Europe is falling short as a single strategic actor and French President Emmanuel Macron never misses the opportunity to remind us. Sometimes in a barely diplomatic way. His recent statements have provoked intense controversy and debate. It was not so much their content as the use of specific words such as “vassal” and “follower,” which he used to define what he did not want Europe to be.
Provocative wording aside, on substance the French president did not say anything that should be considered surprising. The quest for the famous “European sovereignty” remains unfulfilled. The war in Ukraine is having direct implications for Europe. And yet on all the critical questions of war and the day after, the weight of decision making lies in Washington, DC – not Brussels, Berlin or Paris. Understandably so, since the US is the largest provider of military aid to Ukraine. Macron is pushing the EU to take more responsibility for its defense. He also reminds that the EU’s foreign and defense policy must be shielded against a possible return of Trumpism in 2024. It is not easy to forget Trump’s four years of threats to Europe, calling it a “rival,” flirting with Putin and questioning whether it made sense for America to continue to fund NATO. During his erratic four years, Trump became a major driving force for the project of European strategic autonomy.
Macron has argued that the EU should not blindly align itself with the US when no one knows which political forces will be formulating US policy towards China. Looking at the budding situation in the Republican camp, does anyone really think that the EU should cede its decision making to whichever political majority emerges in Washington? Europe’s alliance with the US, in Europe or in the Taiwan Strait, is not in doubt. But the EU cannot abdicate its responsibility, as the US’s historic ally, to restrain the rhetoric of escalation with China whenever it threatens to get dangerously out of line. Echoing Macron’s reasoning, HR/VP Josep Borrell called on European countries to send ships to patrol the Taiwan Strait, protecting freedom of navigation. At the same time, we must be vigilant against provocations and overbidding, Borrell underlined.
Strengthening European autonomy is not zero-sum in relation to the US. A stronger and more “sovereign” EU would be less vulnerable to China’s influence and thus in the interest of the US. A United Europe would be a better and more predictable partner and ally for the US than a fragmented Europe.
Macron is France’s most Europeanist president in decades. But France is accused of seeing European strategic autonomy as merely a means to expand its own national agenda and hegemonic strategy. The fear of overassertive Atlanticists is that European strategic autonomy seeks to close the door on America’s defense engagement in the EU – and this terrifies European easterners and northerners who have an enduring sense of the Russian threat. The sense of threat is valid, but viewing Europe’s empowerment as a rival to the transatlantic alliance is probably the wrong way of seeing it.
Macron’s problem is that China is also a fan of European strategic autonomy. The (state-controlled) Chinese media duly celebrated the French president’s statements. This makes Macron’s agenda suspect in the eyes of die-hard Atlanticists. Macron’s intellectual influence is disproportionate to his actual political impact in Europe: His ideas have leadership, his passion for Europe is inspiring, but not many European countries are strategically aligned with him. (Greece is one of them, as an EU country both supportive of European strategic autonomy and at the same time an eager and dependable member of NATO.) In foreign policy, intellectual power alone is not sufficient, it is the resources you are willing to devote and share that matter the most.
In his Apology, Socrates had likened himself to the horsefly that stings complacent citizens, waking them from their slumber. In an unusually outspoken, perhaps even counterproductive way, Europe’s “think-tanker-in-chief” Emmanuel Macron often acts as the leading public intellectual for Europe. Like a horsefly, he seeks to break the timid or indolent silence.