Perceptions in diplomacy are often as important as reality. The Queen’s funeral last month was a magnificent spectacle, which caught the world’s attention like few other public events of recent times. Yet, when all was said and done, it was an exercise in image management, designed to inflate the importance of the royal family and to demonstrate that, in spite of all that has gone wrong in recent years, Britain continues to matter and can still put on a show.
This week’s summit in Prague of the grandly-named European Political Community (EPC) was equally a piece of diplomatic theatre, even of performance art.
“Look,” it said, “we are gathered here together as one family, united in our support for Ukraine as it seeks to throw back its Russian invaders. We are agreed that we will do whatever it takes to achieve that end, even if it means that we have to turn down the heating during the winter and further step up the provision of arms and ammunition to those fighting so heroically on our behalf.”
With that message proclaimed and applauded by all, there was nothing much left to say. The leaders of the 43 attending nations, including the UK and Turkey, had already posed for a group photograph in the Great Hall of Prague Castle, featuring 36 men – most of them wearing blue or grey suits – and seven women, including the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, resplendent in mauve.
The only absentee was Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, who was obliged to remain in Copenhagen after being forced into calling an early general election.
Emmanuel Macron of France – whose idea the conference was – stood front and centre in the team photograph, stretching as tall as he could without actually going up on his toes. Germany’s Olaf Scholz, never one to push himself forward, was lost in the back row, otherwise notable for the appearance of, Liz Truss, Britain’s beleaguered leader, and Giorgia Melone, the new prime minister of Italy, making her first foray into the international arena.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Among the spectres at the feast were Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey (who thinks everybody is his enemy, especially the Greeks); President-for-Life Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan (who is chummy with Vladimir Putin but loathes Armenia); and Viktor Orban, the renegade Hungarian premier (who while also siding with Putin has little time for the European Union of which his country has been a member since 2004).
Liz Truss, by contrast, was a welcome visitor, whose attendance more than anything else lifted the tone and confirmed the gathering as all-inclusive. Indeed, it could be argued that, with the exception of Volodymyr Zelensky, videoed in from Kyiv, she was the guest of honour. As foreign secretary, Truss had originally dismissed the Macron initiative, and when she turned up it was on the clear understanding (at least in her own eyes) that this was not a meeting called to convince non-EU members that their future survival depended on signing up to the European Project.
Did she succeed in this? Up to a point. To be fair, Macron went out of his way to court her, promising increased cooperation on illegal immigration, defence, energy sharing, even, it has been suggested, the Northern Ireland Protocol. By the time the summit ended, Truss was sufficiently impressed to actually call Macron a friend – not a foe – of Britain’s, with whom she hoped to do business.
If nothing else came out of the gathering, that in itself was a major plus, with both leaders deserving of plaudits.
Elsewhere, historical frictions continue to make themselves felt. Erdogan rubbished Greece in his address to the conference, almost prompting a walk-out by the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. But at least he did not repeat his recent veiled threat to annex the Greek islands closest to Turkey. Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian opposite number, Nikol Pashinyan, remained at daggers drawn, but were persuaded by Macron and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to accept an offer of EU mediation aimed at resolving their long-drawn-out and bloody border dispute.
On the central, Ukrainian question, there was a predictable reinforcement of common objectives. Europe confirmed to itself and the world that it remains an anti-Putin front. Disagreements persist on how best to proceed and how much blood and treasure can be expended on shoring up a stricken neighbour. But Russia was left in doubt that for as long as it persists with its invasion and occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine, it will at every turn be opposed by Europe.
As to the future of the EPC itself (which Liz Truss insists is a forum, not a community), the likelihood is that it will become an intermittent feature of the European political calendar. The follow-up summit is provisionally set to be held next Spring in Chișinău, the capital of Moldavia, a state so unsurely rooted that large parts of it have been subsumed into Romania and Ukraine, with the breakaway province of Transnistria deemed by the Kremlin to form part of Russia. Six months after that, Spain will take up the gavel, with the UK not in line to host a gathering until March or April of 2024, by which time Labour’s Keir Starmer could be prime minister.
In the meantime, Tory Britain has no plans to preside over a process that, however discreetly, has as its ultimate aim the political and economic integration of Europe. It is for this reason that it values the participation of Norway and Switzerland – even Turkey – in the lineup of nations. But while a good start has been made in underlining the UK’s sovereign status, the current government should not delude itself that its view is universally shared.
Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel have each stressed the fact that almost all of the non-EU members of the EPC, such as Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro, are in fact candidates for admission and that, just this month, Ukraine applied for accelerated consideration of its application to join. To them, the Prague gathering was like a university showing itself off to intending students.
When Emmanuel Macron first proposed the idea of an informal political community in a speech to the European Parliament in May, his aim, he said, was to achieve a flexible structure that over time would bind its members to the concept of economic cooperation, preparing them for full integration into the Union. Swearing what he described as his “Strasbourg oath,” he committed himself to building a “sovereign, united, democratic and ambitious Europe”.
Not everyone back in Paris is as excited by such a prospect as Macron, including the French press, which took note of this week’s development and appeared not to regard it as an earthshaking moment. They perhaps recalled that back in 1981 François Mitterrand proposed a European Confederation – a “common and permanent organisation of exchange, peace and security” that would unite Europe’s “history and geography” as a counterweight to the US and Soviet superpowers.
Whatever happened to that?
Commenting on the results of this week’s summit, Le Monde observed that if what took place in Prague provided a glimpse of the future architecture of “a grand European Union” extending to the full geographical limits of the continent, then it was “diplomatically perilous”. Liz Truss might add, “and would have to do so without the participation of the United Kingdom”.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at email@example.com