Europe holds 44-leader summit in Prague without Russia

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,” Iceland’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, told reporters at Prague Castle in the Czech Republic, where the gathering is taking place.

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.”

The summit is the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron and is backed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. They say it’s aimed at boosting security and economic prosperity across the continent, but the summit is overshadowed by war and takes place as pressure builds to allow Ukraine to join the EU.

“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,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters. “Unhappily you cannot build a security order with Russia.”

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.

In a speech unveiling his idea in May, Macron may have fueled the enlargement concerns.

“The war in Ukraine and the legitimate aspiration of its people, just like that of Moldova and Georgia, to join the European Union, encourages us to rethink our geography and the organization of our continent,” he said.

But even with the outpouring of support for Ukraine — in the form of weapons so it can fight back or shelter for people fleeing — Macron said, “we all know perfectly well that the process which would allow them to join, would in reality take several years, and most likely several decades.”

What is needed, Macron said, is “a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons and in particular of our youth.”

Thursday’s summit was to kick off with an opening ceremony, followed by a series of meetings where leaders will 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 forum, an EU official involved in preparations said, “does not replace existing organizations, structures or processes and does not aim to create new ones at this stage.” The proof of its worth will probably only be known once a second summit is held.

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Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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