Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has appealed to European leaders across the continent for security guarantees in support of his bid to join Nato, as he described Russia as “the most anti-European state in the world”.
Addressing leaders attending the first meeting of the European Political Community, a gathering that brought together almost every nation on the continent except Russia and Belarus, Zelenskiy urged them to support Ukraine in their own self-interest.
Most states would not be able to wage such an intense war, so the conflict must be won in Ukraine, he told the leaders via video link. “So that Russian tanks do not advance on Warsaw or again on Prague. So that Russian artillery does not fire at the Baltic states. So that Russian missiles do not hit the territory of Finland or any other country.”
A senior EU official said leaders listened with “a focused sense of gravity, as always when Zelenskiy speaks”.
Zelenskiy announced Ukraine was applying to join Nato last week, hours after Russia said it was annexing four Ukrainian provinces.
Leaders from 44 countries, from Iceland to Azerbaijan, were invited to attend the gathering in Prague castle, a sprawling site of palaces and churches that was once the seat of the kings of Bohemia. Only Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, who called snap elections on Tuesday, was absent, as she had to attend the opening session of the Danish parliament.
As countries face soaring energy prices and economic headwinds, leaders arriving on the red carpet under cloudy skies declared the meeting was a sign of unity in support of Ukraine against Russia.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who proposed the concept, said it was “an important moment for Europe” that sent a message of unity. He hoped it would bring “strategic familiarity” and allow leaders to develop “the same reading of the situation”.
Speaking after the meeting, he said: “We have shown the unity of 44 European countries, which have clearly said, all 44, that we condemn the Russian aggression and that we support Ukraine. That carries a lot of weight.”
Leaders have billed the forum as a chance to make progress on energy infrastructure projects and curbing the number of migrants seeking to reach Europe. But no precise outcomes were expected; nor was there a summit communique outlining agreed goals from the disparate group of countries, ranging from Scandinavian social democracies to the autocratic regime of Azerbaijan.
Opening the meeting in the glittering, chandelier-laden Spanish hall, the Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, evoked his country’s history as a former member of the Soviet bloc. “One of the lowest points in our history was August 1968 when Moscow sent tanks to my country to destroy our efforts for more freedom, known as the Prague spring. This sums up our experience with the policy of Moscow.”
He promised the fledgling EPC was not going to be “another European organisation”, nor replace “existing formats of cooperation – we have plenty of them already”.
That view chimes with the approach of the British prime minister, Liz Truss, whose decision to go to Prague boosted hopes of a rapprochement with the EU after years of bitter arguments about the Brexit divorce. Writing in the Times, Truss said she welcomed “the opportunity to work with leaders from across the continent in this new forum” but warned: “This must not cut across the G7 and Nato, and it must not be a talking shop.”
She later joined the group in a “family photo” under the gothic vaults of Vladislav Hall, where she was in the back row. Protocol dictates that presidents take the places at the front.
Speaking after the meeting, the Czech host, Fiala, confirmed that Moldova would host the next EPC summit, followed by Spain and the UK. Leaders intend to meet every six months, with the host city switching between EU and non-EU countries.
Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said: “The whole European continent is here, except two countries: Belarus and Russia. So it shows how isolated those two countries are.”
While the EPC was initially intended to unite Europe’s democracies, many would challenge that label when applied to attenders, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan, both rated as “not free” by the NGO Freedom House. EU member state Hungary was recently declared “a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” by the European parliament.
Latvia’s prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš, conceded that “the internal vivacity … of democracy varies across Europe”, adding he did not want to whitewash the issue. Speaking to the Guardian, he said all participating countries could be described as nation states, while Russia viewed itself as an empire.
“The conversation is made difficult by conflicts and very real conflict within other parts of Europe as well, but that does not mean all of us cannot actively condemn Russia’s aggression an outright war and what appears to be genocide.”
The EU has organised the first meeting, but officials have tried to take a step back to avoid the impression of creating an anteroom to EU membership.
One EU official suggested the participation of former Soviet countries Azerbaijan and Armenia – whose troops continue to fight over their frontier – showed the added value of the meeting, saying these countries were “sometimes considered as Moscow’s back yard” so their participation was “of geopolitical importance”.
In a significant first, Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, met Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, a breakthrough for two countries that do not have diplomatic relations. The two leaders had never met; Pashinyan was elected in 2018. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, was also present at what appeared to be an informal gathering of the three leaders, according to Associated Press.
The EU official also said there would be a request to non-EU partners to align on sanctions against Russia, although other sources downplayed the likelihood of pressure being exerted at the summit. Neither Turkey, which has sought to be a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war, nor Serbia, a candidate to join the EU with historical ties to Moscow, has signed up to EU sanctions.