Based on an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron, the European Political Community (EPC) held its inaugural meeting on 6 October 2022 in Prague. Forty-four European states participated, as well as the presidents of the European Council and Commission. The initial meeting, which included both multilateral discussions and opportunities for bilateral talks, was generally deemed a success. However, the future role and concrete functions of the forum remain wide open.
Offering an inclusive forum for dialogue among European countries will certainly remain a key function of the EPC. In the current situation, marked by Russian aggression against Ukraine and a general heating up of geopolitical rivalries, bringing leaders of this diverse group of countries together is valuable in itself. However, if 44 leaders are to be sufficiently engaged on a sustainable basis, the EPC needs to offer something more substantial. Similar past initiatives that were unable to do so faded away without leaving much of a trace. One way for it to encourage engagement would be to learn from the European Union’s past efforts to integrate non-EU states in particular sectors – such as science and innovation – or in schemes like the Schengen passport-free travel zone.
This concept of sectoral integration has been attracting the attention of EU members and candidates in recent years, particularly in the context of the revision of the enlargement methodology in 2020. The idea behind the revised methodology was to allow for the extension of the concrete benefits of inclusion in certain parts of the internal market to candidate countries as soon as they met relevant conditions, which might be much earlier than their accession to the EU itself. This approach was designed to reward progress in reforms that bring countries closer to the EU and to increase the opportunity cost of not doing so. Sectoral integration has thus become part of the EU’s approach to enlargement, although it has not yet been fully applied in practice. The concept has also proved its worth for sectoral cooperation with countries that are not aiming for membership, as demonstrated by the inclusion of non-members in the Horizon programme for research and innovation, InvestEU for sustainable investments, or, indeed, the Schengen passport-free zone.
As the EPC seeks to draw up a functioning agenda and contribute to Europe’s future stability, it will be looking for ways to promote stronger ties among its members. Sectoral integration offers the opportunity to enhance cooperation among countries with diverse relationships with the EU – member states, states aspiring to join the bloc, those without such an ambition, and one that has recently left the organisation.
During the EPC’s inaugural meeting in Prague, the United Kingdom signed a memorandum of understanding to re-engage with the North Seas Energy Cooperation (NSEC). The NSEC aims to secure a sustainable, secure, and affordable energy supply for the participating countries, in particular by developing the offshore grid in this region. It includes eight EU member states, as well as Norway, and now the UK will also be associated with it. The European Commission co-chairs the NSEC, alongside one of the participating states on a rotational basis. Full participation is conditional on adhering to the EU internal energy market and projects are therefore eligible for EU funding.
This access to EU financing for its projects sets the NSEC apart from the Energy Community, an organisation of six Western Balkan countries plus Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, established in 2006 to promote and assess compliance with the EU acquis in the energy sector. Even if countries fully comply with the EU legislation, they do not have access to EU funding for investment projects. A key motivation for accomplishing the required reforms is thus lacking.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought the security of energy supply into sharp focus. While Ukraine is the most severely affected, many members of the Energy Community are struggling to secure or afford adequate supplies. The EU and its members have provided significant funds to support the countries’ energy security during the crisis and have made pledges to advance energy diversification and energy transition in the short and medium term. Some of this assistance, however, is not new money but unused aid from the past. Other initiatives are limited in their effectiveness; for example, the EU invited the members of the Energy Community to take part in its common purchasing platform for hydrocarbons. But as these countries are much poorer than those in the EU, they might not be able to buy at the price agreed by the bloc. Finally, most of the assistance so far has been ad hoc and short term. As the energy crisis also affects how these countries position themselves in relation to the current geopolitical rivalries, a more robust and sustainable framework for cooperation on energy would be advantageous for the EU too.
The next meeting of the EPC will take place in Moldova – one of the countries most severely affected by the energy crisis – in the first half of 2023. It would therefore be the right place to discuss strengthening the Energy Community as a flagship project of sectoral integration. This could be done by replicating some of the elements of the NSEC model, namely enabling the EU neighbours of Energy Community member states to participate in projects of common interest, as well as providing access to EU funding for those. In addition to providing a sustainable framework for longer-term alignment and collaboration between EU members and non-members, this would also make investment in energy projects in the region more attractive for international financial institutions. It could inspire similar regional cooperation schemes in other sectors with a view to allowing countries outside of the EU – whether they want to join it or not – to benefit from European integration. Promoting sectoral integration beyond the enlargement context could add an operational dimension to the EPC. Talking in this new forum may be valuable in itself, but it will be even better if it results in concrete outcomes.
Milica Delevic is an ECFR Council member and director of competitiveness, governance, and political affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
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