Can Europe Master Its Destiny through the European Political Community?

October 27, 2022
7 min read
Photo credit: symbiot /
Forty-four countries recently participated the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community (EPC), a forum to consider Europe’s linked energy and security crises, with a second meeting scheduled for next spring.

Although not meant to displace existing European institutions or structures, or to create a new one “at this stage” according to the European Council, the forum’s animating impulse is much grander. In proposing the EPC last May, France’s President Emmanuel Macron challenged Europe to think beyond its present arrangements and organize itself “with a broader scope than that of the European Union,” in order to become the “master of its own destiny,” to “choose our partners and not depend on them,” and to “act decisively. Move swiftly. Dream big.” And, ultimately, to show that “these words are not only the prerogative of China or the United States of America.”

Whether through the EPC, or any other similar effort, Europe can truly become the master of its own destiny rests on three substantial challenges. First, the EPC must develop a shared political vision for Europe that transcends the national differences of its members and imbues their actions with moral legitimacy and common purpose. Second, it must build the norms, practices, and institutions that align members’ actions in ways that make this vision real. Third, and most critically, it must create a military capacity that credibly protects this vision—and the community it embodies—in a world that can turn hostile and dangerous.

These three elements—shared political vision, institutions that align actions with values, and sufficient credible force—are the essential building blocks for any resilient political community among sovereign states. They comprised the core infrastructure of both episodes of long peace in Europe over the past 200-plus years. The Concert of Europe from 1815 to 1914 was built around the vision of preserving monarchy and aristocratic privilege (and containing liberalism) through a concert of the great powers whose decisions and accommodations were backed by their willingness to stand behind them with military force.

Shared Political Vision

The present order, which has provided transatlantic and European security since 1945, envisions a world built upon the liberal values of human dignity, human rights and individual liberty secured through democracy and the rule of law. Central to this order are the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose protective shadow secures Europe’s political and geographic space, and the European Union whose project of legal, economic, and political integration seeks to enhance the well-being of its citizens by strengthening the foundations for a free, democratic, and prosperous Europe.

An ordered political community becomes nonviable or unsustainable when any one of these elements goes missing. The League of Nations embodied a political vision and an institutional form but was stillborn because no state would fight to uphold it. More recently, the Soviet bloc collapsed not because it lacked sufficient force or a political vision, but because it could not make communism work in practice, rendering its legitimating claims nothing more than a brittle shell of empty promises. By 1989, not even the Soviet Union itself could muster the political will to sustain it.

The hurdles confronting the EPC are substantial. What brought participants to Prague earlier this month was not a shared challenge requiring unified effort but a grab bag of interests and motives: managing the reverberations of Russia’s aggression and the Ukraine war, worries about the longevity of the United States’ commitment to Europe’s security, a desire for strategic autonomy, resentments over the glacial pace of EU accession, and a generalized fear of missing out should the EPC’s activities gain political weight and momentum.

What brought participants to Prague earlier this month was not a shared challenge requiring unified effort but a grab bag of interests and motives.

Weaving these disparate threads into whole cloth requires a political vision that joins the EPC in common effort. But that vision is not self-evident. Macron’s initial proposal to ground the EPC in Europe’s core democratic values does not appeal to the EPC’s non-democracies as it would make them second-class members. Yet confining the future EPC to Europe’s democracies would simply render it redundant, as these are the foundational values of the present liberal order, which may be ailing, but is not dead yet.

The obvious alternative would be to build a political community on the basis of geography. But this vision is even more problematic. Although appearing to embody the attractive values of inclusion and tolerance, this vision enshrines state sovereignty as its highest organizing principle. Because it disavows adherence to any higher principle as necessary for membership, it would let members determine for themselves their own legitimating principles and internal political practices, which other states would be obliged to accept. And, because Europe’s heritage contains such a wide range of ideologies and political forms, a vision of Europe as a geographic expression is unlikely to converge in practice upon a shared set of core political values that integrate members into a cohesive political community with common purpose. Were recognition of shared geography alone sufficient to achieve this integrative function, European history would be much different and far less bloody.  

Institutions that Align Actions with Values

Should the EPC solve its vision problem, however, it would still need to create the institutions necessary to make the chosen vision real. The historical experience of the Concert of Europe demonstrates that the institutions that translate values into actions need not be the alphabet soup of formalized structures that now coordinate European relations. But so long as the European Union continues to be the primary venue for managing European cooperation, its substantial resources—personnel, expertise, experience, policy networks, budget—will exert a powerful gravitational pull on efforts to build a new basis for European order, channeling them into well-trod pathways that will likely make the new Europe look and operate suspiciously like the old Europe.

Sufficient Credible Force

Finally, the EPC would need to command the military resources to credibly protect its members in a world where war happens. The war in Ukraine underscores Europe’s continued dependence on the military and industrial resources of the United States as well as the centrality of the transatlantic alliance to European security. Given the United States’ tumultuous politics, and especially a potential change to an administration that rejects the country’s transatlantic commitments, prudence demands that Europe develop a more autonomous military capacity. But should the EPC seek to build that capacity as an alternative or counterweight to the transatlantic alliance—which strategic autonomy implies—assembling a force structure and industrial base that can defend Europe will only be the first and easiest problem that it must solve.

More difficult still will be establishing the widespread belief that the EPC possesses the political will to use whatever level of force is necessary to defend itself.

More difficult still will be establishing the widespread belief that the EPC possesses the political will to use whatever level of force is necessary to defend itself. Absent this belief, no member will trust the EPC with its security and no potential rival will be dissuaded by its pronouncements. But whether this belief takes hold will be determined not by the EPC’s membership, military capacity, or security doctrine, but by what it does when confronted with real crises that threaten war. It is these episodes in which states walk up to the brink of war that show where they are prepared to fight, where they will not, and ultimately what values they will defend. An EPC that will not fight to protect the sovereignty of its weakest and most exposed members would be a political community in name only. Thus, the path to a strategically autonomous EPC is unlikely to be smooth. Rather, it will be punctuated by serious crises and even armed conflict as potential rivals probe the nascent community’s internal cohesion and the extent and strength of its security commitments.

The desire to make Europe the master of its own destiny ultimately springs from a desire to disentangle its future from that of the post-Second World War liberal and transatlantic order. This impulse is understandable given the substantial internal and external challenges that order now faces. But an autonomous EPC will be difficult to achieve in practice and, in trying to build a new basis for European peace, it may find itself unable to escape the fate it so desperately wishes to avoid.

David M. Rowe is a Fulbright NATO Security Studies Scholar and visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and should not be attributed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States Department of State, or to the staff, officers, or trustees of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.