Analysis | 44 European Leaders Gather in Prague. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

In Europe


Europeans are practiced at the sort of baroque summitry that’ll take place this week in Prague, inside the castle grounds where the Thirty Years’ War started. Forty-four national leaders — including friends, frenemies and plain old enemies — are showing up for the inaugural meeting of the so-called European Political Community.

Exactly what that institution will become remains to be worked out. But the idea is to remind most Europeans (Russia and Belarus weren’t invited) that they share something loftier than a common geography — that is, ideals and a common destiny. 

That’s the vision, in any case. It was conceived, as such soaring inspirations tend to be, by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France. He came to it in the conviction that all the other European structures are too flawed to help a continent torn by war, border disputes and assorted crises in energy, migration and economics. 

In that assessment, Macron is right. Just drawing up a list of those other institutions gets confusing. It starts with such clubs as the Council of Europe (no relation at all to the European Council) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (which includes even non-European countries and Russia, the continent’s greatest warmonger). Right at the top, there’s the European Union. Meant to be history’s greatest-ever peace project, it’s in theory supposed to gradually integrate its member states — currently 27 — into a United States of Europe. 

It doesn’t take Macron to 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’s hard just to count how many presidents it has (probably about 10 ). In policy areas such as trade it may be a superpower, but in most others — notably defense — it’s a minion.

Its design flaws are legion. The EU can’t eject errant members (Hello, Hungary) and is unhelpful when a country wants to leave voluntarily (Bye, Brits). On many important issues, any rogue member can veto all decisions. On others, the EU’s treaties are ambiguous — they contain a mutual defense clause that nobody relies on, for instance, which is why all but six EU nations are also in NATO.  

Yet another shortcoming of the EU is that it excludes too many European countries. Turkey officially became a candidate for accession to the bloc in 1999; it gave up any hope of joining long ago and may never stop sulking. Several Balkan countries fear that they’re in the same holding pattern. Worse, from their point of view, is that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia — whom the EU wants to support against threats from Russia — may jump 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 mature into a club which members can enter as well as leave, but not obstruct or sabotage. It could also provide a continental stage for Brits, Turks, Swiss, Albanians, Georgians and all others who can’t or won’t join the EU. It’s already been decided that the Community’s next gathering will take place in Moldova. 

As good as Macron’s intentions are, of course, Europe won’t stop being Europe just because it’s getting yet another institution. One country represented in Prague, Ukraine, is fighting for its very existence against a European invader. Two others, Armenia and Azerbaijan, were at war with each other just last month. Two more, Turkey and Greece, could be at any moment, with a third, Cyprus, possibly wedged between them. The North Macedonians, Albanians, Bosnians and other Balkans suspect that the European Political Community is merely Macron’s consolation prize because nobody intends to let them into the EU proper. The guests from Serbia, meanwhile, deny that those from Kosovo even have a country to represent.  

So yes, it’d be easy to make fun of this continental symposium, of Macron’s megalomania in constantly proposing new paperwork monsters and of Europeans being as fractious as they’ve always been. Too easy.

A more generous view is that Macron and other European leaders are refusing — even at a time when one European, Russian President Vladimir Putin, threatens others with nuclear war — to jettison their dream of continental peace, security and harmony. This week’s convention won’t be a another Peace of Westphalia or Congress of Vienna. It won’t solve the continent’s problems, unite the divided or pacify the bellicose. But it deserves attention and support. In times such as ours, gathering in peace is so much better than not gathering at all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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