UK’s Truss joins Europe’s leaders for big summit on Russian waron October 6, 2022 at 2:26 pm

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Leaders from the UK and across Europe meet in Prague as part of a new political forum.

Liz Truss is welcomed by Prime Minister of the Czech Republic Petr Fiala, as she arrives at Kramar's Villa on 6 OctoberImage source, PA Media

The leaders of 44 European countries meet in Prague on Thursday, at a historic first meeting of a new political club of nations.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell spoke of building “a European political community without Putin’s Russia”.

UK Prime Minister Liz Truss will join leaders from the EU, Turkey, Norway and the Balkans, along with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky by video.

Ms Truss insisted the summit was “not an EU construct or an EU alternative”.

Writing in The Times, she said that after Brexit the UK should be involved in discussions that affected “the entire continent and all of us here at home”.

The idea of a broader European political community beyond the EU was championed by French President Emmanuel Macron but there’s scepticism, even within the EU, about the new forum. Ms Truss will hold talks with President Macron and others on Thursday, in what could mark a new phase in the UK’s post-Brexit relations with Europe.

Downing Street only confirmed her attendance late last week, with the prime minister travelling from a Conservative Party conference overshadowed by divisions and the economic fallout from her tax-cutting mini-budget.

The 44 leaders will discuss energy, migration and security, with a focus on the war in Ukraine. In a blog, Mr Borrell said in the wake of Russia’s invasion there was a need to “rethink and reform the wider European order, beyond the work of the EU and Nato”, but he added that the summit would be no more than an initial exchange.

As well as the UK, non-EU members Switzerland, Turkey, Norway, Iceland, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Western Balkan countries are among those taking part in the first gathering of the EPC.

What is this new community?

Critics see it as a vague regurgitation of old ideas and its exact role has yet to be made clear.

When he proposed the idea this year, President Macron said it would “offer a platform for political co-ordination” for countries both in the EU, and those not.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave new impetus for co-operation amongst nations beyond the EU’s 27 member states.

But the new EPC has no institutions or dedicated staff. That has led to questions about how any decisions would be implemented.

So it’s an unprecedented effort to bring leaders together from across the continent to discuss areas of shared interest. If it proves to be a success, it may continue to take place up to twice a year. If it’s a failure, it could fizzle out.

Ms Truss had been hostile to the EPC project, so what changed?

Warming up

Some observers point out it was never likely she would voice passionate enthusiasm for a French-led European meet-up while vying for the Tory leadership.

But once in power she appeared to warm to the idea, although Downing Street is reluctant to accept suggestions Mr Macron won her over.

It might prove to be a “modest” turning point in EU-UK relations, says the director of the Centre for European Reform, Charles Grant.

While a row about post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland remains unresolved, talks are restarting this week.

“Neither side is trying to push that issue to the brink at the moment,” says Mr Grant. “So this summit could be a sign of a modest rapprochement.”

The official line is that the PM is heading to Prague because she wants to “shore up” support for Ukraine and “galvanise” collective action on energy security and migration.

Downing Street says Ms Truss will call on leaders to keep oil and gas interconnectors open this winter while taking part in talks on joint projects to develop new nuclear and offshore wind capacity.

Another draw for the UK is the presence of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Norway, a key supplier of energy to the UK.

The UK has been less keen to talk about security, with jitters that the EPC could be seen as somehow cutting across the Nato military alliance.

If the EPC does prove short on solid outcomes, then expect it to be long on messages about support for Ukraine and condemnation of the Kremlin.

In the opening session, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will give a video address while Ms Truss will also take the floor, where she’ll say the threat from Russia was “left to fester for far too long”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Image source, Getty Images

But not all those attending are of one mind on the conflict.

“One of the measures of success will be does it persuade Serbia, Azerbaijan and Turkey to lean a bit more to the West and less towards Russia?” says Mr Grant.

Turkey’s talked of a “balanced” approach to Russia and hasn’t signed up to Western sanctions.

“When first proposed by Macron, the EPC was supposed to be club with shared democratic values but it’s now more about making sure Europe as a whole isn’t Russia’s friend,” says Mr Grant.

Uncertain identity

A sign of the uncertainty about what the EPC is really for is that there have been far clearer messages about what it is not.

It’s not a substitute for NATO or the G7, we’re told.

It’s not a slightly comfier “waiting room” for countries eager to join the EU.

Nor it is a forum that will be dominated by EU institutions.

That’s despite invites having been issued by the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, while the meeting itself has been tacked onto the front of an EU summit.

Brussels insists it has merely been facilitating the forum – it’s not “the EU plus plus”, insisted one senior official.

The next EPC, in either six months or a year’s time, is likely to be held in Moldova.

If the project survives, the UK is currently fourth in line to host a summit.

But British officials are keen to play it cool on the EPC, insisting they will walk away if it evolves in an undesirable direction.

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