October 7, 2022 - 10:40am

Emmanuel Macron’s new European Political Community, bringing together the EU27 plus a host of EU candidate countries and non-EU states including Britain, attracted its fair share of criticism well before its first meeting at Prague Castle yesterday. Many derided it as a mere “talking shop” without any real significance.

Such criticisms were strange because if there’s one thing Europe needs right now, it’s more talking. The platform is intended to “create a space for open dialogue,” said the Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala. From divisions on the economic crisis and Russia sanctions to various national disputes impeding the EU’s glacial expansion plans, the new platform showed promise as a place where disagreements could be talked through.

Dialogue is also sorely needed between Britain and Europe, so Liz Truss’s attendance lent the European Political Community a major credibility boost. Although some commentators feared that Britain would try to “dominate” proceedings, the summit appears to have been a success in strengthening British-European ties, with Macron heralding a “new phase” in post-Brexit relations.

And the day wasn’t without other promising developments. A meeting between Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and the leaders of warring Armenia and Azerbaijan was seen as a major breakthrough in the conflict between the latter two countries.

But the summit also revealed just how fraught European diplomacy has become. It was considered an achievement just to get the leaders together for a “family photo”. No national flags were displayed to avoid inflaming disputes over territory and sovereignty, and there was no formal written outcome. Even the seating plans forced hours of tense negotiations between diplomats.

More importantly, the summit undermined its own intentions for “open dialogue” from the get-go. Czech PM Fiala and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz bizarrely suggested that just getting all of the leaders together in one place was in itself some kind of collective rebuke to Putin. Scholz said that “everyone gathered here knows that the Russian attack on Ukraine is a brutal violation of the security and peace order,” while Fiala said “we all know in our hearts that Ukraine will win because the truth is on its side,” following a speech via video link from Volodymyr Zelensky.

Such statements of collective sentiment were jarring because a number of the leaders in attendance simply don’t agree. The leaders of Serbia and Croatia exchanged barbed criticisms over Serbia’s refusal to sanction Russia and its ambivalence on the war. In Hungary. Viktor Orbán has launched a national consultation over energy sanctions which he insists have “backfired,” claiming Ukraine “will never win a war against Russia”.

The most important context for the promised “open dialogue” was that the 44 countries attending the summit didn’t share anything like the same view on Russia. So, why did organisers feel it necessary to project a false impression of agreement on the biggest issue of the day?

If the European Political Community is to have any value at all, it should leave such insecure assertions of unity to the EU. Instead of trying to brush divisions under the carpet, its main mission should be to shine a light on them, in the hope that greater understanding can be found.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz