French letter from Paris via Prague
Perceptions in diplomacy are often as important as reality. The Queen’s funeral last month was a magnificent spectacle, capturing the world’s attention like few other public events in recent times. Yet ultimately it was an exercise in image management, intended to inflate the importance of the royal family and demonstrate that, despite all that has gone wrong in recent years, Great Britain Brittany continues to matter and can still put on a show.
This week’s Prague summit of the aptly named European Political Community (EPC) was also a piece of diplomatic theatre, if not performance art.
“Listen,” he said, “we are gathered here as one family, united in our support for Ukraine as it seeks to repel its Russian invaders. We have agreed that we will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal, even if it means turning down the heat in the winter and further stepping up the supply of arms and ammunition to those who fight so heroically on our behalf.
With this message proclaimed and applauded by all, there was not much more to say. The leaders of the 43 nations present, including the UK and Turkey, had previously posed for a group photo in the Great Hall of Prague Castle, featuring 36 men – most wearing blue or gray suits – and seven women, including the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, resplendent in mauve.
The only absentee was Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, who was forced to stay in Copenhagen after being forced to call early legislative elections.
Emmanuel Macron of France – whose idea was the conference – stood in the foreground in the team photo, stretching as high as he could without tiptoeing. Germany’s Olaf Scholz, never one to push forward, was lost in the back row, otherwise notable for the appearance of Liz Truss, Britain’s beleaguered leader, and Giorgia Melone, the new Premier Italian minister, making his first foray into the arena world.
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Among the specters of the party were Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey (who thinks everyone is his enemy, especially the Greeks); President-for-Life Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan (who is pals with Vladimir Putin but hates Armenia); and Viktor Orban, the renegade Hungarian prime minister (who, while siding with Putin, has little time for the European Union of which his country has been a member since 2004).
Liz Truss, on the other hand, was a welcome visitor, whose presence more than anything else raised the tone and confirmed the gathering as all-inclusive. Indeed, one could say that with the exception of Volodymyr Zelensky, filmed from Kyiv, she was the guest of honor. As foreign minister, Truss had initially rejected Macron’s initiative, and when she arrived it was knowing clearly (at least in her own eyes) that it was not a meeting convened to convince non-EU members that their future survival depended on joining the European project.
Did she achieve it? Until a certain point. To be fair, Macron has gone out of his way to woo her, promising increased cooperation on illegal immigration, defence, energy sharing, and even, it has been suggested, the Northern Ireland Protocol. . By the end of the summit, Truss was impressed enough to call Macron a friend – not an enemy – of Britain, with whom she hoped to do business.
If nothing else came out of the rally, that in itself was a major highlight, with both leaders deserving of applause.
Elsewhere, historical frictions continue to be felt. Erdogan criticized Greece in his speech at the conference, almost provoking a walkout from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. But at least he hasn’t repeated his recent veiled threat to annex the Greek islands closest to Turkey. Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Nikol Pashinyan, remained at loggerheads, but were persuaded by Macron and European Council President Charles Michel to accept an EU mediation offer to resolve their long and bloody border dispute.
On the central Ukrainian issue, there has been a predictable strengthening of common goals. Europe has confirmed to itself and to the world that it remains an anti-Putin front. Disagreements persist over how best to proceed and how much blood and treasure can be spent to support a neighbor in distress. But Russia remained in doubt that as long as it persists in its invasion and occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine, it will face opposition from Europe at any time.
As for the future of the EPC itself (which Liz Truss says is a forum, not a community), it is likely to become an intermittent feature of the European political calendar. The follow-up summit is tentatively set to be held next spring in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, a state whose roots are so uncertain that much of it has been subsumed by Romania and Ukraine, the province separatist Transnistria being considered by the Kremlin as part of Russia. Six months later, Spain will take over, with the UK not in line to hold a rally until March or April 2024, when Labour’s Keir Starmer could be prime minister.
In the meantime, conservative Britain has no intention of presiding over a process which, however quietly, has as its ultimate goal the political and economic integration of Europe. It is for this reason that he values the participation of Norway and Switzerland – even Turkey – in the alignment of nations. But while a good start has been made in emphasizing Britain’s sovereign status, the current government should make no mistake that its view is universally shared.
Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel each pointed to the fact that almost all non-European EPC members, such as Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro, are in fact applying for membership and that this month Ukraine has requested an accelerated procedure for the examination of its application for membership. For them, the Prague gathering was like a university introducing itself to prospective students.
When Emmanuel Macron first proposed the idea of an informal political community in a speech to the European Parliament in May, his aim, he said, was to achieve a flexible structure which, over time time, would bind its members to the concept of economic cooperation, preparing them for full integration into the Union. Swearing what he described as his “Strasbourg Oathhe pledged to build a “sovereign, united, democratic and ambitious Europe”.
Not everyone in Paris is as excited about such a prospect as Macron, including the French press, which has taken note of this week’s development and seemed not to view it as an earth-shattering moment. They may have recalled that in 1981, François Mitterrand proposed a European Confederation – a “common and permanent organization of exchanges, peace and security” which would unite the “history and geography” of Europe to make counterweight to the American and Soviet superpowers.
What happened to that?
Commenting on the results of this week’s summit, Le Monde observed that if what happened in Prague hinted at the future architecture of a “greater European Union” stretching to the geographical limits of the continent, then it was “diplomatically perilous”. . Liz Truss might add, “and should do so without UK involvement”.
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