BRUSSELS (AP) - Leaders from more than 40 countries meeting in the Czech capital Thursday are set to launch a "European Political Community" aimed at boosting security and prosperity across the continent. But critics claim the new forum is an attempt to put the brakes on European Union enlargement.
The Prague meeting is the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron and is backed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It's taking place with Russia's war on Ukraine in its eighth month and as pressure builds to allow Ukraine to join the 27-nation EU.
"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," Macron said in May in a speech outlining his idea.
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."
His plan - which would involve 44 countries, including existing EU members, aspiring partners in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as Britain and Turkey - mirrors a proposal by former president Francois Mitterrand to unite Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The inaugural European Political Community summit at Prague Castle will 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 meeting.
The aim, should this summit go well, would be for leaders to gather once or twice a year. 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."
However, Macron's speech, and remarks by Scholz in August, have raised concerns that the European Political Community might become a "second-class ticket" to joining the EU, given the almost glacial pace of membership talks in recent years.
Several Balkan countries have been waiting around two decades to join - Turkey even longer - and progress has been held up by objections from single EU member countries, most recently Greece and then Bulgaria in the cases of hopefuls Albania and North Macedonia.
"Macron's specification that 'we may not all live in the same house, but we share the same street' feeds skepticism that these structures could relegate the Balkans and other EU hopefuls to the waiting room indefinitely," said Marta Mucznik, from the European Policy Centre think tank.
"If member states stopped hijacking enlargement for reasons that have more to do with their domestic politics than the process as such, then the EU would be one step closer to finding the remedy to the current deadlock," she wrote in an analysis of the plan.
But in a speech in Prague in August, Scholz insisted that the new grouping "is not an alternative to the upcoming process of EU enlargement. After all, we have given our accession candidates our word … and these words must be followed by deeds at long last."
That said, he suggested that a bloc with 30 members or more could become unwieldy and he underlined that "we must also make the EU itself fit for this major enlargement," which would involve six Balkan countries, and possibly Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the future. Turkey's hopes are on hold.
Indeed, the exercise of once-relatively-rare national vetoes has become a common occurrence, notably in the case of Hungary. Each country has also insisted on having its own policy commissioner in the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, which proposes laws and ensures they're respected.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament - the bloc's only democratically elected institution - has also swollen to more than 750 members.
"Just letting EU enlargement proceed slowly through the existing uncertain process will turn the politically significant commitment to Ukraine, Moldova and other candidates into a discouraging obstacle course," the Bruegel think-tank said in its analysis.
The new forum, it said, ought not to be "regarded as a substitute for EU accession, but should be designed to work as an accelerator. For countries not seeking to join the EU, it would provide an ongoing framework that sustains structured cooperation with the EU."
Whether that message is heard and believed by the many countries hoping to join the world's biggest trading bloc should be known by the time the summit ends on Thursday evening. The proof of its worth will probably only come once a second summit is held.