Liz Truss has said her attendance at a European summit in Prague was “not about moving closer to Europe” and that Emmanuel Macron was a “friend”.
The prime minister visited the Czech capital for the first meeting of the European Political Community, a new group dedicated to advancing security and energy cooperation across the continent.
The organisation is the brainchild of the French president and will bring together leaders from nearly every European country except Russia and Belarus.
Asked by broadcasters if she wanted to move closer to Europe as a way to ease trade and boost growth, she said: “This is not about moving closer to Europe.”
She added: “What this is about is about working with all of our European partners to challenge [Vladimir] Putin’s appalling war in Ukraine, but also to work together on the issues that we all face – huge energy costs, rising inflation and also migration across our continent.”
Before meeting Macron in Prague, she said: “He is a friend.” Truss caused outrage during the Tory leadership race when she said the jury was out on whether Macron was a “friend or foe”.
In a joint statement following the meeting, Macron and Truss pledged to hold a UK-France summit in 2023 “to take forward a renewed bilateral agenda”. The decision marks a thaw in relations, after a Franco-British defence summit was scrapped last year amid the row over the UK’s submarine pact with the US and Australia.
Speaking after the meeting Macron said it was “very good news” that Truss had decided to come to Prague, when asked if her attendance could help the UK turn the page on Brexit. “Having the UK being engaged in a lot of common initiatives, I think does make sense both for the UK and for us also, because we do share the same continent … I do hope this is a new phase of our common relations and that this is the beginning of the day after,” he told reporters.
He also said it made sense for the UK to rejoin the North Seas Energy Co-operation group. The UK left the group, which promotes offshore wind energy, due to Brexit.
As leaders met over dinner, they agreed the UK would host a future gathering of the European Political Community, but after Moldova and Spain. The group intends to meet every six months, with the host city rotating between EU and non-EU countries.
In Prague, prime ministers or presidents from 44 countries were invited to participate, including all 27 EU leaders, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was to address Thursday’s meeting via video link. The Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, who called a snap election on Tuesday, was absent because of the annual opening of parliament.
As one of four non-EU leaders to address the opening plenary, Truss urged the gathering to stand firm against Russian aggression as “Europe faces its biggest crisis since the second world war”. She added: “We must continue to stand firm – to ensure that Ukraine wins this war, but also to deal with the strategic challenges that it has exposed.”
Also addressing the opening session were Zelenskiy, the prime ministers of Norway and Albania, Jonas Gahr Støre and Edi Rama, and the Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, who is hosting the meeting.
A senior EU diplomat said the gathering was “a relevant message … to Mr Putin. We’ve seen messages from the EU. We’ve seen messages from Nato. [Thursday] will also be a message by gathering in Prague from 44 European leaders, as we don’t have a functioning forum today for the European continent.”
Although Truss remains somewhat sceptical about the gathering, she decided to go to show the unity of the continent in support of Ukraine. For the UK it is also an important moment to discuss priorities, such as energy and migration, as the pressures of Brexit begin to recede.
Truss held bilateral meetings with Macron and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, to discuss how to stop criminal gangs that are helping people cross the Channel in small boats. The meetings also addressed developing new nuclear and offshore wind capacity, as part of her plan to make the UK a net energy exporter by 2040.
Arriving at Prague Castle, Rutte praised Truss and the British government’s stance on Ukraine, saying the UK “has provided so much leadership over the last nine months”.
Writing in the Times, Truss said the UK and its neighbours, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, should commit to keeping open energy connections this winter. The UK sends and receives gas and electricity through undersea cables and pipelines linked to the continent.
It emerged in the summer that National Grid had been considering cutting off gas pipelines to the Netherlands and Belgium under its emergency plans – a stance that shocked EU diplomats.
The meeting was not intended to unlock progress on the UK’s dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, but British and EU officials said they hoped it would help improve relations between the two sides. Separately, EU and British officials were expected on Thursday to restart talks on the protocol.
While the EU has organised the EPC meeting, British officials feel reassured that Brussels is not trying to dominate the fledgling pan-European organisation. But the EU’s most senior officials will also take part, including the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Council president, Charles Michel.
Earlier this week the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said the government was looking at the new group “with an open mind”. Speaking at the Conservative party conference he said: “We want to find ways of working well with our neighbours and partners and friends in Europe.”
In her Times article Truss said: “A post-Brexit Britain, as an independent country outside the EU, should be involved in discussions that affect the entire continent and all of us here at home.”
The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, said: “For too long the Conservatives have isolated Britain from its neighbours in Europe through petty insults and threats to break international law. It is in the national interest for Liz Truss to abandon this juvenile approach to relations with our European allies and partners.”
He said Labour would propose a new UK-EU security pact to complement Nato. Under Boris Johnson and Theresa May, the government disappointed European allies by ruling out a formal agreement on foreign policy with the EU.