LAST week, 44 world leaders landed in Prague for the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community (EPC), a new strategic platform launched by French president Emmanuel Macron.

Despite its name, the EPC isn’t European but European adjacent – attendees included Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared via ­video link, and Liz Truss, chastened by her recent brush with the financial ­markets, arrived bearing an olive branch.

Macron, she told the continental press pack, was a “friend” of the United ­Kingdom’s – the real foe was Vladimir Putin.

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Precisely what Macron hopes to achieve with this freshly minted ­diplomatic ­initiative ­remains unclear.

The 27-member states of the European Union can thrash out their ­disagreements in Strasbourg and Brussels. Western ­security arrangements are governed from Washington by Nato. Global economic headwinds are – in theory, at least – ­navigated by the G7, the International Monetary Fund, and the OECD.

Moreover, in addition to the EU, ­Europe already boasts an array of subordinate bodies related to its judicial structures (the European Court of Justice), civil ­society (the Council of Europe), and ­regional trade relationships (the ­European Free Trade Association).

Still, speaking on Thursday, ­Macron hailed the Prague gathering as an ­“important moment” for Europe – an ­opportunity to forge a common path among disparate international partners as the world drifts deeper into political instability and climate-related chaos.

Until now, such a forum “did not really exist”, Macron claimed. And, where it did, it usually “lead to division”.

Traditionally, of course, division has been the norm in European life rather than the exception. I was reminded of that this summer when I read Postwar by the late Anglo-American academic Tony Judt and The Dream of Europe by the Dutch journalist Geert Mak.

Judt’s book, published in 2005, charts the development of European history from the end of the Second World War to the opening stages of the 21st century.

Mak’s, published in 2019, surveys the past two decades of European turbulence.

Both texts are bulky and panoramic – Postwar comes in at 815 pages, The Dream of Europe at 530. Both left me ­feeling unnerved.

Neither Judt nor Mak offers an ­optimistic assessment of Europe’s future.

For Judt, the creation of the EU 50 years after the fall of the Third Reich was a “remarkable accomplishment”.

He nonetheless views Europe as a ­precarious association of rival states ­jostling awkwardly for influence and ­control. The legacies of fascism have yet to be fully confronted in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, he says.

Meanwhile, the implosion of Soviet communism left a culture of “aggrieved memory” in Russia and the former ­Eastern bloc.

Mak’s account is just as bleak.

From Brexit to the ongoing rise of the far-right, he sees a continent scarred by populism and struggling to establish a role for itself on the global stage.

Europe, he argues, is ­dysfunctional – a defensive coalition perennially ­unprepared for external disruptions.

Judt and Mak write from similar, if not quite sister, perspectives.

Judt was an ex-Marxist turned radical social democrat; Mak is a commentator in the mainstream of European liberalism.

Both writers were also born just after the war – Judt in 1948 and Mak two years ­earlier, in 1946.

Of the two, Judt – who died in 2010 – is the better and more incisive analyst.

Neal Ascherson called Postwar ­“frighteningly good” when it came out; JG Ballard described it as “masterly”.

But where Judt frames Europe as a ­tragedy haunted by the genocidal ­destruction of the 1930s and ’40s, from Mak, you get a much sharper sense of modern European politics as a kind of betrayal.

Mak embeds himself in Europe’s ­peripheral communities – asylum seekers in the Netherlands, political dissidents in Hungary, and bankrupt small business ­owners in Athens.

He has no time for the middle-class Catalans straining to break away from the “impoverished” Castilian Spain, nor the demented Brexiteers drunk on the idea of Britain’s vanished imperial past.

But neither does he think European leaders have the ingenuity or intelligence needed to stave off Europe’s looming ­political decline.

The Greek debt crisis was a case in point.

On Greece, European policy-makers imposed one unnecessarily devastating round of austerity cuts after another, he writes.

The result was the near-total and only narrowly averted collapse of the ­Eurozone – the flagship innovation of contemporary European elites.

I don’t have special access to the French president’s reading habits but the EPC certainly looks like an attempt to ­counter the increasingly prevalent brand of ­Euro-pessimism so powerfully ­articulated by the likes of Judt and Mak.

Russia’s assault on Ukraine has brought that pessimism into sharp focus in recent months.

In the run-up to the invasion in ­February, Macron – keen to position ­himself at the heart of European politics in the wake of Angela Merkel’s ­retirement last year – took a high-profile trip to ­Moscow as part of a wider push to ease Russian “tensions” with its western neighbour.

When he arrived at the Kremlin, he was brutally upbraided by Putin.

“After more than five hours of talks, Macron got mauled,” Politico reported at the time. “The French president believed he was uniquely positioned to convince Putin to follow a path of de-escalation.

“Instead, Putin chose the path of ­defiance, declaring that ‘Crimea is Russia’ and that if Ukraine joined Nato, ­European countries would ‘automatically’ be at war with Moscow.”

“Russia is a nuclear superpower,” Putin reportedly intoned.

If the West tries to upset its plan, “there will be no winners, and you will be drawn into this conflict against your will”.

Yet Europe didn’t crumble in the face of Putin’s belligerence.

Indeed, one of the most startling ­consequences of the war thus far has been the rapid emergence of Europe as a major military actor.

“Putin wanted the Finlandisation of Nato,” Joe Biden remarked during a ­summit in Spain in June. “What he got was the Nato-isation of Finland.”

Germany, which is currently weaning itself off a long-standing dependency on cut-price Russian gas, plans to raise its ­defence spending by more than 50% this year alone. Meanwhile, historically ­neutral Nordic states like Finland and Sweden are rushing to join the North ­Atlantic Alliance.

So is a Nato-aligned EPC the answer to Mak’s critique of European dysfunction?

ACCORDING to the academics Jean Pisani-Ferry and Daniela Schwarzer, Macron’s project could bypass the pitfalls of the EU by serving as a framework for a looser process of continental integration.

“By granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June, EU ­leaders demonstrated the sort of determined ­action that the new geopolitical ­landscape requires,” they wrote in a piece for ­Project Syndicate recently.

“But the decision also resulted in a ­conundrum: the EU can either ­accelerate its enlargement process or keep the ­current criteria and timetable, which would require applicants to wait for a decade.

“Neither of these options is ideal: an unreformed EU with 36 member states would be hobbled by veto rights, a ­bloated European Parliament, and a hopelessly fragmented executive branch.”

By setting out accession criteria based on a generic commitment to fundamental values, “including democratic governance and the rule of law”, the EPC can help overcome this problem, they concluded.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by the German chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The UN is paralysed by the Security Council’s veto system. The EU often struggles to act under the weight of its own sprawling internal bureaucracy.

The EPC won’t face those constraints.

The Political Community is a “great innovation”, Scholz said on ­Thursday, because it has no “daily agenda”, and ­participating nations are under no ­obligation to “reach agreements”.

From a Franco-German perspective, the absence of tight diplomatic ­deadlines will open up space for new ­geopolitical ­relationships and facilitate a frank ­exchange of views among cooperating states.

Advocates of European integration may find there are other outlying benefits to the EPC.

Post-Brexit, Macron wants to draw Britain – alongside France, the only other European country armed with nuclear weapons – back into the European fold.

And British leaders could find the ­emergence of an outer tier of ­European power, one or two steps removed from the EU’s legislative and regulatory ­responsibilities, appealing.

A rapprochement of sorts is already beginning to take shape over the ­contentious issue of the Northern Ireland protocol.

“Political leadership is about making things happen and sometimes ­surprising people, and I think that’s what we need to do over the next few weeks,” the Irish minister for foreign affairs Simon ­Coveney told RTE on Friday.

“I think the conversations we’re ­having now with the British Government ­certainly suggest to me that we are in a different space now, one we haven’t been in for quite some time, where there is a genuine effort ... on actually how we can solve these problems together.”

In keeping with Coveney’s rhetoric, Truss desperately wants to resolve the protocol deadlock before Joe Biden visits Ireland next year.

Assuming a resolution for Ulster can be found, an important post-Brexit ­principle will have been established – Britain doesn’t need to be inside the EU in order to work alongside its European allies, and Europe doesn’t need Britain inside the EU in order to serve the material interests of its member states.

MACRON has been open about his desire to move beyond the acrimony of the Brexit years and “reset” France’s relationship with the UK.

“We have values and history, so I’m ­happy that we meet again,” he said after talks with Truss in Prague.

“[Britain] is an island, but this ­island didn’t move from the rest of the ­continent, so we do have so many things in ­common.”

And yet, for all the warm words on ­display in Europe this week, I keep ­coming back to the warnings laid down by Judt and Mak – two writers who, even in their most pessimistic moments, never imagined that a full-blown territorial ­conflict would once again erupt at the heart of Europe, let alone one shadowed by the prospect of nuclear exchange.

Judt shared Mak’s ­metropolitan ­contempt for “sub-national ­particularism”, but he was less romantic about what ­Europe was or could be.

In Postwar, he states that the EU’s ­tendency towards centralisation and technocracy would eventually turn ­indifference “into hostility, into a sense that decisions [are] being taken ‘there’ with unfavourable consequences for us ‘here’”.

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According to Spanish writer ­Francisco de Borja Lasheras, even as far back as the mid-1990s, Judt was arguing prophetically that “the myth of Europe was built on a fortuitous alignment of interests and national political cultures” and that, without such an alignment, the European idea itself could start to ­crumble.

Whichever way you cut it, Russia’s ­chaotic war of aggression against Ukraine has fundamentally changed the ­predicates of European culture.

For now, Europe looks united in the face of that aggression, just as – on a far less existential level – it survived the ­upheavals caused by Brexit.

But yet another set of European ­institutions, however broadly ­welcoming or vaguely defined, can’t hide the ­underlying ruptures.

Macron will need more than a new ­acronym to overcome continental inertia.