On Macron, France, and European autonomy

Raul Bertoldini

On his way back from an official State visit to China, French President Macron urged the EU to reduce dependency on the USA. In reference to the Taiwan issue, he stated that “getting caught in crises that are not ours” might prevent Europe from building its strategic autonomy. This brought criticism from politicians and commentators all over Europe and the United States who have been defending the importance of transatlantic cooperation, especially in the time of war in Ukraine. 

Despite causing an international uproar, Macron’s words, or at least the ideological background that supports them, should not be surprising. Irrespective of this specific case, the underlying issues involved in this debate are the same ones that have characterized transatlantic relations for years. On paper, all the actors involved support greater European strategic and decision-making autonomy. The problems begin, however, when it comes to translating these statements into concrete acts. In this respect, the French position has remained fairly consistent over time, with aspects that simultaneously encourage and risk undermining the compactness of the continental bloc. In line with this reasoning, the background of Macron’s words can be understood from two perspectives.

The first one is that despite the fact that French presidents have promoted Europe as a third global superpower since the days of De Gaulle, Paris has often been hesitant to promote common European interests if they do not appear to coincide with the interests of the French state. Leaving aside the historical fact that it was France that scuttled the first project of a joint European army including all major powers of the continent, there is a more recent example involving the European sky shield initiative, established in late 2022, that proves the point. Although born in the context of NATO, the 14 signatories of the initiative are all European states with a common goal of strengthening the air defence of European skies. Prominent absentees are states such as Italy and, indeed, France. It becomes challenging to understand whether the French stance stems from the idea of “European autonomy” mentioned above or from the simple fact that the initiative would involve German, US and Israeli technologies instead of the solutions provided by the French industries or Franco-Italian projects.

The second one involves Macron’s approach as a European leader. His sometimes bold stances on foreign policy issues, such as the famous one involving NATO being brain dead, are led by a complex mixture of domestic and supranational factors. This time the French president visited China together with the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Despite an attempt to present a common front on many issues, the purpose of their trips remained significantly different. Macron’s trip was focused on economic concerns, resulting in the signing of multiple agreements, such as the purchase of 160 Airbus planes. In contrast, Von Der Leyen was there to deliver a more critical political message on behalf of all the member states to a controversial EU partner. While Macron did not appear to be focused on raising the issue of Taiwan during his visit, Von Der Leyen took the opportunity to discuss the status of the island with Xi. In her statement, she emphasized that no unilateral changes to the status quo through the use of force should be tolerated in the region. Furthermore, she stressed the importance of resolving tensions through dialogue rather than resorting to force.

Noting all the elements listed above, the French president was expected to be less critical towards Beijing’s foreign policy compared to Von Der Leyen. His declarations regarding Taiwan clearly show that, in his opinion, the island’s fate should not be at the top of European priorities and, most importantly, it should not affect the relationship between the EU and China. 

When looking at Europe as a whole, there have been some changes in the pursuit of European strategic autonomy, but the situation has remained largely unchanged. The conflict in Ukraine has significantly altered previous dynamics and initiated new ones. The US has re-engaged with Europe due to recent conflicts and the new presidential administration. NATO appears stronger than ever, while Germany, another significant European leader, maintains close ties with the US, anticipating a “Zeitenwende” or turning point that has yet to come. In Central and Eastern Europe, many countries have increased their cooperation with the US due to immediate security concerns, resulting in more assertive positions towards Russia and China. However, French President Macron views this process with suspicion, as it threatens to push away further the dream of a French-driven European strategic autonomy. On the same line, Poland has ambitions to become a key continental power but has chosen to procure weapons from sources outside of Europe. Macron’s vision for Europe’s strategic future may prove correct in the long run. But playing with fire with risky public statements (whether regarding Beijing or Washington) might not be advisable in the current context.

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