It would be foolish to suppose that the daylong gathering of European leaders that took place in Prague on Thursday will solve the problems facing this continent. The problems are too huge and pressing for that. The daunting list ranges from the war in Ukraine and relations with Russia, through the gas shortages and high prices facing Europe this winter, to the universal threat from climate change and the challenges of migration for a continent marked by struggling economies.
Nevertheless, the meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) is a helpful but modest step for the continent as a whole, and for Britain’s relations with it. The meeting, conceived by President Macron of France, brought together the European Union’s member states and non-members on an equal basis. It makes better European dialogue with important states on the continental periphery more possible. These include Britain as well as Ukraine, Turkey and Norway, along with the non-EU states of the western Balkans and along parts of Russia’s southern flank.
Expectations are inevitably modest. Other existing alliances and institutions, including Nato, the International Monetary Fund, the UN’s Cop27 summit and the EU are better placed and resourced to deal with particular challenges. The EPC must not duplicate or distract from these, but it can supplement them. That depends on good faith and realism.
If the Prague meeting is not to have been purely for show, three things were important, one of them pressingly, the other two in more long-term ways. The pressing issue is the energy market. Russia’s war and its manipulation of oil and gas supplies have driven an energy price crisis across and beyond Europe. This has been seriously exacerbated this week by the Opec+ oil-production cartel’s decision to cut production in order to drive up prices still further. Thursday’s warning of winter power cuts by the National Grid shows how much is now at stake.
The 44 countries that met in Prague share a problem. They need to do everything they can to respond cooperatively to shortages and to avoid needlessly driving up prices – and the likelihood of power cuts – still further. It would be naive to pretend that this is easy. Each government is responsible to its own voters. However, each also has a responsibility not to play Vladimir Putin’s game of divide and rule. If Prague strengthened that resolve, it was a good day’s work.
The first long-term aim must be to ensure that these meetings continue. They should be regular and useful. This requires a flexible approach, respect for different national approaches, willingness by participants not to grandstand for their domestic audiences and an acceptance that the EPC is not an anteroom for the EU. None of this is easy either, but it should be attempted.
The other long-term aim applies specifically to this country. Brexit has taken place. But Britain remains a European country. Under Boris Johnson, we were not trusted, with good reason. We need to rebuild realistic, practical and rewarding post-Brexit relationships with Europe and the EU.
If Liz Truss really wants better relationships with Europe, as she should, she must work at it. She was right to go to Prague. It sent a good signal, long overdue. But it is only a small start. It should be matched by other actions across government, starting with working more closely with France over migrant boats, and calming the Northern Ireland protocol dispute so that power-sharing can resume. It is hard to be hopeful after the anti-European lies and paranoia of recent years. But Prague castle has witnessed pivotal events in history before. Perhaps – just perhaps – this meeting may have been the start of another one.