Macron's Post-Merkel European Goals Need a New Approach
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In true Jupiterian style, French President Emmanuel Macron said nothing publicly when the AUKUS debacle erupted, letting his ministers and European partners do the talking after Australia scrapped a $66 billion submarine deal with Paris in favor of an American-led alliance in the Indo-Pacific.
Yet now that there’s a power vacuum opening up in Europe, as Germany’s Angela Merkel bows out after 16 years in office, Macron has resurfaced to knock heads together in Brussels and set the tone for a new era — rather like a bad cop shorn of his good-cop restraint.
Recent French “wins” include a new defense deal with Greece, complete with the purchase of three warships, and a scaling-back of the EU’s trade agenda with the U.S. and Australia, the schemers-in-chief of AUKUS. The problem, as Bloomberg News reports, is they’ve also raised hackles among other EU officials and diplomats, who feel the bloc is being swept up in a Macron-led push that risks alienating the Biden administration.
With France about to helm the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, which will overlap with Macron’s own battle for re-election at home, it’s time for a different approach.
Ultimately, Macron’s message is the right one: Europe will drift into irrelevance if it remains nothing more than a soft power trading bloc caught in a Sino-American superpower rivalry. The 27-member bloc’s soft underbelly is hard to miss at the moment as gas supplies from Russia run low and migrants are left to die at the border with Belarus. France has been especially keen to show some teeth against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its new deal with Greece is a symbolic marker of what the spirit of European defense should be: Aiding fellow members.
But the tone and the credibility of the messenger is what’s ruffling feathers. Greece feels supported by France; the Baltic states near Russia do not. When Macron says Europe must “stop being naive,” it harks back to his view of NATO as “brain-dead” — despite his assurances to the contrary.
There’s also been a shifting of political power inside the EU after Brexit, with new blocs keener to curtail Paris and Berlin’s ambitions. Macron’s eurozone budget plans were watered down after resistance from a Dutch-led “Hanseatic” coalition of countries; the push for Covid-19 stimulus saw similar fights break out. Macron’s voice had more weight in 2017, with Trump in the White House and France reforming itself.
It’s time for Paris to look beyond Berlin. Even if Macron’s Mitterrandian ideals mean the Franco-German relationship will always be critical, his administration hasn’t invested enough energy in cultivating other partnerships. Merkel’s support was obviously crucial in getting the EU to cross the Rubicon of joint borrowing after Covid, but it’s doubtful her successor will be fully aligned with France on both economics and geopolitics.
Ad-hoc coalitions are going to be key to accomplishing progress in areas where unity across 27 countries looks too unwieldy to achieve. The Greek deal, which has been crafted before the EU’s own strategic road-map on defense is published, could be enlarged or replicated. Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says there are already examples to build on: Estonia, the Czech Republic and Sweden have contributed support to French-led anti-insurgent operations in the Sahel, while the French, Danish and Dutch navies have helped protect maritime security in the Straits of Hormuz.
Deeper ties might be forged in the Mediterranean, where Italy’s Mario Draghi is leading the charge for ambitious post-Covid spending plans and more defense co-operation, or with the Netherlands, the only EU country alongside France and Germany to have its own Indo-Pacific strategy.
And if France can show its message is heard in its neighborhood, it might also get a better reception across the Atlantic. It is in the U.S.’s interest to have a more self-sufficient EU, and for the U.K. too, given its extensive bilateral treaties with France on defense and security.
The West needs a prosperous and secure Europe, one that pays its way on matters like defense. It’s not there yet, and Macron’s EU vision will struggle to be heard at home, judging by an election campaign where quitting EU treaties and cozying up to Russia and China are being proposed. Macron has been dubbed “the last president of Europe” — the next six months could show whether that comes true.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.
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