PRAGUE (AP) — The leaders of 44 European countries stretching from Iceland all the way to Turkey met Thursday in what many said was a united stand against Russia’s war on Ukraine, as an energy crisis and high inflation fueled by the conflict wreak havoc on their economies.
The inaugural summit of the European Political Community involves the 27 European Union member countries, aspiring partners in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as neighbors like Britain — the only country to have left the EU — and Turkey.
Russia is the one major European power not invited, along with its neighbor and supporter in the war Belarus.
“What you will see here is that Europe stands in solidarity against the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir told reporters at Prague Castle in the Czech Republic, where the gathering was taking place.
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.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal was in Prague for the meeting, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the leaders by video link.
“There are no representatives of Russia with us here — a state that geographically seems to belong to Europe, but from the point of view of its values and behavior is the most anti-European state in the world,” Zelenskyy said.
“We are now in a strong position to direct all possible powers of Europe to end the war and guarantee long-term peace,” he said. “For Ukraine, for Europe, for the world.”
The forum is the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron and is backed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. They say it should aim to boost security and prosperity across the continent.
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.
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.”
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 neighbors, “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 programs are on offer, and no formal declaration will be issued after the summit. The proof of its success is likely to be whether a second meeting ever actually takes place.
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.