PRAGUE (AP) -- Leaders from around 44 countries are gathering Thursday to launch a "European Political Community" aimed at boosting security and economic prosperity across the continent, with Russia the one major European power not invited.
The meeting in the Czech capital Prague is the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron and is backed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It's taking place amid the backdrop of Russia's war on Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, and as pressure builds to allow Ukraine to join the European Union.
The summit will involve the 27 EU member countries, aspiring partners in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as neighbors like Britain -- the only country to have left the EU -- and Turkey.
"This meeting is a way of looking for a new order without Russia. It doesn't mean that we want to exclude Russia forever, but this Russia -- Putin's Russia -- has not a seat," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters.
"Unhappily you cannot build a security order with Russia. Russia is isolated," Borrell said.
Critics claim the new forum is an attempt to put the brakes on EU enlargement. Others fear it may become a talking shop, perhaps meeting once or twice a year but devoid of any real clout or content.
In a speech unveiling his idea in May, Macron may have fueled the enlargement concerns.
"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," he said.
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."
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 summit.
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."
The proof of its worth will probably only be known once a second summit is held.