The leaders of 44 European countries stretching from Iceland to Turkey met on Thursday in what many said was a united stand against Russia’s war on Ukraine, as an energy crisis and high inflation fuelled by the conflict wreak havoc on their economies.
The inaugural summit of the European Political Community involved the 27 European Union member countries, aspiring partners in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as neighbours like Britain – the only country to have left the EU – and Turkey.
Russia is the one major European power not invited, along with its neighbour and supporter in the war, Belarus.
The gathering took place at Prague Castle in the Czech Republic.
Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir told reporters: “What you will see here is that Europe stands in solidarity against the Russian invasion in Ukraine.”
Her Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, said: “If you just look at the attendance here, you see the importance. The whole European continent is here, except two countries: Belarus and Russia. So it shows how isolated those two countries are.”
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine is something they all have in common.
“It’s affecting all of us in the security sense, and its affecting all of us through our economies, through the rising energy costs. So the only way that we can handle this is working together, and not just the European Union – all the European countries need to work together,” he said.
The summit was the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron and is backed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. They said it should aim to boost security and prosperity across the continent, but the gathering was overshadowed by the war and came as pressure builds to allow Ukraine into the EU.
Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal attended the summit, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was expected to address the leaders by video-link.
Critics claim the new forum is an attempt to put the brakes on EU enlargement. Others fear it may become a talking shop, perhaps convening once or twice a year but devoid of any real clout or content.
Europe’s leading human rights watchdog – the Council of Europe – seemed perplexed by the gathering. Spokesman Daniel Holtgen tweeted that the “European Political Community is still to be defined”.
“In the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, such a pan-European community already exists: it is the Council of Europe,” he said.
Mr Macron described the gathering as “an important moment”. The aim, he said, is to forge a common strategy to confront the challenges Europe faces. “Up until now, that did not really exist and could lead to divisions.”
Mr Scholz called the new forum “a great innovation” because leaders can talk about their common concerns “free of a daily agenda and the need to reach agreements”. This would help improve ties with the EU’s neighbours, “many of which want to to become members”.
He said the new European grouping is not about creating “a new institution with an administration, bureaucracy”, but instead a venue for heads of state and government to meet regularly.
Thursday’s summit kicked off with an opening ceremony, and was followed by a series of meetings for the leaders to discuss the key challenges Europe faces: security, energy, climate, the dire economic situation, and migration.
No EU money or programmes are on offer, and no formal declaration will be issued after the summit.