For Macron, Being Right on European Strategic Autonomy Isn’t Enough

Artículo
World Politics Review, 30.09.2020
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe

French President Macron speaks during a press conference on the situation in Lebanon. (AP/Lewis Joly).

It’s been a busy few months for Emmanuel Macron. The French president has taken the lead in seeking to resolve a range of crises and conflicts within Europe and on its borders and periphery. That has put Macron where he clearly likes to be: center stage and in the spotlight. But in so doing, he has once again created opposition and resentment within Europe, while underlining the limits to his ability to achieve his desired outcomes.

Macron’s diplomatic hot streak began at the European Union summit in late July, when he helped push through the EU’s groundbreaking collective debt mechanism to fund pandemic relief packages. Then, in early August, he flew to Lebanon to publicly pressure its leaders to implement long-needed reforms in the immediate aftermath of the Beirut port explosion. He subsequently engaged in a very public war of words with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Ankara’s brinksmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean. And this week, he visited Lithuania and Estonia, both EU and NATO members, as part of a trip meant to assuage their misgivings over his recent outreach to Russia.

The guiding logic of Macron’s diplomacy is consistent with the longstanding view among the French foreign policy establishment that Europe should become a more autonomous strategic actor in what is seen in Paris as an increasingly multipolar world. This explains Macron’s emphasis on strengthening the EU’s institutions, particularly when it comes to fiscal redistribution and security cooperation. The EU pandemic relief fund was the latest—and most significant—in a series of incremental advances he has achieved since taking office in 2017. This vision of what Macron calls European “strategic autonomy” also explains his insistence that the EU should vocally and forcefully stand alongside Greece and Cyprus in their territorial disputes with Turkey, even at the risk of military confrontation. The idea that the EU must become a strategic actor has made inroads in Brussels, to the point that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called hers a “geopolitical commission” when she took office in December.

But Macron’s method of diplomacy recalls that of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in which dynamic action at times seems to replace carefully thought-out planning, and realpolitik takes priority over the niceties of France’s calling as a champion of universal human rights. His two visits to Beirut since the port explosion, for instance, might have been well-intentioned and his reform agenda technocratically sound, but his public grandstanding seemed improvised and destined to fail in a country where everyone has deeply entrenched red lines and is willing to use force to defend them. And Macron was late among European leaders to condemn Russia for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in part to preserve the strategic dialogue with Moscow that he launched last year. Though he has for now suspended those talks, Macron made a point of reiterating his belief in the need to engage with Moscow in a press conference he gave upon his arrival in Vilnius.

Finally, beyond just Sarkozy, Macron’s approach is in line with that of many of his other predecessors in the Elysee Palace, who took it for granted that setting the EU’s strategic agenda and determining how to wield its influence on the world stage was part of the job description of any French president. Herein lies the rub.

From a French perspective, Macron’s agenda makes perfect sense. For a country that has historically projected its power and influence globally, but has more recently lacked the weight and leverage to effectively make a difference, the collectivized power of Europe represents a valuable and necessary force magnifier. And Macron has a very clear idea what to do with it: reach a modus operandi with Russia while using the Mediterranean to project influence into Africa and the Middle East, all in order to avoid becoming collateral damage in the gathering strategic confrontation between the U.S. and China. All of that requires a credible military component to deter and coerce adversaries because—as Hubert Vedrine, Macron’s foreign policy whisperer, put it in a 2010 interview with WPR, and as Macron himself is fond of echoing—tragedy has made a return to the historical stage, and Europe ignores that fact at its own peril.

Things look a lot different from other vantage points in Europe, though. For the Baltic states and Poland, for instance, Russia is not a potential partner, but the primary threat to European security, against which the greatest security guarantee is not a unified Europe but a robust NATO alliance backed up by an engaged America. For them, too, defending their own borders, and Europe’s, is a much higher priority than projecting power into the Mediterranean and Africa.

For reasons of its historical past, Germany’s preferred vision of Europe is as a geoeconomic, rather than a geopolitical actor. This was most recently on display in the standoff with Turkey, when Macron seemed to think that only the language of force would convince Erdogan to back down, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel pursued quieter diplomacy in an effort to advance dialogue. In practice, the two tracks probably worked in conjunction with each other. More generally, while Germany and the EU overall have bolstered their support for security operations in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, it is mainly with an eye to curbing migration, while seeking to avoid entanglement in France’s postcolonial commitments to those regions.

Even among the EU’s Mediterranean states, consensus has been difficult to achieve. Italy and Greece have long felt abandoned by their EU partners to face the brunt of the migration crisis alone. While Macron has more recently managed to assemble a coalition to defend the EU’s Mediterranean interests, there is still an internal scramble for advantage when it comes to defining those interests.

As for Macron’s ambitions for further EU integration, they too face opposition on several fronts. The so-called Frugal Four—the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden—almost torpedoed the collective debt mechanism at the center of the EU’s coronavirus rescue package due to concerns over moral hazard and fiscal responsibility. Hungary and Poland are both seeking to water down the rule of law conditions for releasing those funds, which are still being debated. Meanwhile, already downsized initiatives on defense and security cooperation were further trimmed as part of the EU budget negotiations that led to the breakthrough on pandemic relief.

One crucial mistake Macron made with regard to his outreach to Russia was his failure to consult with his EU partners beforehand, both to reassure them of his intentions and to listen to their concerns. His visit to the Baltic states is a belated attempt to make up for that initial error, but it is a symptom of a deeper problem. While Macron, like his predecessors, often speaks about the need for greater EU strategic coordination, he does not hesitate to act unilaterally when he considers it in France’s interests to do so, as in Lebanon. As a result, his appeals to European solidarity are seen as yet another example of France’s historical tendency to make its interests Europe’s too, leading to suspicion and resentment across the continent, rather than solidarity and trust.

Macron’s agenda is, objectively speaking, strategically sound, and there’s an argument to be made that it’s even the best one to ensure that Europe holds its own in the global competition unfolding today. But unless he manages to convince his European partners that is the case, it’s just another example of how, in world politics as in marital disputes, being right is often overrated.

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