or sabotage. It could also provide a continental stage for Britons, Turks, Swiss, Albanians, Georgians and all others who cannot or do not want to join the EU. It has already been decided that the next gathering of the Community will take place in Moldova.
However good Macron’s intentions are, of course, Europe will not cease to be Europe just because it receives another institution. A country represented in Prague, Ukraine, is fighting for its existence against a European invader. Two others, Armenia and Azerbaijan, were at war with each other last month. Two others, Turkey and Greece, could be at any time, with a third, Cyprus, possibly wedged between them. North Macedonians, Albanians, Bosnians and other Balkan people suspect that the European Political Community is just Macron’s consolation prize because no one has any intention of letting them into the EU proper. Guests from Serbia, meanwhile, deny that those from Kosovo even have a country to represent.
So yes, it would be easy to make fun of this continental symposium, of Macron’s megalomania for endlessly coming up with new monsters of paperwork and the still grumpy Europeans. Too easy.
A more generous view is that Macron and other European leaders refuse – even at a time when one European, Russian President Vladimir Putin, threatens others with nuclear war – to give up their dream of peace, security and continental harmony. This week’s convention will not be another Peace of Westphalia or Congress of Vienna. It will not solve the continent’s problems, unite the divided or pacify the warlike. But it deserves attention and support. In times like ours, coming together in peace is so much better than not coming together at all.
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Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
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