American tourists, and even a few analysts, are fond of calling Europe quaint. Its stereotype in North America is as a museum, where nothing much happens. This could not be further from the truth. Beset by war, Europe’s politicians are once again struggling to come up with a new answer to that question which has evaded them forever. How to govern, or at least manage, a politically chaotic continent?
This is about more than the EU. European leaders are trying to figure out two things. Will Ukraine join Nato? Or stay stuck in a no man’s land? And what about non-EU states like Britain, essential to European security? How are they going to fit into the continent’s politics? As ever, Emmanuel Macron thinks he has the answer.
Last week I watched and briefly spoke to the French president at the Globsec Forum in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where in front of an audience of central and eastern European policymakers, he tried to answer that question. Macron, whose standing suffered terribly in the run-up to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine due to his willingness to negotiate with Vladimir Putin, was on a charm offensive.
Presenting himself, if not exactly humbly, as a man from a country that hadn’t always got everything right in the region, what he said matters hugely.
In public, Macron laid out what he felt should be the answer to Ukraine’s relationship with Nato. To the relief of many Southern and Western European diplomats, and disappointment of many of Ukraine’s closest Central and Eastern European allies, he said that he didn’t think the country, at war with Russia, should be admitted as a “full member” of the alliance. This would cover Ukraine by Nato’s Article 5, which pledges all members to support a country attacked, and though the language itself is slippery it is usually seen as a promise to join any necessary war to defend them from invasion.
However, Macron said Ukraine should enjoy higher security guarantees than the ones Israel enjoys from the West — where there is no formal pledge or alliance, but it receives military aid from the United States, which has historically resupplied it at moments critical to its survival.
The solution, Macron said, should be somewhere in between. But what about the wider Europe? The one that includes Britain? Here a French idea has already started to come to life. This is the European Political Community, a new meeting of heads of state, for all European countries except Russia, which came together for its second meeting in Moldova last week.
Macron’s vision for the EPC is like this. He hopes it will eventually become a body capable of resolving problems, taking actions or decisions — rather like a large European version of the G7 or the G20. This way, he thinks, Britain can stay involved in European politics in a format run for and by Europeans, and not only in Nato.
German officials are highly sceptical of this venture. But the fact it even got off the ground despite their scepticism shows there is demand amongst the non-EU members on the continent. This is how French officials see its make up. First there are EU members, like France and Slovakia. Then there are future EU members, such as Ukraine and Moldova. Then there are ex-members or half-members, such as Britain and Norway. Finally, there are future partners in an eventual post-war European security order, which is why both Azerbaijan and Armenia, recently in conflict, are there.
The European Political Community is asking Britain a question. After so much acrimony Macron has built a European house that post-Brexit Britain can live in. But what does it want from it?
European officials believe that this structure offers a chance for Britain to build a new set of agreements — for example on migration, climate, security or corruption — that amount to a softer form of non-intrusive sovereign association with Europe acceptable to both sides of the political divide in Europe.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, many officials are hoping the UK will answer this question with ambition — helping to also build a house that can house Ukraine on its long road to European membership. The next summit is due to take place in Spain in October. By then Britain should be ready to answer.
Ben Judah is the author of This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now published next week by Picador