Leaders from all corners of Europe have assembled in Prague in a show of strength against Russia.
Despite initial scepticism at the idea for a new pan-European community dreamt up by French President Emmanuel Macron, diplomats have persuaded 43 countries to take part in the summit including Ukraine, Turkey and post-Brexit Britain.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters: “This meeting is a way of looking for a new order without Russia. It doesn’t mean that we want to exclude Russia forever, but this Russia — Putin’s Russia — has not a seat. Unhappily you cannot build a security order with Russia. Russia is isolated."
As she arrived, Iceland’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, said: "What you will see here is that Europe stands in solidarity against the Russian invasion in Ukraine.”
Her Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, said that “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.”
Leaders will discuss security, energy and the economy in the historic surroundings of Prague Castle, with officials stressing the informal nature of the gathering, known as the European Political Community.
“It’s a bit like New York,” one EU official said, comparing the summit to the annual gathering of leaders at the UN General Assembly.
“You have formal bilaterals. But they meet and they sit for coffee and it’s not scheduled as a bilateral. You also have the dinner and who you are sitting next to.”
Organisers want the inaugural summit to be as amicable as possible. No policy decisions are planned, meaning no bickering over texts, and leaders’ aides met last week to defuse possible points of tension in advance.
Still, diplomatic spats remain possible. Serbia can expect a grilling over its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia, while Azerbaijan and Armenia are both on the guest list only weeks after deadly clashes.
The new club received a boost when UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, who poured cold water on the idea when she was foreign secretary and has verbally sparred with Mr Macron, accepted her invitation to Prague.
European officials have been at pains to stress that the new community is not an “EU-plus” or a substitute for Nato, addressing potential British concerns. They instead compare the summit to gatherings such as the G7 or G20.
Ms Truss said Europe must “continue to stand firm” with Ukraine as she arrived in the Czech Republic.
The UK prime minister tweeted: “Europe is facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War with unity and resolve. We must continue to stand firm to ensure that Ukraine wins this war, dealing with the strategic challenges that it has exposed.”
Downing Street says Ms Truss’s talks with Mr Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will focus on migration and aim to secure progress on joint operations to disrupt people-trafficking gangs.
Ms Truss is also expected to join Czech leader Petr Fiala for a working lunch.
Mujtaba Rahman, a former UK Treasury official who worked in London and Brussels, said Britain’s attendance could mark a turning point in its difficult post-Brexit relations with the EU.
The EPC’s most important achievement “may be to reintroduce post-Brexit UK back to the idea of European co-operation,” he said.
“This is not about a full British return to the EU. But something interesting is happening in relations between Truss’s beleaguered new government and its European neighbours.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address the summit remotely in its opening session, following interventions by Ms Truss, the Czech prime minister and others.
Mr Zelenskyy was also initially wary of the project after Mr Macron pitched it as a way of bringing Ukraine into the European fold without fast-tracking its EU membership bid, which he said could take decades.
Sceptics have variously described the new group as a waiting room, a car park, a second-class ticket, a second-tier Europe or a form of purgatory for countries hoping to one day join the EU.
“We reject any attempt to find an alternative that no one needs, or to find something else for Ukraine. We need to be like you,” Mr Zelenskyy told EU leaders in May.
However, officials insist the community is not a substitute for EU membership, and applicants including Albania, North Macedonia, Moldova and Georgia have accepted invitations to Prague.
Third countries including Norway, Switzerland and Iceland with no ambitions to join the EU are also taking part. Russia and Belarus are the only major countries not invited.
The EPC is not formally affiliated with the EU, although invitations were sent out by European Council president Charles Michel and the Czech EU presidency. The EU’s 27 leaders will stay on for separate talks on Friday.
Mr Michel wrote in an invitation letter that the aim is to “bring leaders together on an equal footing and to foster political dialogue and co-operation”.
A show of unity from so many European leaders against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine is “an important message towards Russia,” an EU official said.
Showing Europe’s interest in countries such as Armenia, in “what is sometimes considered as Moscow’s backyard, is I think of geopolitical importance,” they said.
The war in Ukraine has given something of a push to long-stalled EU membership applications, amid concern that countries will grow tired and drift into Russia’s orbit.
There was some debate about whether to invite Turkey to a club of like-minded democracies, but France said it favoured an inclusive approach and Greece said it did not object.
The 43 leaders will pose for an unusually large “family photo” in Prague, with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal attending in person. Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen is the one leader too busy with domestic politics to attend.
They will then split into groups to discuss energy and security, although they can move tables and mingle with other leaders. Three hours are devoted to bilateral meetings before a final plenary discussion over dinner.
Only one formal decision is expected — which country hosts the next summit. The community is expected to meet approximately every six months. Britain has been tipped as a possible future host.