November 23, 2020

Does France Seek Alone European “Strategic Autonomy”?

French President Emmanuel Macron.
French President Emmanuel Macron.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, recently gave an interview to Le Grand Continent, a journal published by the Groupe d’études géopolitiques. Macron discusses crises that plagued Europe and the world in 2020, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic and terrorism, as well as fundamental long-term transitional processes and challenges such as climate change, digital transformation and various intra- and inter-state inequalities.

The president claims that he and France have a comprehensive vision for the future. He is right that Europe and the world have to deal urgently with the pressing issues listed above (the list is, of course, not exhaustive), on the basis of a shared conceptual approach.

Macron argues that there is a need to “reinvent” international cooperation. He gives the example of the vaccines against the SARS-COV-2 virus that—once finally developed and mass-produced—must reach every country and cure/protect people worldwide; no country would be able otherwise to prevent the return of the pandemic. In this context, reinventing obviously means strengthening in good faith international cooperation and solidarity between nations for the benefit of all countries, as opposed to e.g. PR tricks and paid “aid” (as practised by Russia and China).

The French president further states that “we [Europeans] need two strong guiding principles: to get back on track with useful international cooperation that prevents war and addresses our current challenges; and to build a much stronger Europe, the voice, strength and principles of which can carry weight in this reformed framework.” To that end, Macron proposes “strengthening and structuring a political Europe”, to “balance poles” and promote a “new multilateralism” that produces “dialogue between the different powers to make decisions together”.

There is clearly nothing wrong with preventing war and strengthening Europe, but Macron seems to advocate/support Russia’s concept of a multipolar world and balance of power that Moscow sees not in the perspective of the 21st century, but rather the 19th. The UN Security Council “no longer produces useful decisions”, as Macron said, but his proposal implies, in fact, that the UNSC could have only four permanent members—the US, China, Russia and the European Union—who would solve the world’s difficult problems through dialogue. The reality is that fruitful dialogue between Europe and the US would be easy to restart after Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, but it is unfortunately highly unlikely in relations between the West and Russia as long as Vladimir Putin’s regime is in power, and probably after that too.

The EU is on a par with the US and China in economic terms, but the Union is now represented in the Security Council’s Big Five by France alone. The UK would certainly not wish to relinquish its permanent seat and right of veto. In addition, given the present build-up of and procedures in the Security Council, it would not be wise for the EU to give up the right of its member states to be elected as non-permanent members.

Emmanuel Macron sees the merit of a strong “political Europe” also in “prevent[ing] the Chinese-American duopoly” and the “return of hostile regional powers”. The “duopoly” is inevitable. In fact it already exists, because China seeks real economic, technological, political and military parity with America (not only in the number of nukes, which is how Russia considers parity due to its handicap in almost all other major respects) and the US feels constrained to struggle against Beijing’s ambitions. The EU is part of this new bipolarity because most of its member states, including the largest, are in a military and political alliance with the US. The regional power that Macron mentions (albeit in plural) is certainly Russia, but the Kremlin does not have to “return” to hostility against the West; it has been openly hostile since the late 2000s.

Macron complains that China and Russia are playing games with fundamental values, and that the basic and universal principle of humanity (“there is nothing more important than human life”) is brutally challenged. Indeed, China and Russia do not and will not adhere to Western liberal democracy, whereas fanatical Islamists would use the pretext of fighting cartoons in order to cut off innocent people’s heads.

The French president is right to point out that populist extremists disguised as neoconservatives are challenging the Western democratic order established since about 1968. A new generation that knows nothing about the struggle (and the continuous need to struggle) against totalitarianism is ripe for the picking. Religion is returning to the political scene. The virtual (cyber) space “over-determines our choices and disrupts democracies and our lives”, according to Macron.

The president finally reaches the point of trying to define European “sovereignty and strategic autonomy”. This is—in his view—Europe’s right and opportunity to have a say and “not become the vassal of this or that power”. He argues that, thanks to our membership of NATO, we had “forgotten to think”, but Europe needs to escape technological dependence on America and China. It needs to stand by its companies when the US threatens to impose sanctions on them because they do business with Iran.

Macron explains that America is our ally and we cherish the same democratic values, but the US does not share Europe’s “preference for equality”; it is not socially oriented, and its neighbourhood is different (i.e. not Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa).

The French president “profoundly disagree[s]” with the German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (aka AKK), who expressed her opinion in a keynote speech reported in Politico. Macron sees the change of American administration as an “opportunity to pursue … our independence for ourselves”. AKK agreed with Macron that Europe should do more, but reiterated the German position that the US is Europe’s most important ally in security and defence policy for the foreseeable future, and “illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end”. AKK stressed that Europe is dependent on America for its defence and “Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider”.

Estonia’s position is undoubtedly similar to Germany’s. Joe Biden’s election victory should reinvigorate the North Atlantic Alliance and cast away doubts about solidarity within and the viability of NATO. Biden’s accession to the US presidency should not provoke a sigh of relief and a return to less spending on defence in Europe. The strategic focus of the United States has turned towards China, but this does not mean that NATO’s days are numbered and that Europe must embark on preparing to become independent in terms of security and defence. NATO exists because of the interdependence of Europe and North America. Independence would mean separation.

Last but not least, Emmanuel Macron talks about the need to engage Eastern Europe more and to deal with security in Africa (“Europe will not succeed if Africa does not succeed”). He singles out Estonia, which is “afraid of Russia” (France is not?) and is France’s “best partner in Mali”. The French president is right that both Estonia and France are politically and militarily motivated to help each other to the east and to the south, and they offer a very good example to other EU/NATO member states.

In conclusion, building the European Union (and preserving in parallel the North Atlantic Alliance) is a difficult task. The French philosophy and spirit of emancipation and German pragmatism are seldom easily accommodated. Let us try to strengthen our defence and the transatlantic link, rather than Make Europe Great Again.