Europe Needs Macron to Overcome his Fetishisms
For Olaf Scholz, the war in Ukraine underlines the urge to advance with EU enlargement and institutional reform. Emmanuel Macron is hesitant about both—and for once finds himself on the defensive of the European agenda.
A full two hours—that’s how long Emmanuel Macron spoke at the gathering of French ambassadors at the Élysée palace on September 1. As one attendant joked, you can only allow yourself to speak for that long if the audience is on your payroll. Indeed, once the French president finished, the audience duly rose for a standing ovation. This despite the speech being confusing, to say the least.
For example, Macron first tells his diplomats that maintaining the European Union’s unity on Ukraine is paramount. 15 seconds later he accuses unnamed fellow EU members of being “warmongers.” The result: Central and Eastern European nations feel targeted by Macron’s statement and condemn Paris for sowing the seeds of discord.
Or there is the president saying that he wants to invest big in France’s social media capacities to confront inter alia Moscow’s framing of the war in Ukraine. But what can an army of French spin doctors do if Macron warns of Russia’s “humiliation” and says France does not want to be Washington’s “vassal”? This way, Macron himself delivers the quotes that allow Russian propaganda channels to argue that Ukraine is in fact a war against the West.
That Macron’s foreign policy communication is worse than his actual policy is old news. But as Michel Duclos of Institut Montaigne observes, what was surprising is that Macron’s speech was void of any new thinking and initiatives, especially when it comes to Europe.
In fact, in his speech, Macron explains at length why Russia’s aggression of Ukraine is an “historic breaking point” for the world. But then he goes on to present the same vision of France in the world and the same European agenda as in past years. The reason for this is clear: Ukraine is exposing long-standing contradictions in Macron’s EU policy.
The E Word
The poet Walt Whitman once wrote “Do I contradict myself? Very well then … I am large, I contain multitudes.” Macron—like his country—indeed contains multitudes. On Europe, there are at least two Macrons.
One is the voluntarist pro-European who wants the continent to integrate, so Europeans regain the leverage to regulate global capitalism and defend their geopolitical interests. The other is Gaullist Macron who thinks France cannot just subsume itself to the European choir, but has a special role as a global “balancing power” that needs to act unilaterally at times. It is that Macron who tells his ambassadors: “the primary goal of our diplomacy has to be to defend the strength, influence, and independence of France.”
In his first term, Macron was quite apt at papering over the cracks. Boosting trade defense against a wolf-warrior China, investing in common European defense projects such as the Franco-German fighter jet FCAS, and advancing fiscal integration in the pandemic were compatible with both European and Gaullist Macron.
But Russia’s attack on Ukraine changes the EU agenda, and the issue of enlargement is once again front and center. And that is the one EU policy theme where European and Gaullist Macron cannot be reconciled. And with his Prague speech on August 29, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is hitting Macron exactly at his weak spot and thereby putting Paris on the defensive.
Larger, Deeper, More German
Scholz considers getting the six Western Balkans states and later Ukraine and Moldova to join the EU a strategic imperative. It is what these countries want and it is the EU’s most efficient means of stabilizing the continent, or so the chancellor thinks. Ukraine underlines the urgency and offers the chance to finally overcome enlargement fatigue.
And to ensure that such an EU, encompassing 32 or 36 member states, can make decisions, Scholz wants to redesign the EU’s institutions. Most importantly, the chancellor wants EU member states to drop their veto in sanctions policy and tax matters.
Deepening is the price for enlargement. Scholz is willing to pay it, because like his predecessor Angela Merkel, he doesn’t want an EU of “clubs and directories” that inevitably cultivates new splits. Rather, he wants to keep everyone on board.
Because the primary goal of European integration is to keep the peace between Europeans, as Scholz says. But also when it comes to “projecting peace,” a bigger, deeper EU will one day be more effective on the geopolitical scene. It is indeed a valid question to ask whether the surprising unity of the27 EU member states on Ukraine would have been possible in a more fragmented EU.
Finally, Berlin also feels comfortable with enlarging and deepening the EU, as it is used to operating in a system with multiple power centers and thinks of politics primarily as a means to an end. Also, Germany would remain the key member in such an EU. “Europe’s center is moving eastwards,” Scholz says. “Germany, as country in the middle of the continent, will do everything to bring east, west, north, and south in Europe together.”
Smaller, Looser, More French
Macron’s speech to his diplomats, given three days after Scholz’s Prague address, reveals how large the gap is between Paris and Berlin on this issue. Like his predecessors, Macron wants a small EU and remains reluctant to see any transfers of national sovereignty.
True, Macron has agreed to giving Ukraine EU candidate status and spent part of France’s EU presidency in the first half of this year negotiating a solution with Bulgaria to allow for the opening of accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia. He says that his project of a European Political Community (EPC) is not in lieu of EU membership.
But he keeps saying that EU membership is long away for Ukraine. And in his speech to his ambassadors, he does not develop a positive narrative of EU enlargement. He does not even mention Albania and North Macedonia. On the contrary, Macron tells his ambassadors that the EPC might help “to stop that logic of the EU’s endless expansion … which rather has to be stronger, more sovereign and autonomous.”
So where does Macron stand on enlargement and what is the EPC really about? Neither his diplomats nor his EU partners know.
Strategic Ambiguity or Strategic Discomfort?
And what about qualified-majority voting in foreign policy, the second proposition Scholz developed at length in Prague? Macron doesn’t mention the issue in his speech either.
Yes, Paris signed up to majority voting in foreign policy in the 2018 Franco-German Meseberg declaration. But France still credibly pretends to be a “global balancing power” if it can’t decide on sanctions on its own? If push comes to shove, few people in Paris think Macron is up for dropping France’s veto. Especially in an enlarged EU, where France’s weight would be further diluted.
It seems that Macron doesn’t want to think about EU institutional reform any more. That’s why he did not even mention the Conference on the Future of Europe he launched himself in his presidential lecture.
Also, when it comes to European defense, Scholz’ speech puts Macron on the defensive. The chancellor proposes setting up a common European aerial defense system. This would give real meaning to the idea of a European pillar within NATO. It would also be a good first step to one day Europeanizing France’s nuclear deterrence—an idea that today is not politically palatable, either to Berlin or to Paris.
Again, Macron has not reacted to Scholz’ proposition. France is keen on defense integration, championing an EU intervention force or joint armaments projects. But he seems to stop short of really embracing such a Europeanization of a defense infrastructure.
If you want a “sovereign Europe,” however, France must at some point acknowledge that it has to be ready to give up some of its independence in foreign and defense policy. It must also accept that the trend toward enlargement cannot be reversed. Together with NATO, the EU is a victim of its own success. It is simply too attractive a community.
Germany was willing to break or at least soften up the “fetishisms” of debt reduction and the taboo of fiscal union. In the pandemic, Germany policymakers and commentators realized that Berlin had little choice and that it was an imperative if one wanted to prevent a repeat of Europe’s geopolitical weakening as brought by the eurozone crisis.
Ukraine offers a chance for Macron to confront his country’s own “fetishisms” and taboos, namely opposition to EU enlargement and the superelevation of national sovereignty. The war would be the moment to change the narrative on these topics at home. So far, Macron has not risen to the challenge. Scholz should keep pushing.
This is a preview from our IPQ Fall 2022 Issue, out on September 29.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The Revolutionary President.