The French president’s grand international strategy is founded on one questionable premise: the coherence and solidity of the EU
As France painfully emerges from the pandemic she is facing two worlds: the one Emmanuel Macron imagines and the real world. Since acceding to the presidency three and a half years ago, Macron has theorised a great deal about the state of international relations and France and Europe’s role in it. He has been licensed to theorise by the quirkiness of world politics. International relations, like nature, abhor a vacuum. America’s neglect of certain international theatres, notably Europe, and the UK’s utter preoccupation with Brexit, have allowed the president of France to fill the space and to set out how world politics should be reordered, from his 2017 Sorbonne speech on Europe to his recent so-called “Macron Doctrine” on a future international system.
So what is Macron’s world view? He set out the latest version in an interview within a little known geopolitics think tank on November 16, 2020, entitled: “The Macron Doctrine”, seemingly without even a blink of humility in acknowledgement of the 19th-century doctrine named after the US president James Monroe. The French president’s intellectual analysis is couched in the grandiloquent, some might say arrogant, tone so corrosive of his policies at home and abroad. It posits two processes for the future: first, reinventing international cooperation through multilateralism; second, “strengthening and structuring a political Europe”.
In his view, the first was already proving itself with cooperation on a solution to Covid-19 and in the fight against international terrorism. But Macron wishes to impel multilateralism further by unblocking international organisations such as the UN and the WHO. The second process is to give Europe “strategic autonomy” that will enable it to operate independently across areas from military operations to industrial policy in order to counterbalance what he calls the “Chinese-American duopoly” and the rise of hostile regional powers. In sum, a Macronist version of the Monroe Doctrine for a self-asserting and independent Europe, newly protective against incursions by other powers into its sphere of influence.
It is perhaps churlish to criticise Macron’s design when no other holistic plan for international relations has been forthcoming from other world leaders. But his grand strategy is founded on one fundamental and questionable premise: the coherence and solidity of the EU.
Ever since his Sorbonne speech in September 2017, Macron has called for Europe to organise itself independently and to project itself forcefully on the international stage. But that clarion call has been muffled by serious structural divisions between European member states in three fundamental areas: economics, culture, and defence.
Europe’s economic divisions along a north-south axis have been a feature since the 2008 financial crash. The split between the richer frugal northern economies and the profligate southerners was at its most brutal in 2012-13 over Brussels’ treatment of Greece. Papered over at the time, the structural economic weaknesses of the so-called “Club Med” of Greece, Spain, Italy, even France, burst through again with the Coronavirus pandemic. The question of financing economic protection against the pandemic and relaunching individual economies was feasible for the northern frugal states, but fiscally perilous for the southerners who were among the most indebted countries in the developed world. By June 2020, according to EU statistics, Greece’s national debt-to-annual-GDP ratio stood at 187.4 per cent, Italy’s 149.4 per cent, Portugal’s 126.1 per cent, France’s 114.1 per cent. The hard-fought battle to mutualise a small part of the debt has again pushed to one side the fundamental structural problem with the EU, the Euro: undervalued for some (Germany and the northern states) and overvalued for others (Italy and the southern states).
A 2019 German think tank report entitled “20 Years of the Euro; Winners and Losers” costed the impact of the Euro on individual states since its introduction in 1999. Its findings are hardly likely to encourage those non-Euro eastern and central European states to join up. Germany has gained by far the most from the introduction of the single currency; almost €1.9 trillion between 1999 and 2017, amounting to around €23,000 per inhabitant, with only the Netherlands also gaining significantly.
In all other states analysed, the Euro has resulted in a drop in prosperity: €3.6 trillion in France and as much as €4.3 trillion in Italy. In France, this amounts to €56,000 per capita and in Italy €74,000. Without a fundamental reform of the 19-member single currency, divisions between high debt, high unemployment southern states and the fortunate northern states will continue to act as a deadweight on the EU’s capacity to act internally, let alone project itself internationally.
Structural fissures are also deepening from east to west in the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of the EU project. The latest manifestation is Hungary and Poland’s vetoing of the EU’s €1.8 trillion budget and recovery package. Their reason is Brussels’ political conditionality for the fund’s distribution being based on adherence to the “rule of law”. For some time Brussels, spurred by western member states, especially France, has not taken kindly to the growing tendency of Eastern and Central European members to champion the nation state while refusing to sign up to western leaders’ “progressive” values. During the 2015 migration crisis their “regression” to national borders and refusal to take migrants, followed by restrictions on the role of the media and the judiciary, irritated western leaders insistent that such practices contravene EU values. Eastern leaders rightly point to their policies being popular and supported by strong democratic mandates in recent elections. Whatever the respective merits, Brussels’ cultural hegemony risks drawing a new Iron Curtain across the EU, not to mention the fact that many of these states preserve their national currencies. This east-west divide does not augur well in terms of the EU’s inner coherence as a basis for the Macron Doctrine.
By declaring Nato “brain dead” earlier this year, Macron hoped to frighten Europe into seriously instituting its own defence organisation. The Macron Doctrine requires it. But in an important speech the day after Macron set out his Doctrine, the German Defence Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, directly contradicted him by insisting that Europe must continue to rely on US security guarantees. AKK doubled down on her previous statements from October by declaring that “illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end” because “Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider”. She called for a reality check: “Without the nuclear and conventional capabilities of the US, Germany and Europe cannot protect themselves. These are the sobering facts.”
European divisions on defence are deep-seated and long-standing. The dividing line is between the camp who support Nato as the primary European defence arm and those who militate for an autonomous European army. Before Brexit, Britain was invariably the prime member state to speak up for Nato and to criticise the notion of a European army, usually against France’s advocacy of it. Without Britain’s cover, Germany has had to put its head above the parapet and thus come into direct confrontation with France. A diminished status for Nato in EU defence and Brexit could further divide EU members also along an east-west axis. Nato and Britain provide military protection for the Baltic states against potential Russian aggression. But with Macron much in favour of closer relations with Russia, eastern and central European states are fearful that French or Italian militaries might not be able or willing to defend the Baltic states, a scenario alluded to in November by German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
These fundamental EU divisions whether north to south or east to west are overlain by others of cross-cutting divisiveness. Some EU member states view the Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline to Europe, hitherto championed by Germany, as a Trojan Horse. Similarly the Chinese “Belt and Road” infrastructure project to improve east-west regional connectivity has been welcomed by Italy and Greece as providing much needed finance to redevelop their ports (Genoa, Piraeus), but been decried by France and others for selling off Europe’s family silver or worse exposing Europe’s soft underbelly.
The Macron Doctrine attempts to look beyond the EU’s domestic divisions in the belief that a grand European project will unite member states and force them forward. Macron borrows much from General de Gaulle, the 50th anniversary of whose death he commemorated in November. From the General’s return to power in 1958 he set great projects as a goal for overcoming the divisions resulting from the Algerian War. The greatest of them was forging a France that could act independently of the two superpower blocs. As de Gaulle acknowledged: “It’s because we are no longer a great power that we have to have a great policy.” That required a strong independent defence built on France’s own strategic nuclear weapon, achieved by 1960, and, in 1966, withdrawing from Nato’s integrated command. To a large extent de Gaulle’s project was successful in terms of prestige. By the end of the decade France’s standing in the world was arguably greater than before the Second World War. But de Gaulle began his quest to restore France’s greatness with two overwhelming advantages over his young inexperienced successor: he had already saved France twice; and his project applied to just one state. The Macron Doctrine is intellectually cogent and startlingly ambitious. Gaullism in one country was achieved; but Macronism in 27 is a bridge too far.