Macron Is Annoying U.S. and Key EU Allies With His ‘Europe First’ Strategy
(Bloomberg) -- Officials and diplomats across the European Union are getting really frustrated with the French.
The scope of what some are calling President Emmanuel Macron’s “Europe First” strategy — which aims to make the EU more independent from Washington for defense and sensitive technologies — is causing concern in many EU member states and hampering western efforts to forge a united response to the rise of China.
Macron’s stance has become more visible since the humiliating loss of a giant Australian submarine contract this month and has held up preparations for a crucial meeting with U.S. trade officials. The French have also blocked efforts to modernize NATO’s capabilities and fueled divisions at the top of the European Commission, according to diplomats with knowledge of those discussions.
Opposition to Macron’s approach is most acute in eastern Europe, where many countries see the U.S. as a shield against potential Russian aggression and have little faith in the French — France just acts in its own interests, one eastern diplomat said.
But countries in western Europe are also concerned that Macron may be going too far in his attempts to cut the U.S. out, according to diplomats with knowledge of their discussions.
“The Europeans must stop being naive,” Macron said Tuesday, as he unveiled a new security accord with Greece. “We need to react and show that we have the power and capacity to defend ourselves.” An Elysee official added that the president has no desire to antagonize the U.S. and France has seen public support for its EU sovereignty push.
The fight is playing out in the run-up to Wednesday’s Trade and Technology Council meeting in Pittsburgh with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
France persuaded the EU to scale down the joint statement, cutting back references to cooperation on semiconductor supplies beyond the short term, and pushed for references to “mutual dependencies” to be dropped, according to drafts seen by Bloomberg. French officials also complained that the document used American rather than European idioms and plans for a joint press conference were scrapped, two officials said.
But more substantive splits have been growing for some time. They come down to how far the EU should allow its supply chains and defense provisions to be integrated with the U.S. and how far it should go to develop its own capabilities.
In private discussions of the commissioners, the EU’s internal markets chief, Thierry Breton has pushed to exclude or restrict non-EU companies from industrial alliances on semiconductors, cloud computing and European defense funding, according to two people familiar with those conversations. Breton — who was appointed by the French government — has made similar arguments about housing sensitive data in the EU, one of the people said. Commission spokespeople didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For France and Breton, Europe needs to do more to champion its own industries and set the terms and conditions for competition. When it comes to issues such as the security of supply chains, Breton sees little difference between the U.S. and China, said one of the officials. That argument was given weight when the U.S. blocked crucial exports during the scramble to source vaccine supplies earlier this year.
In Pittsburgh, however, the EU will be represented by trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis, a Latvian who is a champion of open markets, and fellow Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager. Both support transatlantic cooperation to shape global standards, rather than fencing off the EU single market. That’s why the French are so determined to impose limits on their remit, several officials said.
“Together, we could create a regulatory blueprint for the digital economy that is valid worldwide,” Dombrovskis said in a speech at Johns Hopkins University in Washington on Monday.
The personal rivalries and competing ambitions of senior officials in Brussels are also hampering efforts to establish common ground.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen irritated at least one senior colleague with a television interview in which she demanded explanations from the U.S. over France’s treatment over the Australian submarine contract, according to a person familiar with the issue. She irked others when she unveiled an EU defense summit for March — that’s supposed to be the remit of the president of the European Council, Charles Michel. Member states had no idea the announcement was coming, diplomats said. Von der Leyen’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
These things matter, because good will is a precious commodity in the delicate dance of EU negotiations.
The 27 leaders are going to be asked to reach an agreement on their security strategy just a month before the French presidential election, and any mishaps could damage Macron’s attempts to fend off the challenge of the nationalist Marine Le Pen.
France’s maneuvering is also playing out at NATO, where British diplomats are worried that the fallout from the submarine spat could prompt Paris to act on its longstanding concerns about the structure of the alliance. France only rejoined Nato’s command structures in 2009, 43 years after President Charles de Gaulle pulled the plug.
French diplomats have been raising questions about the purpose of the organization that Macron once derided as brain dead.
One person familiar with discussions said France was frustrating NATO efforts to renew and modernize the military alliance so that it can be better tooled and mandated to face emerging and future threats, including counterterrorism efforts.
Another diplomat, from a non-EU country, said that the French argument was essentially that areas such as artificial intelligence, data and mitigating disinformation on big tech platforms should be seen first as a core EU area of focus.
Tuesday’s alliance with Greece includes a mutual defense commitment in parallel to the NATO framework and was vaunted by Macron as an example of European assertiveness. But he also talked about strengthening Europe’s role within NATO, and that is the kind of language he will need to get the rest of the bloc on board.
“This isn’t an alternative to the United States alliance,” he said. “It’s not a substitution, but to take responsibility for the European pillar within NATO and draw the conclusions that we are asked to take care of our own protection.”
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