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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Macron's Vision for the EU

Article by: Martin Quencez with edits by Release Peace

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron; image credit: Remi Jouan

This article is an adaptation of an article by Martin Quencez as part of a publication collaboration with the Foreign & Security Policy section of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. Martin Quencez is deputy director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

A Europe at a Crossroads

France has historically taken the lead in promoting a sovereign and strategically autonomous Europe. Rooted in the French strategic culture, this ambition has been reaffirmed over the past four years in light of the deterioration of the European security environment and the political evolutions in the United States and China. During his 2017 presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron argued that Europe was “at the crossroads between strategic irrelevance and a reaffirmation of its power on the international stage”. This sense of urgency has guided the action of the French president ever since.

A Continuum 

Macron has been particularly outspoken about his vision of Europe, giving regular speeches and interviews on the subject and putting the European project at the centre of his foreign policy discourse. His approach, however, is largely in line with the one of his predecessors. It stems from the idea that France, like all other European states, has an increasingly limited leverage in a world of great power competition, and that its national interests are best defended and promoted at the European level. In that context, European strategic autonomy – understood as having the ability to act by yourself when necessary, upon decisions you have made based on your own rules – becomes a necessity rather than a choice.

Warmly Welcomed?

Whether deemed too vague or in direct contradiction with French foreign policy choices, the idea of “Europe as a power” has triggered heated debate in Europe and even clear opposition from key partners. To convince sceptics, France will have to better articulate its vision of Europe with a strong transatlantic cooperation, clarify its institutional approach, and translate it into a clear policy timeline. In theory, all European leaders heartedly agree that Europe should be ready to do more for its own security and to defend its strategic and economic interests. For the French president it is the lack of a clear political vision that has become an existential threat for the European project. Convinced that the populations’ support is vanishing, Emmanuel Macron argues that Europe needs to reinvent itself and that building an inspiring narrative is a priority. French minister of economy Bruno Le Maire argued that if the purpose of Europe was “only to be a trading port and a single market, I am not interested”. From the French point of view, such comments should be heard as a call for other European leaders to present their own perspective on the role of Europe in the 21st century. French officials often regret the absence of clearly defined alternatives, as no other country seems to share the same eagerness in redesigning a political raison-d’être for Europe.

A Battle of Realism

For France, great power competition is the name of the game, and Europeans have no choice but to play it. Europe simply cannot afford to be a mere observer – or worse, an object – of the U.S.-China global competition, nor can it remain strategically impotent when faced with hostile actions, such as Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. As the European project was in part designed to overcome power politics, this will require a difficult yet necessary cultural shift. Being realistic, in that sense, is to accept that Europe is “forced to be a power”.

The same realism dictates to acknowledge the evolution of U.S. domestic and foreign policy and its implications for Europe. European partners have not shared the same experience of the transatlantic relationship over the past two decades, which has led to many disagreements. For France, the U.S. has become a more unpredictable ally due to the extreme polarisation of its politics. From a French perspective, one cannot overstate the historical importance of Barack Obama’s decision not to strike the Syrian regime in 2013. The “red line” episode embodied the fact that the Syrian conflict, and its strategic implications, were not assessed as vital for U.S. interests. In many ways, the so-called French vision has been embraced by EU institutions for several years. Under former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the strategic ambitions of the EU in the world greatly increased. The current Von der Leyen commission was presented as “geopolitical”, while the EU High Representative Josep Borrell repeatedly urged Europeans to “learn to use the language of power”. Yet, the ideas promoted by Paris remain divisive in Europe.

Style and/or Substance?

Part of the controversy can be traced back to issues of communication. The translation of concepts in national languages, the different diplomatic traditions, as well as the multiplication of long foreign policy speeches by French leaders have added to the confusion. These misunderstandings, however, should not overshadow the deeper political disagreements. France cannot overlook the substantial criticisms expressed by some partners.

First, the French vision fails to define what “Europe” is, and therefore lacks institutional clarity. France remains fundamentally pragmatic in its approach to EU institutions, prioritising efficiency. This “whatever works” philosophy has become an issue for smaller European states strongly attached to the institutional equality that the EU provides, but also for Germany. France has been a strong advocate of EU solidarity, in the case of the Greek-Turkish tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean for instance, while also building coalitions outside the EU framework when necessary. 

Mistrust and Embrace

The second difficulty relates to the policy timeline. Emmanuel Macron’s European policy stems from a strong sense of urgency. The French president often mentions the limited time left for Europeans to avoid being the object of a bipolar competition. At the domestic level, he also shares his concerns that the French public support for the European project could quickly fade away if important changes are not implemented.  Last but not least, France also faces a leadership paradox. Indeed, Paris has often assumed a position of the European leader in the foreign and defence policy fields. While undoubtedly helping Europe’s strategic emergence, France’s activism revealed the mistrust of some partners towards European initiatives which are seen as the continuation of France’s national ambitions. France has been criticised for its unilateralism in Libya, as well as for its policy of rapprochement with Russia prior to the latter’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 The French vision, to be materialised, requires a critical mass of European countries to unite and embrace its project. Paris therefore still has some work to calibrate both its rhetoric and its actions to achieve its goal.

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