In mid-July, Britain will host the fourth meeting of the European Political community. The next Prime Minister must not allow the issue of illegal migration to undermine the potential of this young institution.

In 2016, then Foreign Secretary and leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘we are leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe’. As Prime Minister, Johnson closely engaged with European powers, particularly on matters of security and defence. As best reflected in his staunch support for Ukraine, Johnson maintained a consistent commitment to multilateral cooperation to support the rules-based order. He showed that pursuing the cause of Brexit could co-exist with fidelity to the liberal international order. Whoever occupies Number 10 on 5 July will have to follow suit, addressing the scepticism of mass migration which drove Britain’s exit from the EU and maintain staunch commitments to European security. They must think carefully about how to do so before mid-July when the UK will host the fourth meeting of the European Political Community (EPC). 

The summit comes at a time of sclerosis in the West’s defence against Russia. The US has shown itself an increasingly unreliable partner due to internal political disagreement. Although Congress finally did pass a Ukraine aid package after months of delay, it is insufficient to level the playing field between Ukraine and Russia. The situation across the Atlantic is not much more promising. As veteran diplomat Peter Jones has written in RUSI, “the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is hamstrung; the nascent European Political Community (EPC) a blank canvas.” The failure of the Minsk I and II agreements, pursued through the OSCE, and NATO’s response to the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine – not to mention ongoing difficulties in meeting defence spending targets – show that the existing pillars of Europe’s security architecture have not served their purpose as envisioned decades ago.

A re-imagining of European security at large is in order and the ‘blank canvas’ of the EPC offers an important forum in which to do so. The brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, the EPC was established in recognition of the fact that the EU could not respond quickly enough to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that cooperation with non-member countries was also essential. This was shrewd thinking on Macron’s part: Paris and Berlin were unprepared and apparently surprised by the events of February 2022 and it was Britain, arm-in-arm with the US, which led in warning against a Russian invasion. For some time, the UK also led in the provision of aid to Ukraine. As host of the EPC, the next UK Prime Minister  has a chance to reaffirm the UK’s commitment to Ukraine’s defence and begin cultivating mechanisms for arming Europe outside of the EU.

However, questions may be asked about the UK’s perception of this new forum. Sunak’s actions to date suggest a confusion as to its purpose. An official press release quoted the Prime Minister calling the EPC “an important forum for cooperation across the whole of Europe on the issues that are affecting us all, threatening our security and prosperity.” He goes on:

‘From putting our full support behind Ukraine to stopping the scourge of people smuggling and illegal migration, under the UK’s leadership the meeting will bring together our European friends, partners, and neighbours to address our shared challenges.’

This statement expands the remit of the EPC from coordinating action to resist Russian aggression to a more holistic institution which also addresses an issue which was one of the drivers of Brexit: immigration. It conveys Sunak’s determination to demonstrate, as Johnson did in 2016, that whilst the Government has committed to taking firmer control of its border it is simultaneously maintaining its commitment to pan-European collaboration.

Tackling the issue of people smuggling is undoubtedly a pressing domestic priority and international cooperation will be central in doing so. However, the Community is not the suitable forum in which to pursue this goal.

Sunak’s past engagement with the EPC shows how attempts to address both illegal migration and traditional security at once may prove difficult. At the last summit at Granada in October 2023, he tried and failed to put illegal migration on the agenda at the last minute, and subsequently aligned with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to make a public statement on the issue. The acrimony generated by these efforts resulted in Sunak’s non-participation in the closing press conference, which Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez decided to cancel. Thus, an opportunity to project an image of a united Europe was lost in pursuit of smaller immigration deals arising from political pressure to address domestic issues.

Sunak’s approach to the conference also drew attention away from efforts which give the UK some claim to being a leading European defence power. London has played an outsized role in Steadfast Defender this year, NATO’s largest defence exercise, contributing 20,000 military personnel out of the total 90,000 coming from 32 countries. In October 2023, as tensions escalated between Serbia and Kosovo, the UK rapidly answered a NATO request for new troops to deter escalation by sending 200 further soldiers as the alliance at large increased its regional presence by 1000 men.

Europe’s security architecture badly needs reform, and the UK can reasonably aspire to take a leading role in this necessary process. But whoever is Prime Minister after the General Election will also be determined to show their commitment to stopping the boats. Doing so through the EPC risks undermining its original purpose as a key piece in this reform process. Whether or not the potential of this ‘blank canvas’ is seized will depend on the political skill of the newly elected premier in managing the thorny issue of illegal migration.

Niles Webb is an intern at Onward and has previously worked as a Parliamentary Researcher. He has degrees in history from Durham and Cambridge.