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‘Keir Starmer Should Signal a Decisive UK Shift Towards Europe When he Hosts European Political Community at Blenheim’

Starmer could relaunch the European Political Community with a defence group of France, Germany, Poland and the UK, to strengthen the European pillar of NATO, and pitch the UK as a strategic partner to the EU

Britain's Prime Minister Keir Starmer talks to journalists as he travels onboard a plane to Washington DC to attend a Nato summit on July 9. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
Britain’s Prime Minister Keir Starmer talks to journalists as he travels onboard a plane to Washington DC to attend a Nato summit on July 9. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

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On 18 July, not quite two weeks after becoming Prime Minister, Keir Starmer will host  nearly 50 national leaders at the European Political Community (EPC) summit at Blenheim. 

The EPC agenda was worked out before Labour’s landslide victory, and Starmer has agreed to accept and work with it. But, that does not preclude changes that demonstrate the government’s determination to reset its relationship with the EU and its member states, particularly in defence and foreign policy.

One decisive change would be the launch of an EPC defence group comprising France, Germany, Poland and the UK. Leaders of the four countries could hold a meeting in the margins at Blenheim and form a group to strengthen Europe’s contribution to NATO, support Ukraine, and consult together, and with others, on threats to international peace and security in the EPC area. 

Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz, Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, President of France Emmanuel Macron and Polish Prime minister Donald Tusk pictured during the European council summit, in March 2024 in Brussels. Photo: Belga News Agency / Alamy

If the EPC is like Europe’s “United Nations”, as the President of Lithuania suggested at the EPC’s first summit in Prague, then France, Germany, Poland and the UK could be a European  “security council” in the making.

The EPC was an initiative of France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, designed to bring together leaders of EU countries and other European democracies. One of Macron’s aims for the EPC was to create a partnership between the EU and the UK. 

The EPC has held three summits so far, with the last being in Granada in October 2023. It wasn’t a success, with rows over the agenda between then UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Spanish Prime Minister, and host, Pedro Sanchez. That summit prompted some to question whether the EPC had any real purpose, with one commentary describing the way ahead for the EPC as being “ambition or oblivion”.

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Starmer should choose the path of ambition for the EPC. The Blenheim summit provides a chance for reforms to be introduced to make it a more effective body, and to strengthen the defences of free Europe.

The catalyst for Macron’s launch of the EPC was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is on the agenda at Blenheim. The UK’s new Defence Secretary John Healey pledged to increase support for Ukraine on a visit to Odesa, less than 48 hours after his appointment.

Ukraine provides the backdrop to any initiative at the EPC summit by the UK government. As does the prospect of US disengagement from Europe and the threat to NATO posed by the return of Donald Trump to the White House. 

The reaction to these contingencies of three European leaders could determine the future of Ukraine and Europe’s ability to defend itself. Those leaders are Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, and Poland’s Donald Tusk – a.k.a. the “Weimar Triangle” which increasingly sees itself as a regional hub for European defence. 

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Macron backs Ukraine against Russia, and is an advocate of “strategic autonomy” for Europe, which in military terms means Europe standing on its own two feet. But Macron’s political position is weaker now, with a hung Parliament whose support he cannot count on.

Scholz is wary of provoking Vladimir Putin into escalation, and wants to believe the US will stay committed to Europe. He has also  delivered more military aid to Ukraine by value than any other country except the US, with the UK next on the list. 

Then there’s Tusk – “Brexit-hating” Donald Tusk, as Eurosceptic elements of the UK press brand him. Like other regimes near or bordering Russia, Polish governments worry about the prospect of the US disengaging from European defence.

To date the EPC has functioned as a series of one-off gatherings. One commentator has described its value as being in high-level networking.  I argued recently for something better than that – an EPC with more structure, to give it continuity and existence between summits, and enable a group of members to take forward projects within the framework of the EPC.

The defence group I propose of France, Germany, Poland and the UK would be precisely that. It would be a group comprising Europe’s military heavyweights designed to bolster its contribution to NATO and monitor peace and security in the EPC area.

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In his speech in April at the Sorbonne Macron proposed a “new security paradigm” for European defence, and identified the EPC as the “best place to build” that new framework. 

No such paradigm will be built at the Blenheim summit, but there could be room for defence-related measures within the EPC framework, which brings together European NATO allies from within and outside the EU.

Such a grouping could suit Germany. Scholz said recently that NATO’s European pillar should be strengthened, and that he was working on this issue with Macron. It seems that a new UK-Germany security agreement can be expected within weeks of Starmer taking office.

The UK’s new Foreign Secretary David Lammy has already visited Germany for discussions with his counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, who referred to the UK as “an indispensable part of Europe”. 

A new defence group could suit Macron because it followed his blueprint for a new defence framework based on the EPC. 

Including Poland in the group would suit all concerned. Tusk is a self-confessed Anglophile. Poland is the strongest military power on NATO’s eastern flank and has already taken long steps to becoming one of the most powerful military players in Europe. With military spending at around 4% of GDP, it tops the NATO table.

Immediately after visiting Berlin, Lammy visited Warsaw for talks with his Polish counterpart. Like his talks in Berlin, the focus was on support for Ukraine and the UK’s desire for a reset of its links with the EU.

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For the time being, the reset of UK links with the EU – which will be appreciated most on the EU side – will be links in defence and foreign policy. 

From that point of view a French/German/Polish/UK defence group based in the EPC ticks the right boxes. If France were forced into the role of half-hearted partner by its internal politics, Germany, the UK and Poland could still work effectively to strengthen NATO’s European pillar, while doing their best diplomatically to keep France on board.  

The Government hopes in due course for  a UK-EU joint declaration covering security and defence and other matters such as energy and the climate-crisis. This could be heralded at Blenheim following a meeting between Starmer and the EU Presidents. They could recall the importance of the NATO-EU strategic partnership and pledge the UK and the EU to even more ambitious security and defence links in coming months.

Blenheim could truly mark a turning point in UK-EU relations.


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