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European diplomats believe the UK government’s refusal to rule out a snap general election this spring lies behind “delays” to an upcoming meeting of the European Political Community in Britain.
Several EU ambassadors have grumbled privately that officials in London have been dragging their feet over agreeing a date for the summit, which insiders said was initially expected to take place in March or April.
While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has indicated that a general election is most likely to take place in the second half of the year, European diplomats suspect the fact he has not completely excluded the possibility of a May poll explains the absence of a date for the summit.
The European Political Community is a grouping of more than 40 European states formed in 2022 partly as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It meets biannually, with the presidency alternating between EU and non-EU members.
The UK is the next host and should arrange a summit before the middle of this year to stick to the schedule.
Five senior diplomatic officials said they were pressing the British government to set a date. One said the hold-up was “frustrating” and accused Downing Street of “stalling”, while another said “logistically it would be easier if we could agree the date and get on with the planning”.
Another senior EU official said the delay had added to speculation about the UK election date. “We keep asking for a date and they [the UK] say they can’t give us one ‘for obvious reasons’, which we take to mean they have not fully decided about the election.”
But another Brussels-based senior diplomat said that other delegations understood the UK’s complex political situation in 2024, and that there was still time to arrange the summit before the end of June.
Professor Anand Menon, director of think-tank UK in a Changing Europe, said: “There are 47 heads of state with diaries and we’re almost in February. The odds of them being able to do it now in March or April are very, very long. It’s hard to do it at short notice.”
A UK government official dismissed the suggestion of any link between the timing of the election and the absence of a date for the meeting, adding: “We’re going to host an EPC and want it to be a great, useful event — sometimes these things take time to organise.”
“The PM signalled at the last one that we would like to focus it on tackling illegal migration,” an insider said.
Citing the talks on the sidelines of the last meeting in Granada as “one of the main outputs” of that gathering, they added that it showed there was a “really strong appetite for European countries to work together on issues that matter to their people”.
Alicia Kearns, Tory chair of the foreign affairs committee, has raised concerns about the delays. The UK’s membership of the EPC and role as host of the next meeting was “a fundamental part of us rebuilding our relationship with Europe”, she said. “We face shared threats and we do need to pull together.”
Pointing out that the clock was ticking towards spring, she added: “The UK needs to be demonstrating that we’re serious about continuing on a better path with our European allies, and messing them around on something like this is deeply unhelpful.”
Another Whitehall insider warned that further delays could damage the future of the grouping, which is only one year old, by depressing the number of leaders able to attend.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “We value the European Political Community as an important platform for co-ordination and discussion on pan-European issues.
“We are continuing to consult partners about the UK EPC Summit and will make an announcement in due course.”
A spokesperson for EU Council president Charles Michel said: “There is an ongoing consultation with our partners in the UK on the organisation and preparations for the next EPC, ensuring that the meeting is another success. The date, which is primarily up to the host country to fix, will be announced in due course.”