What does the “idea” of a continent or region mean? What binds it, beyond contiguity, proximity, coastlines, and the markings of cartographers into an entity that feels alive and valuable to its inevitably diverse inhabitants?
For too long one continent has allowed itself to be lessened, out of keeping with its history, by the common use of its name – Europe – as a synonym for the European Union. Not only is that irritating for those who love Europe but are sceptical of the EU, and who are thus frequently and falsely described as being “anti-European”. It is also to miss the point that there are fully 23 states that are part of Europe but not in the EU. True, some are tiny, such as Andorra, Liechtenstein and Vatican City. But many are much larger: the UK, Russia, Turkey, Switzerland, Norway, Georgia and, indeed, Ukraine, to name a few.
What makes this not just a philosophical question but a pressing, geopolitical one is the issue of the latter country’s bid for EU membership. France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, reiterated President Emmanuel Macron’s position on Sunday, saying: “We have to be honest. If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you're lying. It's probably in 15 or 20 years.” The accession process involves the adoption of established EU law, and in almost all cases a host of judicial, administrative, economic and other reforms. “It takes a long time,” Mr Beaune said. Anyone who doubts him should remember that Turkey is still far from becoming a member state, despite having originally applied in 1987.
What Mr Macron has suggested instead is the creation of an “European political community”, which would serve partly as a waiting room for would-be EU members, but also as a potentially very important structure in itself – meaning that the UK, which Mr Macron made a point of mentioning, could join without seeking re-entry into the EU.
“This new European organisation would allow democratic European nations… to find a new space for political co-operation, security, co-operation in energy, transport, investment, infrastructure, the movement of people,” he said.
This was not merely Mr Macron thinking out loud. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has discussed the idea with his French counterpart, and described it as a “very interesting suggestion”. It is due to be debated at an EU summit in late June. And the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, is apparently also on board, with his recent call for a “European Geopolitical Community or a Political European Community” on exactly the same lines.
I believe this is an idea whose time has come, if it was not already overdue. (Rather than opting to leave completely, I am convinced that most UK voters would have been happy to move to a looser association such as this.) This sounds like the kind of European grouping to which every country would want to belong, with no threats to their individual sovereignty, instead building on centuries of common history. It is also one which should aspire to include every country – including eventually Russia, since constructive relations will have to be re-established at some point in the future. One might ask if the war in Ukraine would even have happened if both countries were members of this putative group.
If that sounds like wishful thinking, consider the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). At its founding in 1967, the original five members said Asean represented "the collective will of the nations of South-East Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and co-operation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity". It was to be open to all states in the region "subscribing to the aforementioned aims, principles and purposes", and by 1999 had grown to 10 members. The only country in the region not yet a member is Timor-Leste, and it is likely to be admitted very soon.
There are border and maritime disputes between several countries. One or two have produced small, localised clashes, but most of the time these disagreements are managed, rather than officially resolved. Compromise and consensus have by and large worked. War between any Asean states is unthinkable. That is a considerable achievement in a group that includes communist one-party states and rowdy democracies, and whose multiplicity of ethnicities and faiths (including within individual countries) have led it to be described as "the Balkans of Asia".
One of Asean's strengths is that it does not ask too much of its members, which is why you never hear of a politician demanding that his or her country leave. It may prove ineffective in a situation like last year's military coup in Myanmar, but to be fair, no other country or international body has come up with a solution either.
Although often criticised for being slow and lacking impact, Asean has considerable achievements to its name: for instance, the ongoing creation of a single market and harmonisation of customs and standards, agreements on environmental issues such as cross-boundary haze, and above all the convening power that puts it at the centre of the regional economic and security architecture and, as I wrote last week, of any country’s strategy for the Indo Pacific.
Don’t those sound aims worthy of a new political community united, not by federal structures, but by a recalling of the true historical European space? One that recognised its multi-confessional nature by including Muslim-majority Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey and Azerbaijan? One built on understanding, discussion, and prioritising peace and conciliation, rather than being subject to the diktats of unelected officials in Brussels or the missile-switch twitching of nuclear-armed powers?
Mr Macron has sometimes been criticised for being remote and aloof, too far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. But this is a vision that all in Europe could truly embrace. The safety and security of the continent can no longer be taken for granted. This new “European political community” could be the answer.